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Trauma Brain Explained: The Neuroscience of Trauma

We often discuss feelings, cultural practices, and relationships in trauma-informed systems change—but don’t let that fool you. Trauma is a science, and our emotional experiences can have lasting physiological and neurological impacts.


An illustration of a neuron in the brain, firing

In the realm of trauma-informed care and systems change, understanding the close connection between trauma and the brain is pivotal. Whether you work with populations who are at a high-risk of exposure to trauma or you yourself are healing from your trauma (or maybe both are true), having a basic knowledge of brain science and knowing what part of the brain is affected by trauma will serve you and those around you.


So today, we’re going to unravel how trauma can rewire the brain and how you can conceptualize these changes in an easy way that helps you work with your brain instead of against it.


Can Trauma Rewire Your Brain?

The short answer is yes. Trauma can and does rewire the brain. But don’t fall into despair—although the idea that trauma can rewire the brain can be daunting, the flip side of this concept is the notion that we can re-rewire the brain.


Our brains have something called plasticity, which means that they adapt based on our experiences. This is true of both traumatic and healing experiences.

So, as we explore how trauma can rewire the brain, it’s important that we use our trauma-informed paradigm shift tool to resist the idea that trauma makes people broken, wrong, or bad.


Trauma happens, and it impacts us neurologically. This is why trauma is often the source of behaviors we might not understand—in ourselves and others—including addiction, emotional outbursts, avoidance, or attachment issues.


What Part of the Brain is Affected by Trauma?

In a 2006 study, Dr. JD Bremner found that “Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in [the brain, including] the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.”


Bremner also explores how the lasting effects trauma has on the brain include “long-term dysregulation of norepinephrine and Cortisol systems,” which are two important neurotransmitters that are responsible for our fight-flight-freeze-appease trauma response.


In the past 20 years, we’ve continued researching trauma, and an enormous amount of trauma research proves to us that trauma has very real, lasting consequences on the body and the mind.


Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma researcher and author, sheds more light on this idea in language that’s easier to understand for those without neuroscience backgrounds. In an interview, he says, “we know that the impact of trauma is upon the survival or animal part of the brain. That means that our automatic danger signals are disturbed, and we become hyper- or hypo-active: aroused or numbed out. We become like frightened animals.”


The Neurological Impact of Trauma: Understanding “Trauma Brain”

While the research continues, and we continue to learn more about the impact of trauma, we know enough to help us overcome it.


I teach every client I have about trauma brain, because it’s one of the most powerful tools we have for understanding the neurological impact of trauma in an accessible way.


Trauma Brain vs Executive Functioning Brain

Imagine you have two settings in your brain. One is trauma brain. Trauma brain is the setting we use when we are triggered, afraid, or feeling unsafe. It’s the setting we use for survival, and it enables us to make quick decisions without needing time to think. In emergency situations, trauma brain makes it possible for us to fight, flee, freeze, or appease in order to make it out alive.


The other setting we have is called executive functioning or executive functioning brain. When we have access to our executive functioning, decisions tend to take more time and careful planning. Rather than making decisions based on our emotions and choosing what we perceive as the safest choice, we rely on logic and reason.


And here’s the key point I want you to remember: these two states of mind cannot exist at the same time. Our brains must choose between the survival state of trauma brain or the rational state of executive functioning brain. And here’s the catch, trauma brain will win every time.


That’s why you can’t get through to someone in active trauma with logic or reason. What makes sense doesn’t make sense anymore when our brain is telling us our lives are in danger. The key to addressing trauma is establishing safety.



It’s important to remember that trauma brain is not a choice, and it’s not something that most people can simply “turn off.” However, there are evidence-based strategies we can use to disengage our trauma responses so we can begin to process our trauma.



Applying the Trauma Brain Model to Everyday Life

Of course, the trauma brain model is an overly simplified model when compared to the complex processes happening in our brains—but simple is best when you’re in active trauma. And this concept can help us identify when someone is in active trauma or flight-flight-freeze.


In training, I like to represent trauma brain and executive functioning brain like this.

Trauma brain lives in the back—so I will point to the back of my head at the base of my skull where it meets my spine.


Executive functioning brain lives in the front, behind my forehead—so, I will use all ten fingers to grasp my head around my hairline.


By incorporating physical movement like this, we can then make a statement to ourselves, “I want to get out of here and into here,” while pointing at my trauma brain and executive functioning brain, respectively. This makes it much easier to recognize trauma, escape trauma brain, and access our beloved logic, reasoning and emotional regulation skills.


Understanding trauma brain also helps us apply one of our most important tools: the trauma informed paradigm shift. When we understand that behavior is linked to trauma, we can see how some people spend a majority (if not all) of their time in active trauma.


We’ve all felt overwhelmed and had moments where we responded in ways we weren’t proud of. When trauma brain is in control, we aren’t ourselves—we’re just trying to survive the best we know how. And relating to others this way helps us approach them with the compassion and kindness they deserve.


It also enables us to see ourselves with compassion and kindness and resist falling into a cycle of shame and blame when we feel guilt, loss, or disappointment.


Final Thoughts: Trauma and the Brain

Understanding trauma brain is one of the foundational concepts that many of our other trauma-informed practices, key concepts, and tools are built upon.

If you want to learn more about how to implement a trauma-informed approach in your life, I encourage you to enroll in our live virtual professional development course, the Trauma-Informed Masterclass.


Many of our participants receive professional development funds from their employers to attend our courses, which are eligible for continuing education credits. If you’d like to take advantage of discounted group rates (available to groups with 5+ employees) or bring a private training event to your agency, please contact becca@chefaloconsulting.com.



 


Chefalo Consulting's Trauma-Informed Masterclass is a modified version of our Trauma-Informed Foundational Training, which has been adapted to fit the virtual mode of delivery and is available to the public.


The Foundational Training is highly engaging with a focus on participatory and collective learning. For more information about private events, contact us.



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