How Does Trauma Affect the Brain

Most people have a basic understanding of some of the symptoms of trauma. Even if their only exposure is on the silver screen, things like flashbacks, vivid memories, and fear are commonly portrayed as long-term effects of traumatic experiences. 

While some of those depictions are more accurate than others, most people don’t dig deep enough to understand what actually causes the long-term symptoms of trauma. Furthermore, neurodivergent individuals with autism and/or ADHD tend to experience more trauma than a neurotypical person. More research needs to explore this, but at Spectrum Connections Therapy, I see that trauma impacts almost every one of my clients in some way.

Whether you experienced a traumatic event as a child or it’s something that has impacted you more recently, it’s important to recognize that it’s not a surface issue. Trauma actually affects the brain. 

Let’s take a closer look at just how trauma impacts the brain and what that might mean if you’re trying to heal and move forward. 

The Immediate Impact

The moment you experience a traumatic event, your brain’s fight-or-flight response is triggered. This is how the brain protects you, thanks to a specific area called the amygdala. It’s the responsibility of the amygdala to recognize threats and sounds the alarm to your brain and body to get to safety when it thinks you’re in danger. 

When your fight or flight mode is triggered, you might experience things like a rapid heartbeat, faster breathing, hypervigilance, sweating, or shaking. While these are all very physical signs, they’re actually the result of the sympathetic nervous system activating because of the amygdala. 

What Are the Long-Term Effects?

The Amygdala

The amygdala isn’t just activated the moment you experience trauma. After you’ve been through that kind of event, it tends to become overactive. Because it triggers the fight-or-flight response, you might constantly feel on edge, have a strong startle response, or you may perceive that there’s a threat when there really isn’t. 

It’s especially difficult for people who have gone through childhood trauma. When your amygdala is overstimulated, it can impact brain development. Either way, this type of issue can cause symptoms like flashbacks, avoidance behaviors, hypervigilance, and anxiety disorders. 

The Hippocampus

Trauma also impacts an area of the brain called the hippocampus. This area is responsible for storing memories. It also helps with emotional regulation. Unfortunately, the hippocampus is often smaller in people who have experienced trauma. It can distort the memories of what really happened and make it more difficult to understand or control your emotions. 

That can lead to long-term mental health problems like chronic stress, depression, and interpersonal relationship issues.

The Prefrontal Cortex

Finally, trauma impacts the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain isn’t fully developed until adulthood. It is responsible for your executive functions and helps with decision-making and problem-solving. Someone who has experienced trauma can have a suppressed prefrontal cortex, leading to problems like impulsive behaviors and dangerous decision-making. 

What Can You Do? 

As you can see, understanding the basic signs and symptoms of trauma, and how it affects you is just the beginning. At the same time, I gently encourage you to think about how trauma has impacted you or a loved one as a neurodivergent person living with autism and/or ADHD. If you experienced trauma as a child or early on in life, you might not have had the opportunity to dive into these effects fully. Maybe you’ve even tried to suppress them or ignore your emotions and symptoms over the years. 

Whatever the case, the first step in working through trauma is acknowledging how it impacts you. It’s not just an emotional issue. Trauma takes a real, tangible toll on the brain and your body.

First, it’s important to acknowledge and name your trauma when you are feeling ready and safe to do so with a trusted person. That doesn’t mean you have to accept what happened to you, or even be ok with what happened to you, but you do have to understand that it was real and it happened. Once you do, you can start moving through the healing process. Thankfully, you don’t have to do it alone. Lean on your support system, or connect with others who have experienced trauma. Hearing from others who have started to heal can help you find hope.

You should also consider talking to a mental health professional. A therapist can help you get back to the root cause of your trauma. From there, you’ll work with them on healthy, effective ways to move through it. If you or a loved one are neurodivergent, and living with autism, please find a neurodiversity specialist who can make accommodations, provide modifications, and individualize therapy in an affirming way to support a safe and supportive therapy experience in order to avoid any re-traumatization in the healing journey. Please reach out for a free 20-minute phone consultation to hear how I can be of support to you.

Be well,

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