How Does Trauma Affect The Brain?

Trauma can have a profound impact on the brain, affecting both its structure and function. When an individual experiences trauma, their brain’s response mechanisms can significantly alter. This often results in heightened stress responses, with the amygdala becoming overactive, leading to increased anxiety and hypervigilance.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to something that has happened—like physical, emotional, or life-threatening harm.

It’s normal for most people to experience trauma; however, the main difference for people with trauma-related mental health problems is difficulty moving on with their lives.

Trauma knows no bounds—whether it is age, gender, or socioeconomic status. And as common as trauma is, many don’t realize how much it truly affects you from the inside out.

How Trauma Changes The Brain’s Chemistry

For the mind and body to function properly, the different parts of the brain need the ability to communicate. However, when a part of the brain changes due to trauma, it becomes a catalyst for other problems to arise.

The hippocampus, a critical memory and emotional regulation region, can shrink in response to chronic stress and trauma. This can impair memory formation and make it more challenging to process and cope with the emotions associated with the traumatic event.

Also, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and impulse control, can be affected by trauma. This can result in difficulties in regulating emotions and making rational choices. Additionally, some individuals may develop dissociative symptoms, where their sense of self becomes disconnected from their surroundings, impacting brain regions related to self-awareness and perception.

Furthermore, neurotransmitter balance can be disrupted—affecting mood regulation and reward processing. These alterations contribute to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Trauma may also heighten sensory processing, increasing sensitivity and flashbacks triggered by sensory cues.

In severe trauma cases, PTSD can lead to specific brain function and structure changes. Disruptions in brain networks, such as the default mode network, may result in intrusive thoughts and a persistent sense of danger. Connectivity between brain regions involved in emotional processing and memory can also become disrupted.

Some trauma survivors may experience distortions in their perception of time, feeling as though the traumatic event is continually happening or struggling to organize past and present experiences. 

The Impact of Trauma

It’s important to remember that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop lasting brain changes or mental health conditions. 

Resilience, social support, and timely intervention can mitigate the long-term impact of trauma on the brain, and therapeutic approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and medication can help individuals cope with and recover from trauma-related brain changes and associated psychological symptoms.

If you or someone you know has experienced trauma and needs trauma therapy, contact the professionals at Psychological Preventative Health today.

34th Annual Boston International Trauma Conference | Part 4

Here we are at the end of the journey and I promise, at least for me, the full saga is not anywhere near over. We were reminded multiple times these past 4 days that a therapist who wants to be of help to their clients/patients will always keep learning to provide the best possible care. The next thing they shared after education is for each therapist in attendance to make sure they are actively doing their own therapy to again, be able to provide the best possible care. 
 
This morning was 3 brilliant individuals who have been adding to the trauma field in their own ways for decades. 
 
1. Dante Cicchetti PhD (https://icd.umn.edu/people/cicchett/) – Discussed the consequences of child maltreatment from the perspective of developmental psychopathology and with research evidence of what affects children, teens. He defined child maltreatment as anything from abuses, neglect of all kinds, divorce, fighting in family, homelessness, and much more. He has decades of research that discuss options for how to treat and look at ways to support the healing of children and teenagers. He looked originally at groups of people in the middle socio-economic status (SES) and said child maltreatment was very, very prevalent with them. He shared that it was and still is not only the lower SES that experiences trauma due to poverty and other environmental factors but that the middle SES has at times more covert maltreatment as well because of societal expectations. Anyway, his work makes a lot of sense to me as I’ve seen it in practice *and* experienced some personally. Take a look at his website if you are interested in more. Or they even mentioned in the conference to Google Scholar his name and you’ll find dozens of articles. 
 
2. Diana Fosha PhD (https://aedpinstitute.org/faculty/diana-fosha-phd) – Treating attachment trauma with AEDP. She has created a therapy practice called Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) which is an empirically supported model that gives patients corrective emotional and relational experiences that mobilize changes in the brain. Whew, that was a mouthful. Essentially what I gathered is she has done research both through scientific methods and through hands on practice that incorporates a focus on secure, healthy attachments. She shared that sometimes when we go to therapy we are getting the first healthy attachment in our life and it can be new, overwhelming, scary *and* healing, transformative, and empowering. This really spoke to me as I completely agree and support the idea that as therapists we need more compassion and attunement in sessions with our clients to help them. Again, check out her name, work and when you are searching for a therapist ask if they know AEDP is this felt right for you!
 
