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The Trauma Brain isn't Like the Normal Brain

When you live through trauma, it literally changes the pathways in your brain. You react in different ways to situations than normal people would, because you have spent so much time living in an abnormal situation. You had to learn different ways to cope with life than people do who live a life of safety and security. You had to learn how to keep going in spite of all the pain and hard times.

There are many causes of trauma and PTSD, which can change your life forever:

  • Serving in combat

  • Domestic violence

  • Child abuse

  • Sexual abuse

  • Car accidents

  • Natural Disasters

  • Terrorist attacks

  • Bullying or harassment

  • Stalking

  • Poverty

  • Violent altercations

If you have been in one of these types of situations where you were in fear of your very life, it changes the way your brain functions. You stop being able to react in a normal way to life events that trigger memories of what happened to you. You may suffer panic attacks, flashbacks or nightmares.

You live in a constant state of hyper-awareness for danger. You are on high alert all the time.

Living this way alters both your brain and your nervous system.

Trauma changes your brain

Most people don't get it, but when you experience trauma, it is giving you actual brain damage. It isn't your fault that you can't function the way that you used to.

The first time I was approached with this concept was at a conference I went to years ago, where there was a speaker talking about the effects of trauma on the brain, and how much harder it is to learn afterwards.

Brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas. Traumatic stress is associated with increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors.

A brain that has been traumatized doesn't respond to stress the same way that a normal brain does. Your brain, nervous system and body respond differently to subsequent stressors after dealing with trauma.

This can be especially true for people who are living with C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) because we have experienced multiple traumas throughout our lifetimes.

Experiencing persistent trauma makes you learn how to react in suboptimal ways to stress in comparison with people who have never experienced trauma.

Healing from PTSD

Although in some ways your brain is never going to go back to normal after experiencing PTSD, you can still find ways to cope in your daily life.

It is important to remember to be gentle with yourself, because the situations that have caused your PTSD were not your fault. They fall outside the scope of normal human experiences, and that is why they are so traumatic and difficult to cope with.

Getting help from a therapist, psychiatrist or coach is critically important when you have PTSD. Trying to cope alone can feel like you are struggling through hell all alone, with your own mind as your enemy.

Psych Central recommends the following types of therapy:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This method can identify and interrupt negative thought patterns, which can lead to a change in behavior.

  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). This method can help you restructure the beliefs you took away from the traumatic event.

  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PE). This can help you learn distress tolerance and self-soothing techniques as you work through triggers in a safe environment.

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This method uses tones or taps to revisit a traumatic experience through a different lens and form new beliefs around it.

Personally, I have found a combination of EMDR, talk therapy and medication to be very helpful in learning to cope with PTSD. I have also worked hard to learn coping skills to deal with panic attacks resulting from being triggered.

When you have PTSD, your life has been dramatically altered forever. However, you can still live a full and rewarding life once you find a proper support system and learn to add coping skills to your toolbox.

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