What trauma does to your brain

Key players

To fully understand how neglectful or traumatic experiences affect human beings, we need to understand some things about our brains.

The key player is the limbic system, which is an intricate network of structures located in the brain beneath the cerebral cortex (the brain’s outer layer, composed of folded gray matter, which plays a vital role in consciousness). Composed of four main parts, the hypothalamus, the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus—the system controls our basic emotions (fear, pleasure, anger) and, as such, drives hunger, sex, and caring for children. It’s involved with instinct, mood, motivation, and emotional behavior.

The amygdala is a structure that’s part of this system. We have two amygdalae, one on either side of our brains. It’s considered the “emotional” brain because it’s highly involved with memory and the connected emotional responses.

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The amygdala’s job is to convert and move information out of short-term memory into long-term memory and to connect emotions to these memories (Krause-Utz et al. 2017).

Fight or Flight

Whenever we experience any traumatic episode, a hormone called adrenalin is released from our adrenal glands. This action causes a memory of the trauma to be created in our amygdala. The memory is not stored linearly like a story. Instead, it’s saved according to how our five senses experienced the trauma as it happened. So, the traumatic memories are stored as bits of visual images, smells, sounds, tastes, or physical contact. The amygdala then gives meaning and a particular degree of emotional intensity to this event.

If the amygdala is continually on high alert, overstimulated from adrenalin from a real or a perceived threat, our emotions won’t become self-regulated like they’re supposed to. When emotions aren’t self-regulated, we continue to respond to old, buried memories with an automatic, knee-jerk behavior called “triggering.” Triggering is caused when the brain has lost the ability to distinguish between something that is a threat and something that’s not. The amygdala misinterprets input from our senses, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and/or skin, as being dangerous or threatening, even when it’s not.

And if we continually live in this high-alert, fight or flight survival mode, we’ll likely begin using coping methods that aren’t good for us. We may lie, depend on drugs, overeat, steal, or do whatever it takes to help us cope with the unmanageable stress. 

Another essential structure within the limbic system is the horseshoe-shaped hippocampus.

The hippocampus also plays a role in moving information from short-term to long-term memory, but its job is cataloging memories for eventual storage and retrieval and developing new memories about past experiences.

The hippocampus is in charge of remembering locations for objects and people. When we remember that we left our keys on the kitchen counter, we’re using our hippocampus. We use the hippocampus for spatial memory, navigating, and orientation. Without it, we wouldn’t remember where the kitchen counter is or how to get there from where we are in relation. This is critical information about our surroundings, and we rely on it to find our way around.

The hippocampus continues to be the focus of research regarding cognition (understanding through thought, experience, and senses) and memory-retention in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Kolassa and  Elbert 2007).

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Differences between PTSD and C-PTSD

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) results from a series of trauma-causing events, or one prolonged event, whereas PTSD is usually related to a single traumatic event. This repeated exposure causes additional symptoms not experienced by people with PTSD. C-PTSD can be the result of narcissistic abuse because our very being, who we are at our core, is continually attacked or threatened when we’re in a relationship with a narcissist. Common symptoms of C-PTSD are flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, excessive startle reaction, and habitually thinking about the traumatic event (McClelland and Gilyard 2008).

Children who experience neglect or ongoing traumatic abuse are at risk for developing complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), depression, self-harming behaviors, and conditions like anxiety, conduct, attachment, eating, substance use, and other disorders. When these children become adults, they’ll be at risk for revictimization, and physical illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and immunological disorders. Research shows that women who’ve endured childhood abuse-related PTSD may also have altered brain structures, and their cognitive functioning may also be impaired as compared with women who were abused but not diagnosed with PTSD or women with no history of abuse. Abuse-related PTSD is associated with a reduced ability to focus and categorize information. When the attention and memory encoding activities of the limbic system are suspended due to real or perceived threats, verbal language ability may also become impaired (Ford 2017).

We learn our value as people as well as how to develop healthy, supportive relationships by interacting with our primary caretakers and family members. Kids who’ve been neglected or abused by a caretaker find it challenging to form a healthy attachment to them. If our caretaker was emotionally unstable, neglectful, or abusive, we might have learned that we can’t trust or depend on others to meet our needs. Studies indicate that children are more susceptible to stress and its related illnesses when they’re unable to create a healthy attachment to their caretaker. They may have difficulty interacting with authority figures like teachers and other adults. They struggle with managing and expressing their emotions, and they may react inappropriately or even aggressively in specific settings. Later in life, they may have difficulty sustaining romantic relationships and friendships.

Those of us who have experienced maternal narcissistic abuse may eventually find ourselves in an abusive, toxic, or less-than-satisfying adult relationship.

It’s not hard to see why. It makes sense: this person’s behavior and way of relating to us seem familiar, and we already know our role and what’s expected of us in the relationship.


Learn about codependency

Learn about adverse childhood experiences

Understand the Cycle of Abuse

Lemon Moms: Resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (Kindle, Audiobook and paperback format.)

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About the author

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Diane Metcalf earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1982 and a Master of Science in Information Technology in 2013.

She has held Social Worker, Counselor and Managerial Positions in the fields of Domestic Violence and Abuse, Geriatric Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Reproductive Health. She is an experienced Advocate and Speaker on the topics of Domestic Violence and Abuse and has been a guest on Lockport Community Television (LCTV), sharing her knowledge and experience regarding Domestic Abuse with the local community. In addition, she experienced Maternal Narcissistic Abuse and has been involved in other toxic relationships. She purposefully learned (and continues to learn) appropriate coping skills and strategies to live happily. She shares those insights here.

Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.

Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about emotional healing and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.

This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.


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