3. Matthew Fleischman PhD (https://www.neurofeedbackadvocacyproject.com) – Treatment of developmental trauma for children with neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is a tremendous treatment option that is noninvasive that has amazing research outcomes that as far as they know are long lasting. Neurofeedback has been around since the 1980s and the research as well as practice of it has increased significantly. I don’t know how to explain this treatment, only to share that I have had Clients go and do neurofeedback then return to therapy with me greatly improved. It’s important to note that sometimes the unknown could feel scary. However, making a plan with your therapist to get you into neurofeedback can help you feel empowered in making choices for your life. I know for people close to Layton Utah there are a group of neurofeedback practitioners that do good work. Here is a direct link to the neurofeedback advocacy project website that explains what it is. You can also explore the website and find more information. (https://www.neurofeedbackadvocacyproject.com/about-nfb)
 
4. Adriana Barton (https://adrianabarton.com) – “Wired for Music” is a book she has written and a cumulative report of information gathered across multiple disciplines to discuss how important music and rhythm are to our lives. She discussed music and rhythm and how they stimulate social and biological processes involved in psychological healing. “Throughout human history, music has been used as medicine. Drawing from neuroscience, anthropology and evolutionary biology, [her] book explores how a music habit can enhance everyday life, from moods and memory to social relationships and the age-old search for meaning.” This was an excerpt from her website and was reiterated in the workshop. She shared, “musical rhythms, brainwave entrainment and neurochemicals [were] discussed in relation to music’s evolutionary role as a ‘social glue,’ demonstrated to increase feelings of trust and interpersonal connection.” This showed me that when a kid or teenager talks to me about how music helps them – I need to validate them and include more music opportunities in my sessions. 
 
It’s been so great to take you all through what I have learned. I promise, if you are reading these as a person looking for therapy – call our office. There is hope. If you are a fellow therapist or teacher, or someone who loves kids and people – call our office. We are with you. If you happen to be a policy maker and want to know what to do you help our area – please call our office. *We can do more to help people.*
 
Written by Katie Walter

34TH ANNUAL BOSTON INTERNATIONAL TRAUMA CONFERENCE | PART 3

Come with me for day by day takeaways on the latest and greatest in trauma treatment: 
 

34th Annual Boston International Trauma Conference (https://traumaresearchfoundation.org)

Today was amazing. There is so much that has been going on in the neurobiological and neuroscientific research of trauma injuries, trauma, and methods to help heal trauma. Since it was a lot of science lingo I cannot do justice here in a blog I am going to provide names, some of their research topics, and websites. It will be up to you to either take my word for it that there is a tremendous battery of research available and still being done to understand the brain and the impact emotions and trauma have on it; or do some of your own reading (highly recommending you discover it for yourself too!). 
Very, very similar in the afternoon session was experiential innovations in treatment of trauma. Those exercises are best learned through doing so I will provide names and some websites then please discover the magic on your own. 
 
1. Bessel van der Kolk M.D. (https://www.besselvanderkolk.comhttps://traumaresearchfoundation.org) – Provided an overview of the past 3 decades of trauma research and trauma explorations. He has hundreds of published research articles; podcast interviews; teachings; trainings; recorded interviews; dozens of books. 
2. Kerry J. Ressler M.D, PhD (https://www.mcleanhospital.org/profile/kerry-resslerhttp://www.resslerlab.com/kerry-ressler.html) – Has done a tremendous amount of research on the neuroscience of fear and PTSD. He has information about how trauma impacts all of our sensory systems. This work is really important for helping us be able to gain understanding of how trauma also can impact our genetics from generation to generation. 
3. Martin H. Teicher M.D, PhD (https://www.mcleanhospital.org/profile/martin-teicherhttps://www.bbrfoundation.org/about/people/martin-h-teicher-md-phd) – Shared a brief reaction and addendum to Kerry Ressler’s talk. Martin Teicher is one of the founding researchers to look at the biological impact of developmental trauma on the brain at different ages and stages of life. 
4. Tania Singer PhD (https://taniasinger.dehttps://taniasinger.de/the-resource-project/https://humanize.com/#weglot_switcher) – She gave a review of what was shared on Day 1; go check it out again! 🙂 Her work could change things for society. 
5. Ronald D Siegel PsyD (https://drronsiegel.comhttps://www.chacmc.org/ronald-siegel) – He discussed some of the mindfulness work from Day 1. However, in this talk he went into mindfulness, compassion & psychedelic-assisted therapy and how evoking “non-ordinary” states can deeply benefit trauma treatment. Okay, I have a pretty open mind to drugs when they are used in a trained, healthy, purposeful way. The research they discussed is extremely promising for healing. 
 
