According to the DSM-5, trauma is “any situation in which a person is exposed to scenes of actual or near death, serious physical injury, or sexual assault, either as a direct victim, relative of the victim, or witness. “.
On the other hand, for the ICD-11, it is “any exposure to a stressful situation presenting an exceptionally threatening or anxiety-provoking character likely to cause deep discomfort in the majority of people”.
But beyond definitions and technical conceptualization… How does psychological trauma affect the human brain? Let’s see
Understanding trauma and its effects
The best way to understand what a trauma is is to think of it as that experience which has represented a before and an after in our lives and which has the capacity to change our brain, affecting above all the regions which process emotions (the ‘amygdala), as in the regions that deal with memory (the hippocampus). It is therefore normal to see how people who have had traumatic experiences have affected attention, concentration, and memory.
To understand in a simple way what happens in our brain when we experience a traumatic situation, we can visualize the image of a library: everything is ordered until something happens that upsets everything. The trauma is dysfunctionally “archived”, in our “library”, retaining all information at a somatic and cognitive level with the same force and intensity that we experienced during this stressful event.
After this event, everything is turned upside down the new information we store will be based on this traumatic event, which has remained frozen in our brain. As a result, the brain can choose to dissociate in amnesic form or to constantly relive, in the form of nightmares, intrusions, what has happened to us.
At the somatic level, the person lives with a lot of anxiety and because the amygdala is hyperactivated, we see danger signals everywhere; causing us a lot of anxiety.
The person who has gone through abusive or abandoning relationships during childhood lives constantly behind the crystals of trauma, with a strong feeling of not understanding what is happening to them. His experiences generated negative cognitions and emotions, which are the basis of his self-concept and the way he sees the world, feeling lost, stuck and “trapped”.
The influence of trauma on brain function
Trauma significantly affects the development of brain maturation in childhood, modify and impair executive functions, memory, attention and concentration. Cognitive processes such as mentalization, among others, are also impaired. Cortisol levels also change.
Today we know that the brain has the capacity to heal, to heal its own “wounds”. The brain, like any other organ, tends to recover, so that with proper treatment, the brain can recover and heal. Dreams reflect this; during the deep sleep phase, the brain tends to organize all the information it receives. It’s his innate tendency to keep his facilities tidy and clean.
Intervention in therapy
The best treatment to cure these brain lesions is EMDR, a therapy originally designed for post-traumatic stress, which today applies to all traumatic situations, anxiety disorders, depression, bereavement, addictions, etc. . and that it is one of the most supported by scientific research, with countless publications.
EMDR it helps the brain reprocess the trauma and desensitize it, it helps to organize this event and unlock it so that it can be linked to other more functional and adaptive memory networks. The person overcomes what happened to him, he understands that it is part of his life, of his memory, but it does not determine his present. He comes to know which negative and distorted cognitions are the basis of his life, and can replace them with other more realistic and positive cognitions.
The past is overcome, it is something indisputable, we can go to the origin of what happened to us and heal all that has been damaged. We can, from our present, continue our life by understanding what has happened to us and by understanding ourselves.
Thanks to ever-expanding scientific research, everything we now know about the brain, and thanks to EMDR, we can overcome what has happened to us and live our lives to the fullest.