How To Heal The Brain After Trauma

Trauma is all too common these days, unfortunately. Child abuse. Rape. Combat. Violence. Car accidents. Life.

Traumatic events can actually alter the structure and function of people’s brains resulting in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When remembering the trauma, often in vivid flashbacks, or reacting to everyday stressors in life, the brain of a person with PTSD actually functions differently, but it can reset itself.

What Trauma Looks Like In The Brain

When you experience trauma, your brain’s fear center, the amygdala, sounds the alarm, and your body instinctively responds almost immediately with a sequence of hormonal and physiological changes. Your brain isn’t busy preparing you to think about what’s going on. It’s getting you ready to run or do battle and ceases all non-essential body and mind processes. Your sympathetic nervous system floods the body with stress hormones and according to fMRI studies, parts of the brain shut down.

Ideally, when the immediate threat subsides, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and calms and restores the body. This process would reduce stress hormones and allow the brain to resume the top-down structure of control. However, some trauma survivors’ brains never fully shift from reactive back to responsive mode. Instead, their brains stay on alert, primed for threat with dysregulated activity.

Neuroanatomical studies have identified changes in brain structures of those with PTSD which can lead to depression, substance abuse, personality and other mental disorders, and health problems.

  • Overstimulated amygdala: The amygdala is responsible for survival-related threat identification, plus tagging memories with emotion. After trauma the amygdala can get caught in a highly alert loop in which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.
  • Underactive hippocampus: Research has shown that people with PTSD have smaller hippocampi. Because the hippocampus is crucial to storing and retrieving memories and distinguishing between past and present memories, people with PTSD can lose the ability to discriminate between past and present, resulting in flashbacks that seem real.
  • Ventromedial prefrontal cortex shrinkage – Due to this brain region shrinking, the ability to regulate emotions is reduced in people with PTSD. The smaller size results in fear, anxiety, and extreme stress responses when the brain is triggered – even by things not connected to the original trauma.
  • Ineffective variability: With PTSD, the hormones get out of whack and interfere with a body’s ability to regulate itself, and the sympathetic nervous system stays highly activated. For example, tests show cortisol levels to be lower than normal in some studies of patients with PTSD, however, corticotropin-releasing factor in cerebrospinal fluid is increased. This state leads to fatigue of the body and many of its systems, especially the adrenal.

Healing The Brain After Trauma

The good news is that the changes in the brain can be reversed. The amygdala can learn to relax again; the hippocampus can resume proper memory consolidation, and the nervous system can heal to flow between the reactive and restorative modes again.

Medications, hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, neurofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and other brain-related modalities — even virtual reality, ketamine, and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy) — have proven helpful in treating PTSD. The bottom line is that the mind has to reframe and release the trauma so that the brain can reset itself.

Recovery is a gradual process accomplished over time with successful methods of treatment being as varied as individual trauma survivors. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but evidence suggests that when people commit to a process of exploring and testing treatment options they can, reduce the effects of trauma and even eliminate symptoms of PTSD. Studies show therapies to be most effective when applied during the disorder’s critical first few months.

Somatic Therapy

Somatic experiencing has proven successful for treating trauma, resetting the brain and body, and recovering health. Somatic experiencing is a holistic therapy that studies the relationship between the mind and body regarding the psychological past. The goal of somatic therapy is to recognize and release physical tension that may remain in the body after trauma.

The counseling sessions typically involve the patient tracking his or her experience of sensations throughout the body. A somatic psychology session may include awareness of bodily sensations, dance, breathing techniques, voice work, physical exercise, movement, or healing touch.

In his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Dr. Peter Levine introduced somatic therapy in 1997. He tells of his observations of how animals in the wild dealt with and recovered from life-threatening situations. Levine explains that animals are routinely threatened in the wild, but are rarely left traumatized, because unlike humans, they naturally complete the cycle of shedding the residue of stress. Levine suggests that humans have the natural capacity to do this too, but often don’t allow it because we don’t know how or doing so would be viewed as socially inappropriate.  Emotions can be unblocked and trauma healed through awareness and physically shedding the energy of the traumatic event.

