Experts Explain How Trauma Can Affect Your Brain

From memory issues to heightened anxiety, here's everything you need to know.

We can all agree: it’s been a tough couple of years. While most have lost a loved one due to COVID-19, others have experienced other significant forms of trauma, such as the inability to see loved ones, the loss of a job, or racial injustices. But with all this compounded trauma, can it affect one’s brain? According to mental health experts, it can—and it’s called trauma brain.

To find out more about how emotional traumatic events can cause trauma brain, we talked to a few experts. Here’s what they had to say below.

What is trauma brain?

While people are more familiar with “traumatic brain injury” which comes from a physical injury to the brain, such as a car accident, trauma brain is a studied effect from experiencing an emotionally traumatic event (or events), such as grief, abuse, assault, relationship issues like infidelity, a breakup, or divorce, and other major stressors.

Trauma brain symptoms:

If you’ve experienced emotional trauma, some of the symptoms you may experience will be brain fog, which makes it hard to keep track of things that you otherwise would be able to remember in addition to other symptoms like fatigue and trouble sleeping.

Amy Stoeber, a psychologist, trainer, and consultant in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in trauma, says, “It’s really typical for individuals to have memory issues after experiencing any type of trauma. When we’re in a state of acute trauma, prolonged stress, or complex trauma, parts of our brain move into a fight, flight, faint, or freeze state. That means that all of our energy and resources go towards survival. While we might have memories of what felt scary, overwhelming, or triggering, other parts of our memory system might feel scattered or absent. That’s our brain doing its job to promote protection above all else. Often victims of trauma will have a hard time recalling memories or parts of memories.”

You might also have anxiety, which, when caused by events and not merely brain chemicals, is often formally diagnosed as an adjustment disorder. You might also have an increase in symptoms associated with previously diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder, depression, or other mental illnesses. Dr. Stoeber says, “Our brains can get hyper-triggered and sensitive to memories of trauma as well.” This might look like fear, hypervigilance, or trouble calming down. It might also look like irritability, rage, or feeling “stressed out.”

Some people with trauma have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD which can be brought on by one traumatic event or several, such as years of abuse. When it’s more long-term, some mental health professionals call it Complex PTSD. PTSD is different from brain fog in, which can be characterized by “flashbacks” or physical reactions to stimuli that remind you of your trauma. You might have a racing heart or other emotional or physical reactions, too.

Brain fog, PTSD, adjustment disorder, and an increase in mental illness symptoms all can be part of the “trauma brain.” You may have some of these issues post-trauma or just one or two. To sum up: you’re tired but wired, paying attention to everything but remembering nothing, angry and desperately seeking love and safety, and maybe having bodily panic symptoms. Basically, that’s too much for one person to deal with on their own.

No matter what you’re experiencing, know that it isn’t something to feel guilt or shame about. Dr. Stoeber says these feelings are a normal response to trauma. There are ways to get help and help your brain heal.

what is trauma brain

How to heal from brain trauma:

Dr. Stoeber says, “Some people are reluctant to reach out for help for the fear that talking about the trauma will make it worse, or they’re afraid to ask for help because they fear shame, vulnerability, and judgment from others.” The first step in getting help is asking for it. Dr. Stoeber says, “Working with a trauma-informed therapist can help someone process trauma in a safe, supportive environment.”

Keep your friends and trusted family close, though. Surround yourself with people who love you and with whom you can be yourself with. Dr. Stoeber says, “We know that being in safe, stable, nurturing relationships allows our brains to heal.” Whether it’s a significant other, family member, or friend, rely on your people and trust them with your feelings. They will be able to hold it and won’t make you feel bad for your trauma brain.

How quickly can your brain heal from trauma?

There’s no quick fix for trauma brain. Dr. Stoeber says, “The length depends on two things: safety and process. Once a person feels safe again, their brain can start to heal.” Identify your triggers and, if at all possible, remove yourself from your trauma. Get out of a bad relationship, cut out a toxic friend, and keep your stress low by only taking on what you can handle. Of course, trauma happens even if we’re surrounded by love and friendship, so do what you can and give yourself grace when bad things happen for no reason.

Dr. Stoeber says the “process” part of the healing has to do with how you process your trauma. Different things are going to work for different people, different brains, and different traumas. Some people need some combination of therapy, medication, meditation, exercise, and other tools. You may need to experiment to find what helps as you navigate this process.

Remember: You are not crazy. You are not damaged forever. You are not a bad person. You are traumatized and deserve love and help. Your brain changes from all the experiences in your life, not just the horrible ones. As hard as it is to go through trauma, as a result, you will have the ability to have more empathy for others and can learn from your experiences to live a happier, more peaceful, and fuller life.