How Our Brains Respond to Trauma

In response to trauma, the brain changes in order to keep its host safe from danger. As educators, it’s crucial that we’re able to provide trauma-affected children with the skills they need to live happy and fruitful lives. The first step in understanding how we can help these children in our classrooms is by understanding what happens to traumatized brains. 

Chemically and structurally, the entire brain undergoes massive changes after a traumatic event which can dramatically alter the course of a person’s life when left uncared for. Among children, early childhood trauma has been linked with significant hormone level changes, immune system changes, neurological changes, and epigenetic changes. This blog post breaks down what happens in each part of trauma-affected brains and how we can recognize the symptoms in the children we teach.   

The Amygdala: Emotions, Survival Instincts, and Memory

You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” reflect that humans have—it determines whether we flee from perceived danger or stay and fight. This part of the brain is associated with emotional memories. Picture the time when you were a little kid and a loved one died, or a pet ran away—those memories are vivid because they are highly emotional. Your amygdala helps you recall those memories. 

When someone has experienced trauma, their amygdala becomes overactive. This results in increased difficulty regulating emotions and can “make a person more likely to react to triggers, especially emotional ones.” Minor triggers may set off someone’s fight or flight reflex, causing quite a bit of disruption in day-to-day life. This makes it incredibly hard for children (and adults) who have experienced trauma to relax, explore new activities beyond their normal comfort zone, or even find joy in their daily lives. 

Hippocampus: Learning and Memory

The hippocampus has been associated with being smaller in size among those who have undergone a traumatic event (or events). This is likely caused by too much of the hormone cortisol, which helps our bodies respond to traumatic events as they are happening. However, cortisol can damage or destroy cells in the hippocampus after prolonged exposure

Because the hippocampus is associated with learning and memory, a change in size and function to this part of the brain can disrupt the way we learn and remember information. Trauma can actually make it more difficult for children to form memories, and any situations that remind them of a traumatic event can lead to panic, fear, and other extreme reactions. 

Prefrontal Cortex: Regulating Emotions

The prefrontal cortex works hand in hand with the amygdala to regulate emotions. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for signaling to the amygdala whether a situation is safe or whether the fight or flight response is appropriate. Trauma makes it very difficult for children to regulate these reflexes and often feel anxious or overwhelmed in situations that are actually quite safe. 

How Can We Help Brains That Have Been Impacted by Trauma? 

Thankfully, changes to the brain caused by trauma are not permanent. Therapy, medications, and trauma-informed education can help children overcome traumatic experiences and flourish in life. We can help children impacted by trauma by giving them the education, love, and patience they deserve. 

Are you interested in becoming a trauma-informed educator? Strobel Ed’s course, Trauma-Informed Schools, will give you the key skills and knowledge you need to help all your students thrive. 

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