What do traumatic experiences do to the human nervous system?

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Everyone who has experienced trauma is aware of how negative its impact can be on our overall physical and psychological well-being. But did you know that it can also significantly impact the human nervous system for the long-term?

The truth is that when people go through a trauma, the nervous system adjusts out of a need to survive. Trauma changes the way we think, feel, and perceive the world around us. As a result, we often move into survival mode and try to defend ourselves from external stressors. It’s called a “fight or flight” response to trauma — a physiological reaction that expresses how humans react to stress. And the same happens with trauma, except that the nervous system can continually respond to an actual or perceived threat for years afterwards.

However, traumatic experiences have a huge neurological impact on our minds. In particular, there is a significant link between experiencing trauma and the functioning of the human nervous system.

In this article, we’ll discuss what traumatic experiences do to the human nervous system and how Trauma-Informed counseling can help you on the road to recovery.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

Traumatic experiences are usually accompanied by plenty of psychological symptoms, such as chronic stress, heightened sensations, flashbacks, and nightmares. In addition,individuals diagnosed with PTSD have higher levels of cortisol and experience excessive stress long after a traumatic event is over (Stoppelbein et al., 2012).

Research has shown that beyond its implications upon our mental health, trauma also leads to some physical changes and has a significant impact on brain functioning.

According to a study published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, traumatic experiences affect the brain’s functions in several ways (Bremner, 2006). Specifically, traumatic experiences may change the functions of three areas of the brain:

  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus
  • Prefrontal cortex

All of these brain sections play a part in responding to fear and regulating emotions. It turns out that these brain areas can dramatically change after an individual experiences trauma. This means that trauma or PTSD can result in changes in the brain and even long-term nervous system functioning.

Trauma can also lead to other conditions such as chronic stress, increasing irritation, and excessive fear.

The Link Between Trauma & Human Nervous System

Generally, people who have experienced more trauma have higher rates of neurological problems. Researchers explain this link with the significant implication that trauma has upon the human nervous system.

In fact, trauma significantly affects the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It’s a part of the human nervous system that tries to relax the body after an individual experiences stress or danger. PNS slows down the heart rate and increases the activity of glands and intestines in order to save the body’s energy. Therefore, PNS is activated after regular stressful events or  traumatic experiences.

This is directly related to the concept we mentioned previously— the “fight and/or flight” response to trauma.

A fight-or-flight response is a natural reaction of the human nervous system to an acute threat. The purpose of this recital is to prepare the body to react and overcome the stressor, get rid of it, defend againstot or get away. This reaction is accompanied by several physiological changes. For instance, it leads to an increased heart rate, sharpened sensations, and a decrease in digestive activity.

Freeze-or-fawn is another response of the human body to traumatic experiences. While fight and flight are considered adaptive mechanisms to react to stress, “to freeze” is the inability to move your body and fight against a threat. On the other hand, “to fawn” means to pacify the threat in order to keep yourself safe from it.

All these reactions are normal, but if the body continually is reacting to external threats or even internal fear— over time this situation might even lead to dysfunction or impaired nervous system functioning (chronic over or under functioning). The reason is that traumatic events may cause the nervous system to get stuck in a state of constant readiness (or hypervigilance).

After experiencing multiple stressors or traumas, the PNS learns to get activated and use the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response to regulate itself. As a result, the nervous system may stay in a state of hyperarousal, which can be harmful in the long term (Kwon et al., 2021). In particular, a constant “mode” of arousal can lead to fatigue, decreased mood, and chronic anxiety.

The Nervous System & Trauma: How to Recover

Even though the constant arousal of the nervous system after experiencing trauma might lead to drastic consequences, it also plays a key role in the recovery process. Therefore, in order to recover from trauma, your body needs to have adaptive coping strategies and learn how to move in and out of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses— while attempting to find an internal balance in the system.

Generally, trauma pushes the nervous system to turn the “self-regulation” mode on, and that is normal. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to handle excessive stressors and adapt to traumatic experiences. However, the key here is to understand that the human body isn’t able to function well in a constant state of arousal. Therefore if we have the means and ability to become safe after a trauma, we need to learn to self- soothe or use coping skills so that our nervous system is well-regulated.

Here are some general tips to help your body recover after experiencing trauma and to maintain a balanced and regulated nervous system:

  • Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness activates our PNS by enhancing oxygen intake and regulating the breathing process. Besides, it can strengthen the areas of your brain that are responsible for memory, and attention and connect your basic physiological processes to your prefrontal cortex. As a result, you’ll be able to regulate your nervous system and deal with external stressors more effectively.
  • EMDR technique – Studies show that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an efficient way to heal from trauma (e.g., Rousseau et al., 2019). This type of therapy involves bilateral stimulation with your eyes, and this neutralizes the traumatic experience and helps your nervous system recalibrate away from a constant arousal state.

Effectiveness of Trauma-Informed Counseling for the Nervous System

Trauma-informed counseling is a specific approach for individuals who suffer from the consequences of trauma. Considering that changes within the human nervous system may be a serious consequence of traumatic experiences, it’s crucially important for your body and mind to find balance and heal.

A great solution for this is to get in touch with a professional counselor who understands the impacts of trauma on the human body and can help you learn how to regulate your nervous system after experiencing trauma or excessive stressors.

Licensed therapists at Health for Life Counseling in Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI, will help you identify the triggers, develop healthy coping strategies, and manage the symptoms of trauma to avoid further damage to your nervous system. Trauma-informed counseling in the West Michigan area involves research-backed strategies to address your unprocessed emotions and memories and heal from traumatic events in a safe environment.

Start your healing process now and schedule an appointment or meet our experienced practitioners online to take advantage of trauma-informed counseling at Health for Life Counseling.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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