What is the science behind emotional trauma?

Our brains are dazzling and complex. Yet, as fascinating as it might be, the human brain has many limitations, especially when dealing with high-level stress, such as trauma.

How trauma affects the brain

You might have heard about how trauma affects people exposed to profoundly shocking and disturbing events like war or natural disasters.

Post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD

Many articles and health care pamphlets list various symptoms of PTSD and assign such symptoms to the experience of traumatic exposure, all of which are accurate and helpful.

Indeed, exposure to traumatic events can induce trauma symptoms, sometimes referred to as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Living with trauma symptoms can be complex and challenging – you may not even be aware that you have PTSD, making the experience more daunting.

Help and support

If you think you might have post-traumatic stress disorder due to a traumatic event, you must understand the signs to look out for to seek help from a professional.

PTSD symptoms

Emotional Trauma Man in Mirror

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Problems with memory
  • Irritability
  • Anger or rage
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Trust issues
  • Problems with concentration, decision – making and learning

Lacking motivation

Another trauma symptom you might experience is physical exhaustion. There is so much going on inside your mind and body after a traumatic experience. Thus, your brain expends significant amounts of energy to protect you against further (perceived) external threats or danger.

You might feel empty, depleted, and as if you have nothing left to give – this experience can make it challenging to complete daily tasks, even the most menial!

High – alert

Inherently, after you experience a traumatic event, your brain remains ”switched on,” meaning that you might feel super sensitive and alert to any further danger. Such symptoms can be pervasive and frightening; you may find that you are startled by things that never affected you previously.

For example, loud banging from a car’s exhaust or crackling from a campfire that once felt innocuous sends your mind and body spiralling into anxiety and panic.

You cannot distinguish between a real threat or something utterly harmless because the brain cannot discern between past and present events.

Relationship issues

The above response can be instrumental if there is an evident threat to life; however, PTSD usually gets diagnosed in those who experience trauma symptoms despite an apparent lack of danger or threat to life.

People with PTSD may experience issues in their relationships and work due to trauma, and relationships may become strained.

How trauma changes the brain


Having a basic understanding of how trauma affects the brain can be helpful since you may be able to identify why your symptoms are there and the reason they manifest the way they do.

Trauma and the different parts of the brain

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean introduced the Triune Model in the 1960s to help people understand basic cognitive functioning.

MacLean’s model has been significantly helpful when examining how trauma changes the brain and how such alterations affect people.

According to MacLean, the brain gets divided into three parts, from basic to complex:

  • Reptilian Brain: This part of the brain manages autonomic bodily responses like survival instincts and basic needs such as hunger, breathing, heart rate, etc.
  • Mammalian Brain: The mammalian brain is responsible for processing emotions such as sadness, joy, or fear; it contains the limbic system and helps regulate reproduction and attachment.
  • Neomammalian Brain: This part of the brain takes care of learning, memory, sensory processing, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Fight or flight

When you experience a traumatic event – your brain goes through many processes designed to protect you. For example, after a tragic event, your brain moves into the ”lower” brain systems and shuts down other nonessential systems.

Release of stress hormones

Such a process signals the release of certain stress hormones into the body and activates your sympathetic nervous system. Your body goes into survival mode, thus preparing you for the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Like a computer, your body goes ”off-line” when something traumatic happens, but once the event passes, the parasympathetic nervous system reactivates and returns online.

The above process is critical since it allows your brain to resume ordinary function, allowing you time to decompress and process what has happened.

When the brain remains ”switched on.”

However, for many, successful processing does not occur – meaning that the brain remains in survival mode long after a traumatic event subsides.

Many trauma specialists describe PTSD as the brain ”staying in survival mode”. Such a condition can make it difficult for people to relax and feel safe in their bodies.

The science behind emotional trauma

Emotional Trauma Brain Image

Understanding how PTSD develops can benefit trauma survivors; being aware of how trauma affects the brain may allow you to seek proper treatment and support.


Typically, studies into the brain show that the hippocampus is less active and smaller in those who have experienced trauma.

Such changes may cause issues with problem-solving and memory, the effect of this can be profound, and you may find it hard to distinguish between events that happened in the past and those that take place in the present.

You may experience increased alertness and have a strong emotional reaction to certain things.


The amygdala is part of the limbic system, a neural network that balances the various components of memory and emotion. The term amygdala derives from the Greek word amygdale, which means ”almond” referring to the almond-like structure of the amygdala.

Often referred to as the ”fire alarm” in the brain, your amygdala sends you into fight or flight mode once it senses danger. Like the hippocampus, your amygdala cannot differentiate between a threat from the past and the present.

When you get triggered by something, you respond as if you are experiencing a traumatic event again or for the first time. Many trauma survivors feel jumpy, on edge, or alert and experience significant anxiety and stress much of the time.

Prefrontal cortex

Research shows that trauma survivors’ prefrontal cortex is less active or slower than those without trauma histories. The prefrontal cortex is located at the back of the brain and is the logical, rational part of the brain.

Many people with trauma histories might struggle with rational thinking and find it hard to control their fear response.

Nervous system

People with trauma histories typically have a lower window of tolerance than those with no such background. It may sound counter-intuitive since many might think that the more exposure you have to tragedy, the more robust you become – however, the process tends to work in reverse.

Trauma survivors tend to get triggered by smaller events or have a specific trauma – response that is entirely different from those without trauma histories.

Essentially, when the nervous system is overwhelmed, it can significantly shrink a person’s window of tolerance, meaning they have a limited reserve for stress.

Treatment approaches

Various trauma therapies operate on the belief that trauma and PTSD symptoms can get healed with the ”thinking” part of the brain. Therefore, talk therapies get recommended for those with PTSD symptoms.

Talking through a traumatic event allows a person to make sense of their past and desensitise them to the profound intensity of what occurred. However, recent research shows that although talk therapy has its uses in trauma treatment, it does not address the sensory responses in the body.

Addressing the trauma

Much fascinating insight shows that talk therapy can be helpful at times. However, talk therapies tend to engage parts of the brain that are ”off-line,” and therefore, it is impossible to resolve the trauma when people are in profound distress.

Effects of trauma

Leading psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk explains that:

”Talk therapy works when the brain is online and functioning, but when the traumatic memory hijacks the brain’s rational part, people may not hear words or reasoning or make meaning out of events or experiences.”

Van Der Kolk further explains that when the deeper parts of the brain are in a significant state of distress, survivors are back in the trauma and their brain and body seem to be in a time warp.

In recovery, the key is to take action – words cannot substitute for action. Hence, interactive therapies, such as EMDR, can be helpful as this therapy brings an action to the body and brain.

EMDR – eye movement desensitisation reprocessing

EMDR involves bilateral stimulation or side – to side eye movements to engage both sides of the brain. Such movements allow the traumatic memory that looms in the emotional part of the brain to integrate with the cognitive side.

One of EMDR’s main objectives is to get the prefrontal cortex back ”online” through eye and brain movements to make sense or find rationality in disturbing or traumatic events. Inherently, the effects of trauma operate scientifically. Therefore, treatment measures must speak to the brain and body.

Other effective trauma treatments

Emotional Trauma Wellness Illness

Other effective trauma treatments include:

Looking to the future

Trauma can induce many unpleasant symptoms that can turn a person’s life upside down. But there is a way out of trauma, and healing is possible.

Education and trauma – awareness are vital to understanding what types of treatments are available and how best to manage your symptoms.

If you think you have any PTSD symptoms mentioned in this article, you must contact a specialist at Camino Recovery who can help.

Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

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