Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event or a series of distressing events over time. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Trauma usually falls into two caregories - single episode (i.e. robbery, accident) or a build of experiences over time (i.e bullying, losses, abuses).
Traumatic abuse causes lasting changes in our physiology, nervous system and brain chemistry. In the course of normal development, memories are consolidated as we evaluate each new situation in terms of the cohesive worldview we have previously formulated. When there has been trauma, this cognitive process is short-circuited by the surge of painful and intense stimulation. Instead of “processing the experience” by fitting it into our understanding of how the world works and thereby learning from it, we revert to a more primitive form of encoding—through physical sensations and visual images. Even years after the actual danger is past, the trauma, undigested and locked in our body, randomly breaks through into consciousness. A person who has been traumatized may continue to relive the same event as if it were occurring in the present.
3 Areas to Know
Trauma can alter brain functioning in many ways, but three of the most important changes appear to occur in the following areas:
1. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), known as thde “Thinking Center”
2. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), known as the “Emotion Regulation Center”
3. The amygdala, known as the “Fear Center”
The PFC, or thinking center, is located near the top of your head, behind your forehead. It's responsible for abilities including rational thought, problem-solving, personality, planning, empathy, and awareness of ourselves and others. When this area of the brain is strong, we are able to think clearly, make good decisions, and be aware of ourselves and others.
The ACC, or emotion regulation center, is located next to the prefrontal cortex, but is deeper inside the brain. This area is responsible (in part) for regulating emotion, and (ideally) has a close working relationship with the thinking center. When this region is strong, we are able to manage difficult thoughts and emotions without being totally overwhelmed by them. While we might want to send a snarky email to a coworker, the emotion regulation center reminds us that this is not a good idea, and helps us manage our emotions so that we don’t do things we regret.