It gets worse.
Trauma can also change your genes so that the damage is passed on to future generations.
I find it comforting to remind myself that, while trauma does change the brain, so does healing. And healing is entirely possible.
What Constitutes Trauma
The dictionary defines trauma as “a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” We often think of trauma as some major, adverse life experience, like war, abuse, or crime. But, unfortunately, common life experiences can be traumatic. In reality, trauma can result from any experience that makes a person feel unsafe, physically or emotionally, that disrupts the way they cope or function. Everyday life occurrences, such as the ones below, can have a traumatic impact:
- not having emotional needs acknowledged or met
- poverty and not having physical needs met
- bullying or harassment
- witnessing violence or crime
- a loved one’s substance abuse
- the mental illness of someone close to you
- parental separation or divorce
- the death of a pet or close person
- incarcerated household member
Trauma Changes Your Brain
Trauma can actually alter the function of your brain during a stressful event and result in lasting changes in specific brain regions. The alterations can impair cognitive function and memory encoding and recall in the moment and future. Basically, when a person has a traumatic experience, it can change how their brain responds to stress.
On a biological level, stress is a normal physical response. You experience stress anytime your body adapts or responds in some way. Stress is an essential part of living and accompanies good things too, like a wedding or promotion. Cortisol is the stress hormone released by your adrenal glands when your body activates the flight or fight response. At first, cortisol has an anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety effect. However, over time, cortisol converts into an inflammatory substance.
Inflammation in the brain doesn’t look like it does in your body. Your brain doesn’t get visibly hot, red, and swollen. Inflammation in the brain means that microglia secrete excess inflammatory chemicals, called cytokines. This is referred to as neuroinflammation or neurodegeneration and has been indicated in autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and many other diseases as well as several mental health conditions, including depression, OCD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
In children, traumatic experiences can be referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs can harm a child’s developing brain and body so profoundly that the effects can be seen decades later. In adults, ACEs often show up as chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, and violence. ACEs put children at much higher risk for negative mental and physical illnesses and life outcomes as adults.
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that the more categories of trauma experienced in childhood, the greater the risk of negative consequences. As the number of ACEs increases so does the risk for problems in adulthood. For a comprehensive listing of research for each outcome see these journal publications by topic.
Trauma Can Cause Genetic Changes That Are Passed Down
The science of epigenetics proves that who you are is the product of what happens in your life because experience governs how your genes operate. Genes actually switch on or off depending on what happens in your life. You may be born with certain genes, but your life determines which genes get expressed and which genes don’t. Trauma can “turn on” genes influencing physical and mental health conditions.
Research is even showing that the effects of trauma can be passed down through genes, via “molecular memory,” to future generations. This means that the likelihood of developing behavioral and psychiatric disorders in life is increased by your ancestors’ trauma. The detrimental effects of traumatic events can show up in later generations. A multitude of illnesses, behaviors, and health issues have been linked to epigenetic changes.
You Can Help Your Brain Process and Heal Trauma
Healing a traumatized brain takes effort, repetition, and time, but it can be done. Just as humans are biologically equipped with mechanisms to deal with threatening situations, our brains are capable of re-establishing normal operations and feelings of calm, security, and happiness. Research has shown the methods below to be helpful in assisting the brain in processing trauma.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an interactive technique proven to be an effective treatment for trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During EMDR therapy sessions, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs your eye movements with a light.
We don’t fully understand why EMDR works. It may be because recalling distressing events can be less upsetting when your attention is diverted. In EMDR, you can be exposed to memories and thoughts without experiencing a strong psychological response because you are focused on something else.
Memory is an active ongoing process. Every time you recall a memory, your brain reconsolidates it, incorporating and filtering it through who you are and the circumstances at the time of remembering. So, over time, EMDR can lessen the emotional impact of traumatic memories because it changes the way they are stored.
Neurofeedback is a specialized form of biofeedback in which a person’s brain learns at a subconscious level to permanently alter the brainwaves. It has existed for over 40 years and has applications ranging from the treatment of brain injury, epilepsy, migraines, depression, ADHD and autism, and chronic pain to performance enhancement in sports. I did neurofeedback extensively, and it played a crucial role in my recovery from a brain injury.
In neurofeedback, EEG sensors are placed on the scalp and ears to read the amount of electrical energy put out by the brain in the form of brainwaves at different sites. Computer software monitors the brainwaves and interprets the data giving feedback to the person training. With repetition, the brain learns to self-regulate and actually makes permanent physiological changes to perform more optimally. A person’s brain will continue to make adjustments even when not training.
Resolving trauma can be as simple as talking about it with a trained therapist. Research shows that the more we try to push away troubling memories, the more the thoughts tend to intrude on our minds. Studies show that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy for PTSD.
In clinical research on PTSD, MDMA, also known as ecstasy, has proven to be a highly effective treatment. War veterans struggling with PTSD have reported a significant reduction of symptoms after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. The science of psychedelic drugs is in the early stages and is ongoing. Research on psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) and MDMA is in FDA-approved trials in the U.S. They are promising.
Reversing Epigenetic Changes
Thankfully, the changes in the brain caused by trauma can be undone. Research has demonstrated that the epigenetic effects of trauma can be reversed so that they are not passed on. In studies, male mice and their offspring successfully reversed the symptoms of trauma as the result of environmental enrichment. An enriched environment for a human would include self-care and healthy lifestyle habits, such as:
Healthy Diet: Support your brain and body by eating more nutritious foods and limiting processed and junk food. What you put in your mouth has everything to do with what goes on in your head.
Physical Activity: Move your body more. After sleep, exercise is the best thing you can do for your brain.
Challenge: Regularly stimulate your mind and push your brain out of its comfort zone.
Laughter: Be playful and have fun. Your brain loves to laugh and it’s good for it and your body.
Connection: Maintain intimate close-knit human bonds. Your brain needs to be connected to others.
It’s Never Too Late to Change Your Brain
One of the most powerful findings of rain research is that you are not stuck with the brain you have today. Because of neuroplasticity, you can guide your brain towards health and happiness. Trauma makes neuroplastic changes in the brain, and neuroplasticity is how it can heal. A traumatic incidence or even a traumatic history does not guarantee poor mental or physical health or negative life outcomes.
Yes, trauma changes the brain, and yes, you can reverse the changes. We have much more power than previously believed to influence our bodies — right down to our genes. None of us can control what happened in the past which caused certain genes to switch on. However, we all have the power at this moment and going forward to choose our behavior which can cause different genes to express themselves.