In the afternoon there were 3 different people/groups discussing specific treatments and interventions:
1. Bethany Brand PhD (https://bethanybrand.com) – Finding Solid Ground…even with the most dissociated individuals! Bethany has increased the amount of research and proof of positive treatment outcomes for people living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and other dissociative and traumatized disorders. She reported that until she began her research that the most recent research prior to hers was from the 70s and 80s. She has created a treatment workbook and there is a companion book as well. I promise I’m not getting paid to share this; but here is a link to Amazon where you can find the book then the workbook is the same title with the work “workbook” after it (https://www.amazon.com/dp/0190636084/?coliid=I1CJH0ZW8TL8R&colid=1BNGF7R4MAIIP&psc=1&ref_=list_c_wl_gv_ov_lig_pi_dp). As a therapist who did not learn enough about DID in any of my schooling; if sharing this book knowing that treatment options are available to learn – I want to let everyone know. If there are treatment options for groups of people who need help and are underserved; I’m more than happy to name resources. 
2. Licia Sky (https://liciasky.com/index.html) – Embodied self awareness, identity, multigenerational stories, and the emergent process of healing. Licia is a gentle, kind, embodied soul. She has spent decades learning about and sharing the power of movement. She has shared the healing knowledge that our bodies already possess but through life and different circumstances we have stopped listening to our bodies. If you follow the link to her website that will take you directly to videos of practice. I know at least for me when I include body work in my healing, life journey that I feel so much wholeness. 
3. Andres Gonzalez, Ali Smith, Atman Smith, and Cathy Malchiodi PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT (https://holisticlifefoundation.orghttps://www.cathymalchiodi.com) – Empowering communities to heal trauma. Okay, this one just amazed me. I work with almost all ages, but lately I’ve been working most with kids and teens. This work Andres, Ali, and Atman have been doing for 20+ years is truly inspired. They have worked with kids and teens in schools to teach them regulation skills that, through the years, have shown to improve outcomes for those they work with. They are based in Baltimore, MD and have seen over 100,000 (per their website) kids and teens not end up in prison, in gangs, detention; being the first in their family to graduate high school. Please check out the website above – this is the Holistic Life Foundation. If you are a therapist or someone reading this in Utah – our state could *greatly* benefit from bringing this to our kids and teens in school. We need to do better taking care of our kids and teenagers and this could be a good option. Cathy Malchiodi is an expressive arts therapist; experiential work. She has years of working with people and communities. She has done some work with Holistic Life and has years of her own work and treatment tools. She is definitely worth checking out as well. 
 
Written by Katie Walter

34th ANNUAL BOSTON INTERNATIONAL TRAUMA CONFERENCE | Part 2

Come with me for day by day takeaways on the latest and greatest in trauma treatment: 

34th Annual Boston International Trauma Conference (https://traumaresearchfoundation.org)

Okay today was like drinking from a fire hydrant – but completely refreshing and so worth it. I attended three sessions today and have a lot to share. Before I get in to it here are the topics I will be writing on: 
 

1. Conversations about SMART Implementation Across Cultures.

Featuring Elizabeth Warner, Alexandra Cook, Anne Westcott, Heather Finn, Alicia Hu, Mei Ling Hu, Kasey Pendexter, and Mari Kjølseth Braein. (https://smartmovespartners.com

SMART is a form of body focused therapy currently focused on children and teens however there are current projects exploring what this could look like for adults. SMART stands for Sensory Motor Arousal Regulation Therapy. 

 

2. IFS and Addictions. 

 
Looking into a different way to treat, talk about, and thinking about addictions. 
 

3. Keynote Talk: Psychological Trauma Underlying Mental Processes.

 
These two men have created a different way to consider trauma, healing, and the human experience. For me personally they have changed the way I am a therapist and the way that I relate to myself and others. 
 
Okay – now that was a lot. It’s just getting good though so feel free to skip ahead or read through each description! 
 

