Monday, November 4, 2013

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Today I thought I’d talk about something that affects many people, those of us with BPD and those of us without it. In the past I railed against the idea of my PTSD diagnosis due to the sexual trauma and abuse I’ve experienced, but the more we talk about it the more it makes sense. Especially in the sense that I keep having dreams, flashing thoughts, and inescapable sadness and depressions brought on by triggering episodes related to those incidents. It’s something I’m slowly coming to grips with. Trauma is a terrible experience for anyone. Trauma for someone that is already hypersensitized to emotions and the experiences they face can be exponentially worse. It feels like a punishment. As if the event itself wasn’t bad enough, but not being able to let go of certain events, situations, things people have said to you… having a mind that constantly throws them to the foreground of your thoughts. It often feels like I’m constantly being punished by my past, unable to escape it.

Many if not most, people with BPD have a history of trauma of one kind or another. What's more, things that most people don't feel to be traumatic, we often do, they're amplified due to our highly perceptive natures. 

So I thought I would share this article on How Trauma Affects the Brain. It’s not just you. It’s not just that you aren’t able to let go or move on. Your brain is physically holding on to certain things.

Posted on October 23, 2013 by Michele Rosenthal

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 actuallychoosing to feel as miserable as I did.

Now, as a healing professional, I make it a point to educate everyone I meet about what symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder are, where they come from and what can make them go away.

I don’t think most people intend to be unkind or dismissive when they say the things. We, as survivors, hear them as hurtful. I think they really just don’t get PTSD, or what it means to live with it. 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.

3 Facts on How Trauma Affects the Brain

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: The science of PTSD, which we know now more than ever. 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.  (I suspect this is why it's harder to focus on happier things) 
  • 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 can 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.


  1. Hi,

    I'm reading a lot about this at the moment. Especially how early attachments have an impact on whether or not people develop PTSD. As we know that the majority of people who experience a traumatic event do not go on to develop PTSD.


  2. I have a question that I'm hoping you can answer. I've read in a million places that borderlines have a fear of abandonment. What I don't get then, is why they are the ones who sometimes do the abandoning. That's what happened to me. I also know that borderlines tend to idealize and then devalue people. Once a person is devalued, the borderline doesn't want to be with them anymore. What if that person then goes online to read about BPD and reads that the person with BPD fears abandonment and may be taking a pre-emptive strike to abandon someone before they can be abandoned and so that person decides to try to stay with the BPD person no matter how much the person with BPD says "I hate you. I don't want to be with you. Go away!"

    See how that can be confusing? How do you know if they are just testing you to see if you will stay or go or if they really honestly want you gone?

    In my case, I was definitely idealized big time and then devalued. I was seduced for 3 months straight, slept with her twice, and then she completely ignored me and treated me like a stranger without any explanation at all. That, of course, made me angry because I felt like it had all been a trick to get me into bed and that she never really liked me at all. I told her how upset this made me and then, since she was my boss at work, she attempted to get me fired. I ended up quitting instead. Anyway, do borderlines really want people to stay with them no matter how much the borderline tries to push them away or are they, like in this case, seriously done with you forever?

    What if you want to try to prove to someone with BPD that you won't ever abandon them but they abandon you instead? Do you go away when they say to or assume they don't really mean it?

  3. Same person from previous post . . . I also wanted to mention that we're both female and she knew I was in love with her because I told her so.

  4. This one is so dramatic... If so than you have to solve this problem with them. You are just out the topic. And it’s your mistake you are thinking like. You just changed up the meaning of borderline.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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