How Trauma Can Affect the Brain

Research has shown that experiencing trauma can have significant effects on the brain, including how it takes in and processes information. These effects may also cause us to react in a certain way during the event, or hold onto memories in a different way, which can last days, weeks and even years after the event. These effects may be confusing, especially if it’s unlike your usual character or behavior.

Why didn’t I fight back? 

In traumatic situations, the part of the brain that retains memory and several fundamental processes may be inhibited. When this occurs, survival instincts take over and you have no control over these reactions. These reflexes are often referred to as “flight, freeze, or fight” reactions. That can mean that the brain’s reaction to the trauma causes a “shut down” in the body making it difficult to move or talk during the experience.

Why Can’t I Remember Everything?

In moments when the brain is in ‘survival mode’, you may recall certain small details about the event with vivid clarity, like a certain scent, but may not be able to remember everything that happened. Not being able to recall many details may be incredibly frustrating, and you may fear that you will not be believed because you cannot recount the event. However, this can be normal after experiencing a traumatic event, due to how the brain reacts during a trauma.

Why can’t I get over it?

There are many reasons why it is hard to forget a traumatic experience. The body stores traumatic memories differently sometimes for protection and they are often hard to ignore.

Events in your everyday life can sometimes have an effect on how well you cope after trauma. Fairly ordinary experiences, like a particular smell of tone of voice, can cause someone to recall a traumatic event. These are called triggers because your sensory perception may trigger an unexpected reaction. These responses are normal.

Why am I drinking, using drugs, or self-harming? 

Whenever the brain is having unwanted and unpleasant experiences, it will naturally try to seek relief and escape from those experiences. There is actually a ‘seeking circuitry’ of the brain that usually seeks things that are healthy and fulfilling, but, it can also seek ‘quick fixes’ that are unhealthy and potentially addictive. When people are hurting, and they don’t have or can’t make use of support from others or other healthy coping mechanisms, their seeking circuitry can get caught up in using a number of potentially unhealthy ways to get relief, such as:

  • Drinking/using harmful substances excessively
  • Overeating
  • Overexercising
  • Self-harming or self-injury
  • High-risk sexual behavior (e.g., unprotected sex, multiple partners)
  • Compulsive shopping or gambling

It is important not to judge or shame someone who may be exhibiting these behaviors as they may be the only things that are effectively providing them with relief. Instead, help them get connected with support that can assist them with identifying healthy coping skills. Safe Helpline staff are available, or you find local resources here.

To learn more about the effects of sexual assault, click here
To learn more about building resiliency after sexual assault, click here

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