The impact of trauma on the human brain can be profound as some areas of the brain can suffer physical changes from the traumatic event. The effects of experiencing trauma can lead to low quality of life for some due to the physical and mental impacts it has. There have been several studies that have shown that trauma can lead to memory loss and affect a person’s ability to recall memories. It’s not that the memories do not exist; they are just buried deep within the brain where they are not consciously accessible and in fact, these memories can create subconscious behaviors.
Understanding Trauma’s Impact on the Brain
Studies show that trauma does affect brain function. The hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex are most affected by trauma and symptoms of PTSD. The effect of trauma on these three areas of the brain can cause a person to feel constant fear, anxiety, and stress.
The Hippocampus is responsible for storing memories and determining between past and present events. When affected by emotional trauma, the hippocampus can experience physical changes. Trauma has been shown to shrink the hippocampus which impacts a person’s ability to recall memory. Some memories may be more vivid than others and people may experience gaps in memory or experience periods that they cannot recall at all. The hippocampus is also responsible for people experiencing flashbacks due to memory triggers.
The Amygdala’s job is to detect fear. It is where our fight or flight instinct comes from and where our survival instincts are stored. The amygdala uses our senses like sight and sound to determine if situations or places are safe or not. When affected by trauma, the amygdala becomes hyperactive and can create a symptom of PTSD which is a heightened startle reaction. If someone is experiencing this heightened reaction, the amygdala’s hyperactivity can cause a person to respond to more subtle stimuli. Another impact that trauma can have on the amygdala is sleeping difficulties. Studies show that a person may experience symptomatic awakenings and nightmares due to the hypoactivity of the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex which can stimulate the amygdala and intrude upon the sleep state.
The Prefrontal Cortex is the part of the brain that regulates emotion. Normally, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex communicate with each other; the prefrontal cortex will react with the fear detected by the amygdala. In cases of trauma, the emotional response is more dramatic and less rational than in average circumstances. After traumatic experiences, the prefrontal cortex will have a hard time regulating emotions.
Four Types of Memory Impacted by Trauma
- Semantic Memory: This memory type stores facts and general knowledge. Semantic memory means you remember what a door is or the color of the sky. Trauma can prevent information located in different parts of the brain from collecting into semantic memory. Images, sounds, and words are part of semantic memory. In traumatic situations, it can be hard to recall what exactly was said or what exactly happened.
- Episodic Memory – This memory type saves the autobiographical information about an event such as the who, what, or why in a given situation. For example, you remember who went to your 16th birthday party. Trauma can cause a shutdown of this type of memory, which leads to a fragmented sequence of events.
- Emotional Memory – This type of memory stores the emotions that you experienced during an event. This type of memory enables us to think of events or situations from the past and feel certain emotions associated with it. Trauma can make emotional responses from these types of memories intensify.
- Procedural – This type of memory saves the information on how to perform tasks. This type of memory is how we remember to ride a bike and why we can perform some functions without paying a great deal of attention to what we are doing. Trauma can affect patterns of procedural memory. Unfortunately, a symptom of loss of procedural memory can be jaw clenching as an unconscious response to the stress of losing the memory of how to perform learned tasks.
Trauma can affect a person’s ability to recall the memories of the traumatic event or affect a person’s primary short-term memory. A person with a trauma disorder like PTSD may seem frequently forgetful but in fact, they may just be stuck in their memories of their traumatic experience. The daily anxiety and emotional stress a person with trauma makes it easy for them to forget simple things. Some trauma survivors tend to function on auto-pilot while dealing with trauma as their memory loss makes it difficult to remember things that deviate from their normal routine. These types of habits are part of procedural memory and therefore it is important to maintain them to hopefully one day retrieve full memory at a later date.
People who have experienced trauma can be affected in many different ways because trauma can physically alter multiple areas of the brain. Those changes can affect our ability to remember, process emotions appropriately, and even recall how to perform familiar tasks. Seeking help to deal with trauma is crucial as many people cannot manage their symptoms on their own. There are effective therapeutic modalities that are useful in the treatment of trauma. At Avalon Malibu, located on the southern California coast, we have a variety of therapy models to treat trauma that can be tailored to suit an individual’s needs. Our experienced staff will work with you to develop a plan designed specifically for you. If you or someone you love struggles with trauma disorders and their symptoms, please call us today (844) 857-5992. We are dedicated to helping our clients learn tools to live their best and healthiest lives.