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How Trauma changes the Brain

Many victims of domestic violence not only experience physical or sexual trauma, but verbal and emotional trauma as well. Many times they ask themselves “Why am I feeling this way?” “Why am I reacting like this?” and “Why do I keep making the same mistakes?” The best way to address these questions is to educate victims of domestic violence and others on the impact trauma can have on the brain. Making sense of emotions can be a difficult task because we do not understand the complexity of the brain. Trauma is an injury. Emotional reactions are not just a response to traumatic events. Emotional responses in victims of trauma are the result of changes that occur in the brain.

Trauma causes disruption in the stress-hormone system. It creates chaos in the nervous system, which gets in the way of allowing individuals to process and integrate traumatic experiences into conscious mental frameworks. The traumatic experiences remain “stuck” in the non-verbal, non-conscious areas of the brain and are inaccessible to the frontal lobes, where thinking and reasoning take place. Victims of domestic violence may only see and feel their trauma or become numb to it.

Trauma has been shown to change people’s perceptions and imagination, which is critical to the existence of humans (Kolk, 2014). Our imagination allows us feel hopeful, to envision a better future and opportunities plus set goals. Without imagination, envisioning new opportunities may be limited. Victims of domestic violence may look at the world in a very different way from people that have not experienced trauma. Trauma reorganizes the mind and the way in which our brain manages perceptions.

Intense emotions activate the limbic system, in particular the amygdala, which is a small portion of the brain and functions as the emotional part. Brain scans have shown that the amygdala reacts in alarm when individuals are presented with trauma reminders (i.e. sounds, images), which then elicits responses from the nervous system to prepare for fight or flight (Kolk, 2014). In victims of trauma, there is also a disconnect between the left side of the brain (the cognitive side) and the right side (the emotional side). In essence, people who have not experienced trauma can access their body, emotions, and thoughts equally. Individuals who have been victims of trauma cannot. They may experience numerous thoughts about what happened, but experience no emotion. They may also experience great emotions related to the trauma without being able to access thoughts or memories (Burke, 2014).

After trauma, victims of domestic violence experience their world in a different manner.  Understanding the impact of trauma on the brain is essential to understanding the experience of victims of domestic violence and being empathetic.

References

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.

Theresa Burke (2014). How Trauma Impacts the Brain. www.rachelsvineyard.org

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About This Blog

Safe+Sound Somerset staff members author this blog to provoke conversations about the impact of domestic abuse in our society.

About This Blog

Safe+Sound Somerset staff members author this blog to provoke conversations about the impact of domestic abuse in our society.

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