PTSD & The Brain


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how trauma affects the brain

Bet you didn’t know that the psychological experience of trauma can actually cause neurological changes, did you? Well, it does! All this time you’ve been thinking maybe you’re crazy, but there are often scientific reasons for much of your behavior, including increased, diminished and killed brain regions, functions and neurons. Consider the following:

  • Can’t find the words to express your thoughts? That’s because the prefontal lobe (responsible for language) is adversely affected by trauma, which gets in the way of its linguistic function.


  • Can’t regulate your emotions? How could you when the amygdala (responsible for emotional regulation) is in such overdrive that in some PTSD survivors it actually enlarges.


  • Having problem with short-term memory loss? Of course you are: studies show that in some PTSD survivors the hippocampus (responsible for memory and experience assimilation) actually shrinks in volume.


  •  Always feeling frightened no matter what you do? Understandable when your medial prefontal cortex (responsible for regulating emotion and fear responses) doesn’t regulate itself or function properly after trauma.

Knowing that there’s a biology to trauma lets you understand in a scientific sense why you can’t ‘just get over it.’ Recognizing that trauma’s effects have been concretely documented by evidence-based data should let you know that PTSD is not a condition completely within your control; you’ll have to learn how to regain mental power. That helps, doesn’t it? The more we know and understand the more we can figure out how to heal.

Our free radio show archives, YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA, feature experts discussing many aspects of how trauma impacts the brain, including how and why that impact leads to PTSD. 

brain2-revcruzHowever: Just because science supports our dysfunctional psychology is not an excuse to give in to it! Rather, it’s a motivation to develop and redevelop the parts of our brains that have been affected by trauma. The TREATMENT page of this site explains many of the available methods for PTSD recovery.

With these facts come the challenge to devise new emotional experiences that can affect neurological changes, too. Trauma results from our perception of an event that then becomes coded in our neuropathways. Many PTSD treatments seek to reverse and/or destroy those neuropathways, but we can do this on a daily basis ourselves, too. Check out this post on our blog for more info: What We Learn from Seeking Help.

For further investigation:

The Brain, Brain Chemistry, And PTSD – A simple introductory overview.

The Biology of Trauma - What happens in the brain in response to threat.

Trauma, Senses & Recovery – Brief overview of trauma, the brain, emotional and neurological development and effects (scroll down for page 2).

Brain Function: The Limbic System & PTSD – Video lecture overview of brain systems in relation to PTSD.

PTSD, Memory and The Brain - Particularly relevant for survivors of childhood abuse.

The Effect of PTSD on the Brain - The role of the hippocampus and what happens to it under stress.

Severe Trauma Affects Kids’ Brain Function – From the Stanford School of Medicine

PTSD Leaves Physical Footprints on the Brain – Measures taken to study combat PTSD.

The good news!

brain-that-changes-brewbooksThe brain is designed to be plastic. That is, it is hardwired to rewire. Recent advances in scientific research all support the idea of ‘neuroplasticity’: “The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.” (

What does all of this mean to you? It means that despite any neurological changes that PTSD may have brought about in your brain, it is, in fact, possible to reverse them. The brain wants to evolve. The question is determining how you will help it do that. Visit our ‘Recommended Reading’ page for a list of popular brain books.

For further investigation:

Brain Plasticity: What is It? – Simple breakdown of concepts.

Neuroplasticity and the Brain that Changes Itself – Overview and further resources.

Dan Rather Reports – A series on ‘Mind Science’

Amazing Findings of Neuroplasticity – Video about neuroplasticity, how it works, and research.

Clinical Applications of Neuroplasticity – Short video about how and where we can use the concept of neuroplasticity to heal.

Brain Plasticity – DiscoveryChannel video up close on how the loss of one half of the brain is compensated for by the other half.

For coverage from the 20th Annual Trauma conference & notes on how neurological evidence, data and research applies to healing visit our blog.

(Photos: Ethan Hein, Revcruz, brewbooks)