Did you know that trauma can physically change the structure of a person’s brain?

A common misconception regarding traumatic experiences is that they simply result in emotional or mental distress as if there is not a physical component. However, research supports that trauma can enlarge the Amygdala and shrink the Pre-frontal Cortex as well as the Hippocampus. These changes can have long-lasting effects on the brain, the most notable of which include memory issues, difficulty regulating emotions, and enhanced threat-perception. Furthermore, experts have shown us that trauma is actually stored in the body, which may manifest itself through chronic pain or physical health conditions such as migraines, fibromyalgia, arthritis, hypertension, and stomach ulcers.

Many of us have experienced some sort of traumatic event in our life. Examples include exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, sexual violence, community or domestic violence, neglect, natural disasters, motor vehicle accidents, pediatric medical events, grief, and physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse. This list is not exhaustive. Trauma can take on many different forms. Some may be a one-time event, which we call “acute,” while others may happen repeatedly, even over the course of years, which we call “complex.”

While I have seen several clients who meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I do not view this as a “disorder,” but rather a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Trauma is disturbing. It can leave us feeling “crazy” and out of control of our own bodies. It can leave us feeling numb, no longer finding joy in activities that we once loved. It can cause many changes in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which may result in grief, as we miss “the old self.” Dr. Frank Ochberg said it best, “Just as a piece of shrapnel goes through the lungs, the liver, and the kidney, so trauma goes through your work life, sense of self, important relationships, your faith, and your reason for living.” It is my passion to help people pursue healing from their traumatic experiences through a mind-body approach. We do this by not only exploring cognitions but also identifying practical ways to regulate the nervous system. For example, movement (yoga, running/walking, dancing, etc.), sunshine and nature, cold water immersion, time with family and friends, writing, prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing are just some positive ways to reduce stress and regulate the nervous system.

We must keep in mind that healing looks different for everyone, and it doesn’t happen overnight. My genuine desire is for people to know that their trauma is valid. Even if you tell yourself “It happened a long time ago,” “No one knows about it,” or “Others had it worse,” your trauma is still valid, and your healing is worth the effort.

 

By Clare Barco