There’s more to understanding how trauma affects the brain than most people realize. It’s not simply the matter of knowing the cause of the trauma and how the person suffering from it copes. There are also several far-reaching aspects at hand that need to be fully grasped to help those in need.
The best place to start is to ask questions that can let you delve deeper into the condition. For instance, you can seek answers to the following questions of how trauma affects behavior: “how does trauma affect social and emotional development, and how does trauma affect relationships?” By reflecting on the implications of trauma, the condition can further reveal the sheer scope of the problem, necessitating not just compassion but the determination to seek proper treatment.
However, dealing with trauma doesn’t end there. You also need to learn about the various ways it can be treated. There are online sources that discuss many of these ways, such as guardsdown.com, which focuses on treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complicated grief in veterans.
But in this article, we’ll primarily focus on trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). This is one of the most effective types of treatment for trauma-based disorders, particularly in adolescents and children.
Sadly, many people suffer from trauma-based disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, millions of individuals suffer from anxiety, PTSD, and other similar conditions in the U.S. every year. If these individuals don’t get the help they need, they could all develop severe health conditions, making matters worse for them and for their families.
What Is Psychological Trauma
Psychological trauma refers to the emotional and psychological response a person has to a particular experience or event that has deeply disturbed or distressed them.
Common responses to traumatic experiences or events
The most common responses to a traumatic event are as follows:
- Shock, disbelief, or denial
- Confusion or having difficulty concentrating
- Anxiety and fear
- Anger, irritability, and mood swings
- Guilt, shame, and self-blame
- Withdrawal from others
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Numbness or feeling disconnected
Examples of traumatic experiences or events
These are some of the conditions and experiences that can trigger distress and trauma:
- Domestic or family violence
- Assault during a date by the person you went out with
- Community violence (e.g., burglary, mugging, shooting, assault, bullying)
- Sexual, physical, or psychological abuse
- Serious injuries (e.g., injury from a dog attack, third-degree burn)
- Serious accident (e.g., car accident)
- Major surgeries or life-threatening illnesses (e.g., cancer)
- The sudden or violent death of a loved one
- Natural disasters (e.g., flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake)
- War or political violence (e.g., terrorism, civil war, becoming a refugee)
How Trauma Affects the Brain
In essence, trauma can affect four major parts of the brain:
- Hippocampus – This section plays a major role in learning and memory
- Amygdala – This area controls your ability to feel certain emotions and perceive them in others
- The prefrontal cortex – This part enables you to focus, predict the consequences of your actions, anticipate events in your environment, control your impulses, manage your emotional reactions, and plan for the future
- The brain stem – This region regulates heart rate, breathing, eating, and sleeping
Since trauma has an adverse effect on these areas of the brain, those with the condition have more than a few behavioral, psychological, and mental issues, such as:
- Difficulty in learning, memorizing, focusing, solving problems, and feeling present
- Hyperactive amygdala
- Abnormal fight-or-flight responses
How Is Trauma Related to PTSD
If a traumatic experience or event is extremely stressful, it can cause PTSD to occur.
Most people have had or will have a traumatic experience in their lifetime. But that doesn’t mean they’ll all be affected in the same way. Some will be able to recover, while some will have a more difficult time in doing so. The latter will have to endure the symptoms of their trauma until they seek or receive professional help.
The symptoms that come with these conditions are no laughing matter. In the case of people who suffer from PTSD, these include depression, anxiety, disturbing flashbacks of the traumatic experience or event, feeling scared even when there’s no actual danger, and suicidal tendencies.
Using Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) in Overcoming the Stress
TF-CBT is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) used to address the emotional and mental health needs of trauma and PTSD patients who are struggling to overcome the destructive psychological effects that certain traumatic events had on their lives.
