Trauma and the Brain
Throughout our lives, the brain has the amazing ability to change itself. From conception to old age, our brains are continuously reorganizing their functions, connections, and neural pathways. This process, known as neuroplasticity, is what allows us to grow, learn, and adapt to our environments. In the right circumstances, our brains can flourish.
Negative events, however, such as abuse, neglect, and other forms of trauma, can also alter the structure of the brain and can take a toll on neuroplasticity. Not only does this negative plasticity cause parts of the brain to shrink, but it also leaves trauma survivors struggling with chronic anxiety, depression, and a host of other emotional and cognitive impairments.
Does this automatically mean that trauma leads to a lifetime of suffering? Not necessarily. Just as negative experiences have the power to alter the brain, so do positive ones.
Psychotherapy can be a very powerful tool in the facilitation of positive plasticity, and is helpful for a variety of symptoms and disorders, such as depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Another intervention is as simple as taking a walk. In fact, taking a brisk walk in a safe and interesting place actually exercises the brain, allowing survivors to work through traumatic memories.
Just as physical exercise can help to build muscle, mental exercises can boost brain growth. For example, the present-centered form of meditation known as “mindfulness” can help with positive plasticity.
There is evidence that some medications can have a positive impact on plasticity, helping to reverse the damage caused by trauma.
From medication to meditation, there is hope for trauma survivors. By having an understanding of how plasticity affects our brains, both negatively and positively, we can gain better insight into the devastation caused by trauma – and the miracle of the brain’s ability to bring us back.