How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

brain trauma

Trauma has a profound effect on those that experience it. Even years after the traumatic event or experience, an individual can exhibit PTSD symptoms caused by trauma, such as increased stress and fear in certain situations and places. This is because of changes in the brain that are caused by trauma. While various parts of the brain are affected, the main three are the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. After a person experiences a traumatic event or experience, these areas of the brain may begin to function differently. Specifically, the individual may have problems coping with stressful or fearful situations and regulating their emotions. Here is an in-depth look at the effects trauma has on the brain, which will help you understand treatment. 

What is Trauma?

Trauma is typically classified as an emotional and psychological response to a particularly disturbing or stressful event or experience. These events or experiences differ from person to person, including car accidents, natural disasters, sexual assault, domestic abuse, medical trauma, losing a loved one, etc. Many things could be considered traumatic, but it is important to note that one experience may affect two individuals differently. While one person may be okay after the event, the other may be deeply affected and traumatized, causing psychological problems later on. 

There are three types of trauma typically recognized: acute trauma, chronic trauma, and complex trauma. Acute trauma occurs after a singular traumatic event. Chronic trauma is trauma that happens over an extended period. Complex trauma is when a person experiences multiple traumas over time. The effects of trauma and the symptoms they cause often culminate in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma’s Effects on the Hippocampus 

The hippocampus is the part of your brain that stores and retrieves memories. It also helps you recognize the difference between the past and present. The hippocampus has a significant role in the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions and memory. Trauma and PTSD can affect the hippocampus by making it smaller. According to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, those with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus than those who do not have PTSD. 

When affected by trauma, the hippocampus affects a person’s ability to remember the traumatic memories and differentiate time, such as being able to recognize the difference between the past and the present. For example, being in a similar situation to the original traumatic experience will cause the person to feel extreme anxiety, fear, and stress. This is because they believe a threat is present, which triggers the brain’s fight-or-flight response. The hippocampus affects memory in that some individuals may not remember much. In contrast, others may have a vivid memory of the experience. Both of these can be equally distressing. 

Trauma’s Effects on the Amygdala

The amygdala is the part of your brain that detects fear and controls survival instincts, memory, and emotions. It does this by gathering information from your surroundings to analyze it for any potential threats. When it senses danger, the amygdala triggers feelings of fear. Trauma causes this process to occur much quicker as it makes the amygdala hyperactive. 

A person with PTSD experiences triggers that remind them of their traumatic experience. They will have a heightened sense of fear due to the amygdala. This is because the amygdala remembers the trigger as being associated with the trauma, so it responds with a heightened sense of fear and anxiety compared to when it responds to other threats not related to trauma. This hyperactivity of the amygdala can cause a person to be on-edge constantly, and can even cause sleep problems. 

Trauma’s Effects on the Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for regulating emotions; therefore, it makes sense that it is significantly affected by trauma. It is affected by other parts of the brain, such as the amygdala. When the amygdala perceives a threat, the prefrontal cortex responds to this emotion. Due to trauma, it can no longer respond rationally, meaning it will often overreact and struggle with emotional regulation. This is especially true for emotions such as fear, stress, etc. 

Treating Trauma

Despite the effects trauma has on the various parts of the brain, recovery is possible. It is possible to reverse these effects on the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Fortunately for survivors of trauma, the brain is one of the most adaptable organs in the human body. Treating PTSD often involves a mixture of medication and various forms of therapy. 

Medications that affect neurotransmitters to regain balance in the brain can help tremendously because it restores equilibrium. This allows a person to be able to regulate emotions and memories more rationally. Therapy is also used for healing from trauma, with the most common treatment being psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The goal of treatment is to help trauma survivors to process their experience and to develop healthy coping strategies. 


Choice House has a deep understanding of how trauma affects the brain and limits the functioning of survivors. We have seen firsthand how trauma survivors have difficulty managing emotions and triggers relating to their trauma. The effects of trauma on various parts of the brain can make it difficult to cope with what happened. However, through treatment, it is possible to heal. At Choice House, we use various approaches to help our clients heal from trauma. Through various forms of therapy, we give our clients the power to conquer their trauma. can begin their journey to healing and flourish in their life ahead of them. Trauma doesn’t have to hold you back. For more information regarding our trauma treatment, call (720) 577-4422. You don’t have to suffer alone.

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