1. Conversations about SMART Implementation Across Cultures.

Featuring Elizabeth Warner, Alexandra Cook, Anne Westcott, Heather Finn, Alicia Hu, Mei Ling Hu, Kasey Pendexter, and Mari Kjølseth Braein. (https://smartmovespartners.com)
 
This conversation started off with different members of the group sharing some basics about SMART method for therapy. SMART stands for Sensory Motor Arousal Regulation Therapy. This therapy takes three threads of treatment: somatic regulation, trauma processing, and attachment building; works on them in the therapeutic relationship and hopes to build the individual kid’s window of tolerance. There is a hierarchy of development that SMART uses to inform priorities and treatment options. This hierarchy looks at a child’s development from sensory processing foundations up through 6 levels to integrated engagement with the whole self in the emotional, motor, cognitive, and social areas. 
 
Though this conference session was aimed at helping therapists see how this could be used across a multitude of cultures – the highlights I want to share can be seen as benefits to finding a therapist for yourself, your child, or teen that includes SMART methods. 
 
There are 7 tools they draw from: tactile, vestibular, proprioceptive, sensation satiation, combining inputs, rhythmicity, and safe space. These tools are sensory systems; can be seen in occupational therapy, play therapy, and somatic experiencing type therapies. Also though with a little google search you can access ideas to help while you find therapy to help bring everything together in a coherent way. 
 
More important things: 
 
1. All children and teens need to move to find that “just right” space; their safe space.
2. Tending to safety is a priority in the process which models what most children and teens miss in the home environment in different ways.
3. This model can allow for attachment security and create attachment bonds so the child and teen can experience examples in vivo of regulation and repair.
4. When trying to adapt SMART for different cultures and communities there needs to be participation of members of that community in learning and teaching to provide the best understanding. one example here was that SMART has been adapted for the deaf and hard of hearing community and seen tremendous success in finding regulation for kids and teens. 
5. Both therapists, teachers, parents all need to understand that children know what they need; they need us as the adults to slow down and listen.
 
Again – amazing work, amazing therapy offering. This blurb does not do it justice. It is worth learning more. 
 

2. IFS and Addictions. 

 
Looking into a different way to treat, talk about, and thinking about addictions. 
 

I have a love love relationship with IFS (Internal Family Systems). A very, very brief overview of this therapy is that all of us have a core “Self” that is considered: compassionate, curious, creative, confident, calm, clear, courageous, and connected. This “Self” is who we really are underneath different “parts” that developed in almost extreme ways to help us or the “Self” cope with something traumatic or dysfunctional. “Parts” come in three categories and those categories can have multiple different behaviors, attitudes, thoughts that come with them. 

There are “exile parts” that are parts of us that have been hurt, traumatized, sad; they are exiled because our system wants to protect us from danger, discomfort, and to keep us safe.  There are “manager parts” that rush in the extreme to make sure the exiles never get triggered. An example of a “manager” would be an internal critic – the critic’s job is to make sure we don’t do things that trigger the exile and that voice comes with a lot of shame typically. Then there are “firefighter parts”; these are parts that rush in when an “exile” breaks through a “manager”‘s efforts and will do anything to decrease the emotion, thought, hurt by any means. These means can be addiction, daily behaviors (shopping, distracting, avoiding), self-harm, and suicide. These “firefighters” do anything to keep us safe and safety comes to mean that our exiles don’t feel hurt anymore. 

 
I admit that at times this can sound really suspect. There are parts of me that want me to be safe and happy but do it by keeping the hard stuff locked away? Well – it’s real. I’ve experienced it as I have worked with Clients helping them discover, learn and care for their parts as well as doing my own work. 
 
How this relates to addiction – in most areas, America especially – addiction is seen as a moral failing. However, when you talk to anyone who uses or has addictions, behaviors they use to escape – the things people are escaping return to the “exile parts”; shame, trauma, bullying, fighting with parents and so much more. 
 
When we choose to see addictions as parts that are trying to protect us from emotional and mental harm; there is a tremendous increase in compassion to ourselves and the efforts we make. If we adopted this mentality locally, nationally – there would be more healthy people in recovery. We would see people seeming rested, kind. 
 
There is *so* much more here. I’ll leave this session with the title of Dick Schwartz’s last book, there are “No Bad Parts.” 
 

