Remember the old 1980s commercial “This is your brain on drugs?” Here we have your brain on trauma. For many highly sensitive people (HSPs) early childhood trauma creates real differences in the way our brains function as compared to those who suffered no trauma. The following short article by Jennifer Sweeton offers us a quick view of the three main areas of the brain that may suffer as a result of trauma.
Highly sensitive people, or those who have the innate personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity, process all stimulation in a more elaborate fashion in the brain. Negative events, in short, affect us more deeply and for a longer period of time than they might for those without the trait. Early experiences with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can impart lifelong issues with anxiety, depression, shyness, antisocial behaviors, and self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps half (or more) of HSPs suffer from mutliple ACEs and may benefit from mindfulness training or other brain retraining practices that serve to strengthen the thinking and emotion regulating centers of the brain while quieting the fear center. My advice to HSPs suffering from ACEs is to work on learning to quiet the brain before seeking psychotherapy. Psychologists can only be of real value if one is calm enough to engage the thinking center of the brain and not be overly dominated by fear and anxiety. This is not an easy task and you should not feel like there is a pill to cure your problems. It will require that you do real work on yourself to quiet the “monkey chatter” in your brain. Humans are primates and subject to the same tendencies for anxiety and fear as any other member of the great ape family. The difference is that humans have a greater capacity to reason and think through why we are feeling fear or anxiety and take action to improve our lives.
Concurrent with learning to recognize and control our emotions and moods is the desperate need to control our thinking (fair-minded crititcal thought). Most people operate on an unconscious or automatic thinking level where they fail to apply effective thinking strategies to the demands of modern life. The more we are able to apply critical thinking to our lives the more we are able to understand why we may be feeling fear or anxiety. Once we know why feel a certain emotion we can choose to let it pass or focus on resolving it. Emotions are there to serve as activators of survival behaviors. Fear and anxiety are there to alert us to a threat or danger to which we may need to take possible action (run away, defend ourselves, etc..). When we experience ACEs in childhood (and beyond) our fear center is overactivated and alerts us to threats that may not be real or as severe as we are feeling. Combine that with lessened connectivity between the thinking and emotion regulation centers of the brain and you have a recipe for reacting to normal stimuli with unwarranted fear and anxiety.
Let’s be clear: anxiety and fear are no fun! They can be paralyzing and defeating to those who are experiencing them. For people with an overactivated fear center life is full of threats and anxieties that serve to very effectively limit their ability to realize their potential; even hold a job and support themselves. This isn’t always true and many people with ACEs are able to function well in life and in their careers but not without work on their parts to mitigate the overactivated fear response and emotion regulation. Indeed, research has shown that having even ONE caring, safe relationship can lead to better outcomes in life. Would you believe that some people do not have that ONE safe relationship? It’s true and they struggle mightily if they do not give up altogether.
I implore you to carefully examine how you respond to life’s demands. Do you overreact with fear, seeing threats and danger at every turn while others seem to register nothing unusual? Do you feel extremes of mood and emotion in normal circumstances where others seem to be more balanced? Do you act out of fear or anxiety without thinking any of it through? If your answer is yes you may be able to help yourself through beginning to work on your inner life through exercise, meditation (in whatever way works for you), and seeking the skilled help of a therapist who specializes in trauma and PTSD. Understand and be prepared for the reality that the single best indicator of improvement will be your willingness and desire to get better. There is no magic pill nor can a therapist heal you. It is on you to do the work and take the journey to greater well-being and well-functioning. Take heart though in the fact that you are probably more resilient than you think, more aware of your issues than you give yourself credit for, and desirous of improving the quaility of your life for yourself and your family.
Tracy Cooper, PhD
This Is Your Brain on Trauma
Approximately 50 percent of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. While reactions to trauma can vary widely, and not everyone will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma can change the brain in some predictable ways that everyone should be aware of, especially if you or someone close to you is struggling to cope after trauma. With increased awareness, you can seek treatment to address your symptoms and learn skills that could actually rewire your brain for recovery. Additionally, knowing what’s going on can be immensely helpful because it may help you realize that you’re not crazy, irreversibly damaged, or a bad person. Instead, you can think of a traumatized brain as one that functions differently as a result of traumatic events. And just as your brain changed in response to your past experiences with the world, it can also change in response to your future experiences. In other words, the brain is “plastic,” and you can change it.
