Category Archives: PTSD

PTSD – How Trauma Affects Your Brain

Three Ways Trauma Affects Your Brain

We know that trauma affects the brain. Science has proven that. Yet, have you ever had someone say to you any of these things:

“PTSD isn’t real; it’s all in your head”

“Just get over it already!”

“Only veterans get PTSD”?

I speak all over the country about PTSD symptoms. Mostly, these audiences are comprised of civilians: survivors, caregivers and healing professionals. Sometimes, too, there are people who have no PTSD connection but have been invited to hear the presentation. Inevitably, whether it’s before the presentation has started or after it has finished, someone addresses me to say some variation of one of those three things (on a really awful day, all three!).

Why don’t people “get” what it means to struggle with PTSD?

Essential PTSD Information

As a PTSD survivor I hated those comments while I was in recovery. They made me feel powerless, invalidated, stupid, pathetic and as if people believed I was actually choosing to feel as miserable as I did.

3 important facts about how trauma affects the brain that every trauma and PTSD survivor should know.Now, as a healing professional I make it a point to educate everyone I meetabout what symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder are, where they come from and what can make them go away. A few years ago, I wrote 10 Tips for Understanding Someone with PTSD. It was meant to inform outsiders what it means to be on the inside.

Those ten things were my own ideas about why we behave the way we do and what we need while we’re working on coping. It occurs to me now there is even more basic information that we as survivors need to spread around.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

The science of PTSD, which we know now more than ever, should be shared with every trauma and PTSD survivor. So, today, three important facts about how trauma affects the brain that every survivor should know – and share with those who don’t understand:

Fact #1:

During trauma your amygdala (an almond-shaped mass located deep in your inner your brain) is responsible for emotions and actions motivated by survival needs. In threatening situations it:

  • increases your arousal and autonomic responses associated with fear
  • activates the release of stress hormones
  • engages your emotional response
  • decides what memories are stored and where they should be placed around the cortex
  • applies feeling, tone and emotional charge to memory (including the creation of ‘flashbulb memory’: when strong emotional content remains connected to a visceral experience of fear or threat.)

Your amygdala tunes to dominant experiences. The fear induced by trauma makes a deep imprint on your amygdala and hypersensitizes it to danger, which makes it seek out threat everywhere. In some PTSD cases, the amygdala has actually been shown to enlarge through excessive use. (In healing, this change often reverses.)

Fact #2:

Adjacent to the amygdala the hippocampus is responsible for the formation, organization, storage and retrieval of memories. Technically, it converts them from short-term to long-term, sending them to the appropriate parts of your outer brain for storage.

Trauma, however, hijacks this process: the hippocampus is prevented from transforming the memories and so those memories remain in an activated, short-term status. This stops the memories from being properly integrated so that their effects diminish. In some cases when the hippocampus’ function is suppressed it has been shown to shrink. (In healing this change often reverses, too.)

Fact #3

Lastly, the prefrontal cortex (located in the front, outer most layer of your brain) contributes two important elements of recall:

Your left frontal lobe specializes in storing memories of individual events; your right frontal lobe specializes in extracting a theme or main point from a series of events.

After trauma a few things can occur:

  • your lower brain processes responsible for instinct and emotion override the inhibitory strength of the cortex so that the cortex cannot properly stop inappropriate reactions or refocus your attention
  • blood flow to the left prefrontal lobe can decrease, so you have less ability for language, memory and other left lobe functions.
  • blood flow to your right prefrontal lobe can increase, so you experience more sorrow, sadness and anger

There are many reasons why we know PTSD is not “all in your head”, and why you can’t “just get over it”. With the three offered above I’m hoping we start a conversation around proof of what you and I know to be true: if PTSD were easy to heal from, you would have done it yesterday. Since it isn’t, respect must be paid and support given.

Michele is the author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your IdentityConnect with her on Google+LinkedInFacebookTwitter and her website,


Early Trauma Influences Behavior

Traumatic and stressful events during childhood increase the risk to develop psychiatric disorders, but to a certain extent, they can also help better deal with difficult situations later in life. Researchers have studied this phenomenon in mice to learn how these effects could be transmitted to the next generation.

Traumatic events leave their mark. People exposed to a traumatic experience early in life are more likely to be affected by illnesses such as borderline personality disorder or depression. However such experience can also have positive effects in certain circumstances. Thus, moderate stress in childhood may help a person develop strategies to better cope with stress in adulthood.

Further, it has long been recognised by psychologists and psychiatrists that the negative effects of trauma experienced by parents can be seen in their children, but the molecular mechanisms underlying such transmission are only beginning to be identified. A research team led by Isabelle Mansuy, Professor of Neuroepigenetics at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, has for the first time tested in mice the degree to which the beneficial effects of stress can be passed to following generations.

Flexible and goal-oriented in critical situations

The researchers subjected newborn male mice to traumatic stress by removing them from their mother at irregular and frequent intervals and by severely stressing the mothers in addition. They then used tests to analyse the behaviour of these pups when adult and their offspring in comparison to control mice not subjected to stress. They observed that the offspring of the stressed mice handled complex tasks more efficiently than the control group.

For example, one test revealed that the offspring of stressed fathers adapted better to changing rules on a task to earn a drink reward when they were thirsty. They reacted more flexibly. In another test, the mice had to poke their nose into a hole when prompted by a light signal but only after a pre-determined delay of 6, 12 or 18 seconds to get water. The stressed mice and their offspring performed the task better than the control mice at the long time interval of 18 seconds, which was especially challenging. This result was interpreted by the researchers as evidence for improved goal-oriented behaviour in difficult situations. Since the fathers were kept apart from their offspring and the mothers, the young animals cannot have learned this behaviour. Rather, they must have inherited it via molecular pathways in germ cells.

To determine how this behaviour is expressed and transmitted to the next generation, the researchers examined the activity of a gene, a mineralocorticoid receptor gene previously implicated in flexible behaviour. Mansuy’s team discovered that ‘epigenetic’ marks, which determine how much a gene is expressed, were altered on this gene, both in the brain and sperm of the stressed mice when adult. The altered marks were passed on to the next generation probably through the sperm, and may partly be responsible for the altered behaviour. The mineralocorticoid receptor in question binds signal messengers such as the stress hormone cortisone which initiates a signalling cascade in neurons.

Help in overcoming problems

“Our results show that environmental factors change behaviour and that these changes can be passed on to the next generation,” explains Mansuy. This finding — that not only a parent’s susceptibility to psychological disorders can be passed on to its offspring, but also its improved goal-oriented behaviour in difficult situations — might prove to be of value to the clinic. Doctors could help post-trauma patients suffering from depression to build on these sorts of strength. The implication of the mineralocorticoid receptor gene could also be a good starting point for potential future medical therapies.

“We are not in any way suggesting that early-childhood trauma is somehow positive,” says Mansuy. But she adds that her study on mice demonstrates how extreme stress can affect the brain and behaviour across generations — negatively, but also in some ways positively.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by ETH Zurich. The original article was written by Angelika Jacobs.

Journal Reference:

  1. Katharina Gapp, Saray Soldado-Magraner, María Alvarez-Sánchez, Johannes Bohacek, Gregoire Vernaz, Huan Shu, Tamara B. Franklin, David Wolfer, Isabelle M. Mansuy. Early life stress in fathers improves behavioural flexibility in their offspringNature Communications, 2014; 5: 5466 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6466
ETH Zurich. “How early trauma influences behavior.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 December 2014. <>.