He teaches a Method of Somatic Experiencing Therapy for healing from trauma as follows:

  1. Create a sense of security. –  A person must feel secure to be able to stay present with the trauma related sensations within the body.
  2. Gently explore the sensations. – A person learns to tolerate the sensations while staying present.
  3. Become aware of the process of “pendulation”. – This is what Levine calls the fluid rhythm of expansion and contraction of sensations. When a person acknowledges this fluctuation, it doesn’t feel so threatening as they move through the process of resetting the nervous system.
  4. Practice “titration”. – Experience the smallest arousal of the nervous system possible while exploring the sensations and keep decreasing. Levine advises a person to “touch the edges” of the response to create increased stability, resilience, and tolerance resulting in a reorganization of the nervous system.
  5. Insert corrective experiences. – Replace the old ways of responding – panic and helpless “freeze” mode – with positive and empowering reactions. A person with PTSD still need the fear response but needs to turn it down.
  6. Discharge the residual energy from aroused states physically. – This frees energy for higher level brain functions and life preservation when really needed.
  7. Restore dynamic equilibrium and relaxed alertness. – This is restoring the nervous system back to a state of calm and allowing it to self-regulate again.
  8. Teach the mind and body to be present in the here and now. – Connect with the physical environment and reestablishing the capacity for social engagement and interaction.
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  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    Very informative. I love Somatic Experiencing therapy. I find it’s work much better for me than EMDR, which can be the case if you’re dealing with developmental trauma rather than shock trauma alone. I’m glad you’re getting the word out about this. Thank you, Debbie.

  2. I’ve never heard of any of these therapies Debbie. I’m always willing to learn something new…which I definitely have today. 🙂

    • Somatic therapy? I did some to heal from my brain injury trauma. I found it soothing and healing in a very primitive, instinctual way.

  3. This is interesting, Debbie and new to me as well. It is a relief to learn that people can heal and that changes in the brain can be reversed.

  4. I’ve been a long-time fan of EMDR and have seen how effective it can be in my own life and with the clients treated with it where I work. While I haven’t heard of Somatic Experiencing Therapy by that name, I’ve heard about similar processes, for example, the emotional releases that some people experience when practicing yoga. Our bodies hold our emotions. This is why so many physical ailments can be resolved with emotional healing. Debbic, thank you for getting this information out? I think far more people are dealing with PTSD than are clinically diagnosed.

    • I’m with you, Paige. I think there is so much more PTSD than diagnosed and even if it’s not called PTSD. I did not realize that it was probably a BIG part of my mental/emotional problems in the past until writing this.

    • I’m with you, Paige. I think there is so much more PTSD than diagnosed and even if it’s not called PTSD. I did not realize that it was probably a BIG part of my mental/emotional problems in the past until writing this.

  5. Wow for someone who had brain injuries at 16 like lucky to be Alive- coma for a a week- this is fascinating and the emotional part very interesting as it often comes up when i get stuck thanks

    • Wow! Suzie. Glad you have done as much healing work as you have. You don’t have to specifically do Somatic therapy to release the energy. I found that it can be done other ways too.

  6. Jeremy Landers Reply

    Thank you for this,

    I’ve previously used a similar self learned process to deal with developmental trauma. Comparatively my efforts were like cudgeling my mind back into health, so reading this has opened my eyes to a more nuanced, more effective way to apply the experiences and practices I’ve become familiar with.

    Since what I had endured is very uncommon it had been unrelatable, and so passed into memory and anecdoate without healing taking place. A recent article a friend shared was about someone else who had gone through what I experienced. Like oily rags over smoldering embers, it didn’t take much to reignite those old pains. I was surprised at how visceral and persistent this recollection has been, and how deeply it has effected my mental health. But after research here and elsewhere, I feel better equipped to walk the journey towards a more final healing.

    • I’m glad you found this useful, Jeremy and have found a way to effectively deal with your emotional trauma. We can heal and get better. All the best to you.

  7. Thanks alot. I really need that information. It’s hard to heal but I should try and not to give up. Also passing time is healing.

    • Glad to hear this provided hope to you. The brain is very resilient and can most definitely heal with time and support. Keep at it!

  8. I have brain damage from radiation. Lots of internal buzzing and dizziness.
    Seeing a naturopathic doc. Neurotransmitters totally messed up!
    Will I get better? On supplements for the neurotransmitters but I seem to be getting worse at night!

    • Robin, I can’t comment on your case specifically because I know nothing about it. However, I can tell you that healing a brain injury takes time – lots of it. It can be years depending on your injury. I healed the most, besides immediately right after, in my third year. I did all kinds of things to encourage continued healing though: neurofeedback, neuroplastically based exercise, cognitive and physical, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, acupuncture, brain training, etc… The brain is amazingly resilient and can heal years, even decades, after injury if supported and encouraged.

      I too, and most brain injury survivors will tell you, that you do get worse as the day goes on, you get further away from a good night’s sleep, and your brain gets tired. Don’t panic. Use it as your brain telling you what it needs to heal. Take naps during the day. Go to bed early. Take a yoga class. Meditate.

      I provide coaching for brain injury recovery if you’re interested.

      Keep at it. Your brain can heal.

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