The Impact of Trauma on the Mind

Published On: September 19, 2023Categories: Trauma, Veterans

Just as the choices we make in regards to exercise, diet and sleep affect our physical health, the choices we make in regards to career, stress management and daily routine affect our mental health. Nothing we do leaves our brain untouched. 

In other words, everything we do, from morning yoga to reading books to how we spend our vacation days, impacts cognitive functioning. The impact may be positive, negative or neutral, but because of the way humans are wired, we have a unique responsibility to ourselves to be prudently selective in regards to what we allow into our lives. 

But what about trauma?

It is true that try as we might, certain situations occur in our lives that we have absolutely no control over. Trauma is one such experience that may happen in the life of an individual which significantly impacts their wellbeing in a negative way. For many veterans, trauma is something to be expected in the field.

While it is true that the occurrence of trauma is out of our control for many, the way in which we handle its effect is not. 

What exactly is trauma? 

Before diving into a closer look at how trauma affects the brain, we must first understand what trauma is exactly. 

According to one source, “Trauma refers to your response following an event that psychologically overwhelms you, often resulting in shock, denial, and changes in the body, mind, and behavior.” Most often trauma incurs some form of physical and/or emotional harm.

Trauma can occur following a one-time incident, like a vehicle accident, natural disaster or terrorist attack, or it can arise from repeated exposure to highly stressful situations, including abuse, bullying or assault. Military combat and acts of violence (either experiencing or witnessing) also often lead to trauma.

Symptoms of trauma may manifest immediately following the experience, or it may take a longer length of time for symptoms to occur. Of those who do experience a traumatic event, only 20 Percent will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Common symptoms of trauma include: 

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • More likely to be startled or have signs of hypervigilance
  • Trouble sleeping and increased fatigue
  • Memory loss, including an inability to remember moments of the traumatic event(s)
  • Increased anger or irritability
  • Mood swings
  • A sense of hopelessness, shame or guilt
  • Withdrawing from others or losing interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Developing negative coping mechanisms, including increased substance use 

Depending on how impacted an individual was following a traumatic event, symptoms may be severe and long-lasting, or they may be minimal/non-existent. 

How does trauma affect the brain?

Not many individuals experience a traumatic situation and are completely fine – in the very basic sense of the word. Most people have some form of reaction to the traumatic event, either conscious or subconscious, as trauma has a unique effect on the brain.

For example, “Traumatic stressors such as early trauma can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects about eight percent of Americans at some time In their lives, as well as depression, substance abuse, dissociation, personality disorders, and health problems.”

Needing to deal with these mental health disorders as a result of an experience of trauma can be challenging in addition to dealing with the trauma itself. 

Trauma can directly impact the brain’s physical functioning in other ways, including “a broad range of effects on brain function and structure, as well as on neuropsychological components of memory.” A brain wired by trauma can fail to respond appropriately to emotions, may have difficulty learning, struggles with remaining calm in times of stress and may be challenged with thinking and planning responses. 

This is due to the way in which the parts of the brain communicate with one another. The lower part of the brain is the part wired for survival and when this area is perpetually being stimulated as a result of unresolved trauma, the other areas of the brain struggle to respond/work appropriately.   

Addressing what trauma does to the brain

No one is immune to trauma, but signs of trauma are often seen in military veterans who have experienced repeated stress and potentially threatening and dangerous situations. In order to help prevent increased damage to the brain from trauma, it’s important for everyone struggling with symptoms to seek appropriate care. 

Tapestry serves both veteran and non-veteran clients in need of outpatient treatment for mental health and co-occurring disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To assist our veteran clients we offer benefits through the Veterans Affairs Community Care Network (VA-CCN), a group of facilities pre-approved to accept veteran benefits, giving them faster and more convenient access to mental health and substance use treatment.

To get involved with treatment today, reach out to Tapestry by calling our offices at 828-490-4032 or contacting us today.

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