Survivors of abuse will tell you that the abuse continues long after the relationship is over. Yes, trauma begins during the abuse itself. But that’s only the start. The brain changes when we experience trauma – and those changes can last for years, even impacting your life expectancy.
Childhood Trauma and Brain Development
Our brains continue to develop long into our 20s. But what happens when that developing brain is subjected to prolonged stress, physical or emotional violence, or other traumatic events?
Studies have found that childhood trauma can physically alter a person’s brain, often leaving them with lifelong challenges. We’re not talking about intermittent stresses here, like moving or losing a pet. We’re talking about toxic stress, such as long-term abuse, neglect, or violence.
Toxic stress in childhood impact three areas of the brain:
- Amygdala: The fear center of the brain, which signals the body to respond to threatening situations. During childhood trauma, the amygdala becomes overactive, releasing excessive amounts of stress hormones into the system. This can lead to long-term health consequences, increased anxiety, feeling of fear, and an inability to concentrate.
- Prefrontal cortex: Regulates higher thinking processes and sensory processing. Trauma can cause this part of the brain to become less active, leading to trouble with problem-solving, impulse control, and information retention and recall.
- Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC): The “emotion regulation” center of the brain. The ACC is damaged by toxic stress, especially with childhood trauma. Damage to the ACC often shows up as an inability to properly manage stressful or emotional situations, leading to emotional outbursts, prolonged emotional responses, or, in some cases, a complete lack of emotion.
The longer the trauma persists, and the more severe the trauma is, the greater the impact on a child’s developing brain. Those changes to the brain aren’t necessarily permanent (as we discuss below), but they can create lifelong problems – both physically and emotionally – if not addressed.
The Brain During Emotional Trauma
When you experience trauma, whether one major event or, in the case of many domestic abuse victims, a long-term trauma over many months or years, your brain goes into “survival mode.”
Essentially, your brain recognizes a threat in progress and sets the body’s defense mechanisms into action. It’s a response leftover from our ancestors, the “flight or fight” response that triggers us to either run away from a threat or fight it to avoid injury or death.
However, when we have prolonged trauma, our brains essentially get stuck in that flight or fight space, leaving us on edge, nervous, angry, and unable to complete more complex mental tasks. This response can last many weeks, months, or even longer.
The Brain After Emotional Trauma
After we leave the abusive environment and escape the trauma, our brains continue to be hypervigilant. In many cases, survivors who lived through trauma experience some form of PTSD, which is the brain’s way of preparing for another threat.
Without treatment (including therapy and medication), the brain may stay in this hypervigilant state for years after the trauma took place. All the while, our bodies release stress hormones, the brain’s fear center is activated and in overdrive, and we suffer mental, emotional, and physical effects.
Trauma, Brain Health, and Physical Health
Experiencing long-term abuse changes the way our brains process information, respond to outside stimuli, and identify danger. But survivors are at far greater risk of certain physical health complications, too.
Those who lived through emotional or physical trauma, particularly in childhood, are up to three times more likely to have heart disease or lung cancer. Survivors live 20 fewer years on average than those who weren’t exposed to chronic stress and abuse. Trauma survivors have higher rates of depression, suicidality, liver disease, and other chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Watch this video to learn more about the trauma-physical health connection:
When we experience trauma, whether in childhood, adulthood, or both, our brains change. They signal the release of more stress hormones, which can negatively impact our hearts and other organs. And trauma survivors are more likely to engage in risky behavior like drug or alcohol abuse or unprotected sex, arguably because the brain’s impulse control centers are damaged when we experience trauma.
So, yes, trauma dramatically impacts the brain. But those impacts consequently affect our physical health and can have lifelong repercussions.
Can We Heal from Trauma?
If you’re a survivor of trauma or you love someone who is, this information probably feels incredibly pessimistic and hopeless. Are survivors simply doomed to live unhealthy lives or end up with significant mental or physical health problems?
Not at all.
The human brain is incredible. It can heal itself of the damage sustained through toxic stress and trauma. The brain can create new connections, healing the effects of trauma and toxic stress. This process, known as neuroplasticity, can happen even faster with help from mental health professionals and physicians.
Addressing trauma should start as early as possible. Screening children for toxic stress or trauma can help professionals identify abuse and intervene early. Studies show that children who have experienced trauma can overcome many behavioral challenges through patient interactions with encouraging, loving adults in a safe environment.
Adults who either experienced trauma as a child or encountered toxic stress or abuse as an adult (or both) can also find healing. Retraining the brain doesn’t happen overnight. But with the help of a professional trauma therapist, survivors can absolutely overcome the physical and emotional impacts of trauma.
Toxic stress and trauma impact many of us. But we don’t have to live with the consequences. If you’re a survivor, healing can start right now. Contact a licensed mental health professional trained in trauma-informed therapy and start your journey to a new, healthier life.