Trauma, the brain and the strong best psychotherapist in Kitchener to help with counselling

Trauma is an emotional response to one or multiple devastating experiences. The response can be triggered by a number of different events, such as an accident, witnessing a parents’ divorce during childhood, sexual abuse or being involved in a natural disaster to name a few. Other words for “trauma” include hurts, fears, betrayals, rejections, significant losses, etc. but there really is no limit to what could function as a trauma trigger. 

For instance, trauma can also stem from:

  • Being bullied
  • Being abandoned
  • Being rejected
  • Being humiliated
  • Being isolated (as with the pandemic)
  • Racism
  • Poverty
  • Sexism
  • Ageism
  • Homophobia

Initially, those who have gone through a traumatic event can experience shock and denial, or even have vivid flashbacks. But there are often lasting impacts as well. Trauma could lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that can vary in severity and sometimes prevent one from living a full and meaningful life – especially if they don’t seek trauma counselling. For others, trauma can lead to more subtle changes in their behavior, actions, or ways of thinking. 

What effect does trauma have on the brain

The effect of trauma on the brain depends on the specific event, as well as on the individual, and can range from minor to more dramatic. What most people don’t realize, is that trauma alters brain chemistry and structure, and impacts neuropsychological components of memory. 

Preclinical studies have identified the following three areas of the brain to be implicated following a traumatic event:

AREA OF THE BRAINFUNCTIONIMPACT OF TRAUMA
Amygdala
Image reference
The brain’s emotional computer responsible for processing fearful and threatening stimuli.If there is emotional trauma, the amygdala tends to become hyperactive causing there to be increased fear and emotional deficits surrounding traumatic triggers.
HippocampusImage referenceThe area in the brain that stores recent conscious memories and plays a major role in learning and memory.Trauma can shut down episodic memory and fragment the sequence of events – this is why some people tend to experience memory loss after a traumatic incident. 
Prefrontal cortexImage referenceWhere information is used to make decisions about cognitive and emotional responses. It also plays a major role in personality.Exposure to trauma in childhood has repeatedly been linked to the development of maladaptive personality traits and personality disorders.

The amygdala, prefrontal cortex and hippocampus form part of the neural circuitry that mediates stress. In addition, studies in patients with PTSD have shown there to be alterations in the neurochemical stress response system as a result of trauma, which includes the neurochemicals cortisol and norepinephrine.

These studies found that trauma can cause our brain to remain in a state of hypervigilance, suppressing memory and impulse control, which explains the strong emotionally reactive signs we observe in those with PTSD:

  • Startled responses to harmless stimuli
  • Frequent flashbacks 
  • Intrusive recollections

That’s why psychotherapists tend to refer to traumatic events as “triggers” – because they elicit emotional responses beyond our rational control. 

This is where fight, flight or freeze responses come into the equation. 

Impact of trauma on our nervous system

When we experience trauma, our bodies can have several physical symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • An increase in heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension (shoulders, traps, chest, neck, jaw)
  • Feeling hot or flush
  • Headaches
  • Nauseous
  • Diarrhea
  • Tingling in fingers or toes
  • Tunnel vision

These symptoms indicate to us that our body is stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, and, depending on the individual and the perceived threat, we will respond with either fight, flight, or freeze (F-F-F).

  1. Fight response – taking action to eliminate or overcome danger
  2. Flight response – fleeing to escape the danger
  3. Freeze response – a sort of “playing dead” in the face of danger, which, in humans may manifest as an inability to communicate, react, or take any action of self-preservation or defense

We have developed these responses as a means of keeping ourselves safe, preparing for escape, or to hide from danger. However, it is essential to develop and practice effective coping skills that can calm our body and mind down, so that we can return to our thinking brain.

If we are unable to calm our body and mind, our hypervigilant state can take a major toll on our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as impact other areas of our daily lives. For example, we often see PTSD patients struggle to maintain positive interpersonal relationships. If you are experiencing relationship issues as a result of trauma-related behaviors, consider seeking relationship counselling with COCA Psychotherapy Kitchener therapists.

In general, intervening sooner after the trauma occurred is critical for long-term outcomes. If too much time passes following the event, traumatic memories can become permanently ingrained and subsequently become resistant to treatment. 

Best psychotherapist in Kitchener to help with trauma counselling

COCA Psychotherapy’s Kitchener counselling services help those who have experienced trauma to develop positive coping skills. 

In particular, we have found grounding exercises (focussing on what is going on in our body or in our immediate environment instead of getting stuck in the downward spiral of our thoughts) and the practice of mindfulness (focusing awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations) to be helpful tools when the mind and body is in a state of panic or when there are physical symptoms of anxiety. 

It is important to remember that the body remembers trauma and often stores it. So using somatic ways to heal such as increasing body awareness, using breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques can help to decrease the heightened nervous system.

We all experience trauma in our lives and it looks different for everyone. Humans are resilient and can withstand quite a lot of traumatic experiences when we are loved and supported through them. We get stuck in our trauma when we don’t have the social resources to get the help we need to heal.

If you’re ready to take the plunge into self-healing, please contact COCA Psychotherapy counselling services in Kitchener here to book an appointment or give us a call on 226-336-5787 for a free consultation over the phone.

References:

  1. Bremner JD (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8 (4), 445-61 PMID: 17290802
  1. Hull AM (2002). Neuroimaging findings in post-traumatic stress disorder. Systematic review. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 181, 102-10 PMID: 12151279
  1. Koenigs, M., & Grafman, J. (2009). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Amygdala The Neuroscientist, 15 (5), 540-548 DOI: 10.1177/1073858409333072
  1. Nutt DJ, & Malizia AL (2004). Structural and functional brain changes in posttraumatic stress disorder. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 65 Suppl 1, 11-7 PMID: 14728092

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.