3. Keynote Talk: Psychological Trauma Underlying Mental Processes.

Gabor Mate (https://drgabormate.com) and Richard Schwartz (https://ifs-institute.com/about-us/richard-c-schwartz-phd)

These two men have created a different way to consider trauma, healing, and the human experience. For me personally they have changed the way I am a therapist and the way that I relate to myself and others. 

 
I have almost too much good I can say about Gabor Mate and his work. He has a tremendous amount of research, work, and experience he brings into the trauma field. Today’s talk was about the impact of stress, trauma, and emotional turmoil on the physical body. 
 
He shared about how his years as a family doctor showed him that the questions doctors don’t ask are truly the real reason why we are all sick. Some of the questions he mentioned are about our childhood trauma; experiences of loss; how daily family life is; environmental concerns. He shared significant clinical experiences showing the correlation of increased stress with increased inflammation in the body and when we dismiss or shove our emotions down then our own immune system will become depressed. When the immune system becomes depressed we are more likely to become ill. One metaphorical example he shared was that emotions, especially healthy anger are a boundary marker for us of what is okay and not okay. However he compared the literal purpose of our immune system to that it is a boundary of what gets to come in and stays out of our body. 
 
He draws together impressive evidence of a literal mind/body connection that is at play within us daily. To learn more check out his website listed above, podcast interviews he has done, as well as any of his books (The Myth of Normal is the most current one). 
 
Now, it was great to hear from Dick Schwartz again. In this talk what he shared was very similar to the session earlier in the day. He added on the implications of IFS being used at a systemic level to facilitate large scale healing and resolution. Some of these large scale examples he gave were: group therapies, conflict resolution, mediation, legacy burdens, activism, companies, group therapies. He shared that there is more than enough evidence that groups, people, cultures, employees just want to be witnessed. This idea of IFS being used in systems could bring us miraculous outcomes. 
 
Phew – that’s today! Check back tomorrow for more information about conference sessions and then a bonus workshop just for understanding traumatized kids. 
 
Written by Katie Walter

34th Annual Boston International Trauma Conference | Part 1

Come with me for day by day takeaways on the latest and greatest in trauma treatment: 

34th Annual Boston International Trauma Conference (https://traumaresearchfoundation.org)

This year I am attending the conference from the comfort of my living room and home office 🙂 And…it is completely worth it! The conference this year is 4 days of amazing information from researchers and practitioners that continue to create the best treatment options for individuals living with trauma and those of us who work in the trauma field. 

Today I attended “From Empathic Distress to Compassion: Building Resilience in the Face of Trauma” with Tania Singer (https://taniasinger.de) and Ronald Siegel (https://drronsiegel.com)

They discussed research that is helping to train peoples’ minds to improve three things: 

  1. attention & mindfulness (through breathing meditations and body scans)
  2. care & compassion (through loving kindness meditations and dyad exercises)
  3. cognitive perspective taking & theory of mind (through dyad exercises and observing-thoughts meditations)

A few interesting things they brought up early on is that attention & mindfulness are self oriented  skills. Care & compassion are self and other oriented skills (about relating to others and relationships). Cognitive perspective taking is a self and other oriented skill that is called “meta” meaning that you work on thinking about how you and others are thinking. 

The main research study here can be found on Tania Singer’s website (https://taniasinger.de) under the menu topic ReSource Project. This study was conducted for at least a year and phases were done in person as well as virtually because part of the study occurred while Germany was in lock down d/t COVID 19. Two things she shared from this study was seeing that the brain actually thickens, grows, and shows improvements in people who were doing the training. The parts that grow play a role in empathy, care and compassion. Second thing – that  peoples’ capacity and tolerance for social situations increases. 

Now, for those of us living with trauma this may sound great but very overwhelming. When it comes to tools, resources, and healing therapy is still a great way to go. Finding a therapist who will work with you, be patient, listen to you and provide some gentle guidance; all good things. One timeline for healing with improving feeling and sensation in the body as well as ability to name those things was 6-9 months with help. 

Okay, cutting this short here because really; this is better learned and done together. Head over to the Meet Our Team tab and see if anyone of us feel like a good fit to help you in healing from trauma and learning to find compassion for yourself. 

Come back tomorrow where I will be writing about “How to incorporate Neurofeedback into Trauma Treatment – Latest Developments”; “IFS and Addictions” … and possibly more! 

Written by Katie Walter