Trauma impacts and alters the brain. The brain scans of people who have been traumatized look different from those who have not been traumatized. The parts of the brain, limbic system, and prefrontal cortex, responsible for emotional regulation, memory, concentration, and motivation, are impacted. Thus, traumatized people may have trouble thinking, speaking, and regulating emotions. Trauma is considered a leading cause of the development of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, substance abuse, physical health problems, and many other concerns.
“The imprint of the trauma is … in our animal brains, not our thinking brains.”
van der Kolk
Most people define trauma as physical and sexual abuse, war, or terrorism. However, trauma is also abandonment, rejection, neglect, harsh criticism, bullying, loss of a relationship due to parental maltreatment, breakup, divorce, addiction, illness, or death. Even so-called “happy events” such as marriage or the birth of a child may be traumatic and may contain aspects of a loss. These events can have a powerful impact on how we conduct our lives and relationships, how we feel, and what we have learned to believe about ourselves and others.
Trauma can be an invisible but powerful force that governs our mood, interactions, and even choice of a partner or a career path. Most people are not fully aware of how their past impacts their present. Instead, they may experience a variety of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, phobias, anger, irritability, fear, terror, substance abuse, addictions, a sense of feeling out of control, feeling numb, emotional turmoil, relationship difficulties, or finding self in a continued cycle of abuse and victimization. A person might be triggered by external and internal remainders and pulled into situations that resemble the original trauma without their full conscious awareness.
A traumatic memory that has not been properly processed is difunctionally stored in short-term instead of long-term memory. That is precisely why a traumatized person gets triggered. Being triggered is like holding a beach ball under the water, which is an impossible task. If more trauma is experienced, more “beach balls” are added. The person is so busy holding down the beach balls that they cannot be present and enjoy the beautiful scenery surrounding them. That’s a brain on trauma. But once the trauma is processed, there are no beach balls to push down. The memory is stored properly in long-term memory, and a person no longer gets triggered.
Accelerated Resolution Therapy (A.R.T.) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are well-established therapies that are known to address trauma. These therapies tap into the natural healing processes of REM sleep that are responsible for memory reprocessing and consolidation. A.R.T. and EMDR tap into these processes via eye movements and other bilateral stimulation. Post-treatment studies show that no distress is left once a traumatic event is fully processed. This phenomenon is sustained over time. Also, the brain has returned to normal functioning – the limbic system has quieted down, and the pre-frontal cortex has been reactivated.