What does TRAUMA do to the brain?


Psychological trauma is the result of any stressful experience that shatters your sense of emotional safety.  It leaves you feeling vulnerable, and often hopeless.


Although trauma can occur at any time throughout the lifespan, early infant and childhood trauma can be the most significant, and also increases the risk of future development of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Potentially traumatic conditions in childhood:


  • An unstable or unsafe environment
  • Neglect
  • Separation from or loss of a parent
  • Serious illness
  • Intrusive medical interventions
  • Bullying
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual, physical or verbal abuse


Stress is really at the core of trauma and it has a long term damaging effect both on the structure of your brain and your emotional/mental health.  Even a fetus exposed to chronic stress in utero is affected by stress.  When the developing fetus is growing inside of a mom experiencing chronic stress, the baby’s future ability to handle stress will be less competent when they are in the outside world.  Science has revealed that exposure to prenatal stress has three major effects on future adult behaviour: problems with learning, increased sensitivity to and risk to abuse drugs, and a likelihood of future anxiety and depression.  Experiencing early trauma means the thermostat for handling stress is set to the sensitive and/or intolerant level, reducing resilience even much later in life.


After birth, the way caregivers tune into and respond to the stress signals of their child has been shown in brain science to be a significant predictor of future resilience to stress. When a baby is hungry, tired, and uncomfortable, a tuned-in caregiver will dial down the baby’s stress response with their voice, their face and with their touch.  But when a caregiver is preoccupied with himself or herself or unable to read the signals of the child, then the baby’s stress response remains frazzled and unchanged.  Chronic stress and the stress chemicals inside our bodies that are released when we are stressed interrupt brain development and prevents the child’s brain from reading signals of danger appropriately in the future.


So much of why we do what we do as adults comes from this early wiring in the brain that is deeply coded in our nerve cells.  It is underneath our conscious thinking, and most often unavailable to our own awareness.  Before you have language skills, the un-soothed stressors are stored in the backdrop of your mind without any specific meaning.  It is like being buried under a blanket of anxiety without any reason for the feeling.  When this backdrop is the way you experience your life, everything feels scary and threatening.   Because of this, your responses to what you see as threats will result reactions that can often be out of sync with the experiences you are having.


When this early chronic stress occurs, what can happen is that without you even knowing it, the memory centre in the brain is damaged, the communication highway between logic and emotions is damaged, and your ability to manage your feelings and behaviour will be affected.  As a result you may see danger where it doesn’t exist, you may be drawn into situations that are dangerous without being able to recognize the danger, or you may be so fearful that you withdraw and isolate from the world and others.  Addictions often emerge to attempt to cope with the surge of feelings that are uncontrollable and unexplainable.


Traumas that happen after the development of language can still create dramatic stress responses, but it becomes easier to make meaning out of the experience as meaning eases stress. But if you have an early childhood history of trauma, then future traumas will be worsened by the lack of experience in managing stress, handling emotions and lack of experience in keeping yourself safe.


Trauma from high levels of emotional stress at any stage does some damage to your brain, alters your actions, interferes with your relationships and can have long-term negative effects on your life.  However, there is hope!  Science is proving that our brains can change, even for the better, as long as we are still breathing!  Two things that can help re-wire our brains are having relationships that teach us what it is like to feel safe, and therapy.


We know our quality of life is affected by the way our brains are wired.  Each one of us, to varying degrees, has the ability to re-wire them and in so doing, alter our behaviour and improve our life.  In this way, we have way more control of our lives than we know.


Kim Barthel