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 the “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.
Finally, the amygdala, a tiny structure deep inside our brain, serves as its fear center. This subcortical area is outside of our conscious awareness or control, and its primary job is to receive all incoming information – everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste – and answer one question: “Is this a threat?” If it detects that a dangerous threat is present, it produces fear in us. When this area is activated, we feel afraid, reactive, and vigilant.
What’s Going on in a Traumatized Brain
Traumatized brains look different from non-traumatized brains in three predictable ways:
1. The Thinking Center is underactivated,
2. The Emotion Regulation Center is underactivated
3. The Fear Center is overactivated.
What these activations indicate is that, often, a traumatized brain is “bottom-heavy,” meaning that activations of lower, more primitive areas, including the fear center, are high, while higher areas of the brain (also known as cortical areas) are underactivated. In other words, if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation. You may also have a hard time feeling safe, calming down, or sleeping. These symptoms are all the result of a hyperactive amygdala.
At the same time, individuals who are traumatized may notice difficulties with concentration and attention, and often report they can’t think clearly. This, not surprisingly, is due to the thinking center being underactivated.
Finally, survivors of trauma will sometimes complain that they feel incapable of managing their emotions. For example, if someone spooks them, they may experience a rapid heart rate long after the joke is up, or may have a hard time “just letting go” of minor annoyances. Even when they want to calm down and feel better, they just can’t. This is in large part due to a weakened emotion regulation center.
What You Can Do Now
Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time. The best gift you can give yourself toward this goal is psychotherapy. If you’re ready to start that journey, look for a psychologist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, and who uses evidence-based methods that change the brain by working with both the body and the mind.
Also, consider adding a body-based or mindfulness-based technique to your daily routine, to help begin deactivating the fear center. This is a vital first step to healing, as when we are able to quiet the fear center, we are better able to work on strengthening and activating the thinking center and emotion regulation center. Two such exercises include diaphragmatic breathing and autogenic training. (Access free, guided practices of these techniques HERE.) The recommendation is to practice these techniques, or similar ones, for short periods of time multiple times per day. Remember, practice makes progress.
2 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Trauma”
Hello Dr. Cooper. As an alcohol and drug counselor and mental health practitioner (who also happens to be a HSP), I find this subject so intriguing. The above article suggests that 50% or more of HSPs have multiple ACEs; is this extrapolated from data on the general public? Or has there been any research specifically compiling or comparing the ACE scores of HSPs? Just wondering if the numbers are out there. I have so many questions! Thank for your blog and for this information. I’m looking forward to learning more!
Thank you for your comments and questions. The data on percentage of HSPs with likely multiple ACEs comes from several sources: Elaine Aron’s work (where she suggests up to half may have experienced traumatic childhoods, a large survey I conducted which indicated 50% of HSPs had experienced chaotic childhoods, and anecdotal evidence from the hundreds of interviews I have conducted with HSPs. The important difference between the way non-HSPs and HSPs react to ACEs is the depth of processing and stronger emotional reactions that HSPs typically exhibit. Thus, an HSP might be more deeply affected by a trauamtic event and retain that experience far longer than in someone without the trait. Elaine Aron actually wrote a book on HSPs and psychotherapy you might find quite useful. http://hsperson.com/books/psychotherapy-and-the-highly-sensitive-person/.
Certainly, ACEs may be overcome as one progresses through life (and I think many HSPs do just this) but many people experienced some horrific trauma that may take a lifetime to work through. The key issue is being aware that our current issues may be tied to these events in our past and we may be minimizing their impact (because we wish to forget, or not hurt those who hurt us, etc..). It’s very easy to become a self-medicator with alcohol, drugs, etc..when we should be dealing with the root causes of suffering rather than masking them. Not an easy task admittedly but one that HSPs should be especially inclined toward given our need to do things well (constientiousness), empathy (for ourselves and others), and need for deeper meaning in life.
Thanks for our questions!