It is not uncommon to feel disorganised and derailed when you are feeling overwhelmed by traumatic events. But did you know that over the long term, trauma may change your brain in ways that affect your memory?

Recent research even shows the damage down to the dendrites and DNA.

Some of the most basic human connections are being understood through the lens of brain science, neuroscience, behavioural science and beyond, revealed in magnetic resonance imagining at institutes such as Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

Severe trauma in children, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACE), can leave children in near-constant fear and anxiety, always on the verge of fight-flight-or freeze mode, research shows. The result can be a constant release of stress hormones in the body, harmful enough to alter architecture in the developing brain. Similarly, for adults.

Memories of trauma are unique because of how our brain and bodies respond to threat.

Imagine facing extreme danger, such as being held at gunpoint. Right away, your heart rate increases. Your arteries constrict, directing more blood to your muscles, which tense up in preparation for a possible life-or-death struggle. Perspiration increases, to cool you down and improve gripping capability on palms and feet for added traction for escape. In some situations, when the threat is overwhelming, you may freeze and be unable to move.

Bodies respond automatically to threat.

Threat responses are often accompanied by a range of sensations and feelings. Senses may sharpen, contributing to amplified detection and response to threat. You may experience tingling or numbness in your limbs, as well as shortness of breath, chest pain, feelings of weakness, fainting or dizziness. Your thoughts may be racing or, conversely, you may experience a lack of thoughts and feel detached from reality. Terror, panic, helplessness, lack of control or chaos may take over.

These reactions are automatic and cannot be stopped once they are initiated.

How does the Brain respond to Danger?

Biological research over the past few decades has made significant progress in understanding how the brain responds to threat. Defense responses are controlled by neural systems that human beings have inherited from our distant evolutionary ancestors.

Studies show that the amygdala is critical for encoding and storing associations between harmful and neutral stimuli, and that stress hormones and mediators — such as cortisol and norepinephrine — play an important role in the formation of threat associations.

Two kinds of memories

Traumatic memories are intensely powerful and come in two varieties.

When people talk about memories, most of the time we refer to conscious or explicit memories. However, the brain is capable of encoding distinct memories in parallel for the same event — some of them explicit and some implicit or unconscious.

An experimental example of implicit memories is threat conditioning. In the lab, a harmful stimulus such as an electric shock, which triggers innate threat responses, is paired with a neutral stimulus, such as an image, sound or smell. The brain forms a strong association between the neutral stimulus and the threat response. Now this image, sound or smell acquires the ability to initiate automatic unconscious threat reactions — in the absence of the electric shock.

It is like Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they hear the dinner bell, but these conditioned threat responses are typically formed after a single pairing between the actual threatening or harmful stimulus and a neutral stimulus, and last for life. Not surprisingly, they support survival. For example, after getting burned on a hot stove, a child will likely steer clear of the stove in order to avoid the harmful heat and pain.

Researchers believe traumatic memories are a kind of conditioned threat response. For the survivor of a bike accident, the sight of a fast approaching truck resembling the one that crashed into them may cause the heart to race and skin to sweat. For the survivor of a sexual assault, the sight of the perpetrator or someone who looks similar may cause trembling, a feeling of hopelessness and an urge to hide, run away or fight. These responses are initiated regardless of whether they come with conscious recollections of trauma.

Healing from Emotional Trauma

Trauma disrupts your body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. There are several strategies to help people heal from emotional trauma.

One critical factor is the sense of safety. Retrieval of traumatic memories under safe conditions when levels of stress are relatively low and under control enables the individual to update or reorganise the trauma experience. It’s possible to link the trauma to other experiences and diminish its destructive impact. Psychologists call this post-traumatic growth.

Trauma recovery tips: Don’t isolate

Following a trauma, you may want to withdraw from others, but isolation only makes things worse. Connecting to others face to face will help you heal.

It’s okay to NOT be okay. While you don’t have to talk about the trauma itself, it is important that you have someone to share your feelings with face to face, someone who will listen attentively without judging you. Turn to a trusted family member, friend, counsellor, or seek professional medical expertise.

Join a support group for trauma survivors. Connecting with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce your sense of isolation and hearing how others cope can help guide you in your own recovery.

Get moving. As well as burning off adrenaline and releasing endorphins, exercise and movement can actually help repair your nervous system. Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs—such as walking, running, swimming, basketball or even dancing—works best.

Self-regulate your nervous system

No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it is important to know that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself. Not only will it help relieve the anxiety associated with trauma, but it will also engender a greater sense of control.

Add Mindfulness. Instead of focusing on your thoughts or distracting yourself while you exercise, really focus on your body and how it feels as you move. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of wind on your skin.

Mindful breathing. If you are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, practicing mindful breathing is a quick way to calm yourself. Simply take five deep breaths, focusing your attention on each ‘out’ breath. Acknowledge your feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them.

Staying grounded. To feel in the present and more grounded, sit on a chair. Feel your feet on the ground and your back against the chair. Look around you and pick three objects that have green or blue (or shades in between) in them. Notice how your breathing gets deeper and calmer.

Recovering from trauma takes time, and everyone heals at their own pace.

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