Psychoeducation is the first step of CBT, during which patients are empowered to understand their trauma and are taught all about the treatment process. They undergo an initial assessment and are provided with critical information, such as:
- Impact of their trauma on them and their families
- Their diagnosis and treatment plan
- The nature of their diagnosis/symptoms
- Other information that can help their situation, like statistics on how many people have experienced the same type of trauma
For children who are suffering from trauma, their parents will undergo sessions where they receive interventions aimed at optimizing their parenting skills. The goal is to either help them gain adequate parenting skills if they lack them or change any potentially harmful parenting habits they might have, especially if these have something to do with the development of the child’s trauma. An example of an unfavorable parental habit is being overly protective.
Teaching patients relaxation skills enables them to soothe themselves whenever they feel stressed. These include deep breathing, yoga, listening to music, sports, meditation, and praying.
These skills are taught to patients who’ve been so traumatized, that they can no longer express themselves or function normally. Such skills include social and problem-solving skills. They are usually taught through specific types of games.
Cognitive coping skills
These skills enable patients to analyze their thoughts and feelings about their trauma in a positive way or replace them with helpful ones.
Trauma narrative development and cognitive processing of the
Once the patients have gained all the skills they need to deal with their trauma, they will be asked to develop a narrative of it. It can be a poem, a song, or a book.
These narratives help them to:
- Stop avoiding their traumatic memories
- Identify their cognitive distortions or any negative or inaccurate thoughts about their trauma that they habitually experience
- Gain a better outlook on life despite living with trauma
In vivo mastery of trauma reminders
In the case of patients who have developed a general avoidance of the things that remind them of their trauma, this component is administered. For example, there is a story of a young woman who was raped in a bathroom and now refuses to go to school to avoid the bathrooms on campus. During this therapy, she would be taught not to associate public bathrooms with her traumatic experience and to not be afraid of them through gradual exposure.
Joint child-parent sessions
For children, these sessions are essentially important, as this is where they get the chance to talk to their parents about the traumatic experience or event they experienced with a knowledgeable professional. This ensures all the people involved understand the situation and help each other overcome it.
Benefits of TF-CBT
First and foremost, as we already mentioned, TF-CBT is specifically tailored to meet the needs of individuals suffering from trauma and their families or loved ones. Since both patients and loved ones are involved, they’ll be able to process their emotions and thoughts about their trauma much better than if they tried individually.
Also, as TF-CBT is mostly a type of treatment based on learning new skills, it lets the patients and their loved ones continually hone those skills, ensuring they’re executed in the best way possible.
TF-CBT has a number of goals. The main ones are to:
- Improve the patients’ symptoms, behavioral problems, and adaptive functioning
- Increase patient support
- Reduce distress on the part of the family or loved ones
- Reduce the shame and embarrassment patients feel about their trauma
- Enhance the communication and attachment between the patients and their loved ones, as well as their ability to keep each other safe
How effective is TF-CBT
Without a doubt, TF-CBT has proven itself to be an effective treatment method for PTSD and other trauma-based disorders.
For example, after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, numerous individuals were diagnosed with PTSD. Through TF-CBT, not only did they all receive the level of care they needed, but their symptoms were also successfully alleviated in the span of six months.
Get Therapy from Specialists
You’d think you could get over your trauma all by yourself—being strong, independent, and holding yourself up for others. But, the fact of the matter is, your misguided notion will only prevent you from getting the help you need.
Therapists have spent years studying, practicing, and honing their craft. There’s no question they know what they’re doing to provide you with customized help you need to deal with your pain.
If worse comes to worst, you could end up self-medicating in a way that only compounds your condition—putting yourself in an even more precarious situation. So, don’t hesitate to seek help from specialists that can provide you with many alternative treatments.
Not many understand how trauma affects the brain, but feelings of prolonged stress and shock can indeed change the way the brain processes the stimuli of our internal and external world. This can prevent individuals with trauma from leading productive lives by constantly coping with the present. By understanding trauma and the many options available for treatment, those who are suffering can find salvation at the throes of such a struggle.
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