Trauma and It’s Effect on the Brain

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as an emotional reaction to an extreme event, such as a crime, accident, or natural disaster. [1] Some people experience devastating trauma in childhood, and it shapes the trajectory of their entire lives, from relationships with significant others to their ability to cope without abusing drugs or alcohol. Sometimes, the reaction to childhood trauma is significant enough that the person develops mental health disorders, including substance abuse disorder. Some people experience trauma as adults, cannot move past it, and develop post-traumatic stress disorder.  This guide looks at types of traumas, their short and long-term effects on the brain, and more:

Different Types of Trauma

Trauma can reshape the brain and affect a person’s life and reactions to others. Not all trauma is the same, and people deal with trauma in different ways. [2] Trauma profoundly affects a person, and there are changes to a person’s brain due to the trauma. When a person experiences trauma and fails to process it healthily, they can manifest the pain in ways that appear inappropriate to the outside world.  Trauma comes in many forms, such as:


Young children and teenagers who don’t fit into the standard expectations of their peers can experience bullying. This is especially true when the teen is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, where more than 50 percent of teens report bullying. [3] This bullying can be something like name-calling, or it can include physical violence. Some of this bullying is done in person, and cyberbullying has grown at an alarming rate as people feel more comfortable saying things online that they might not be comfortable saying in person.

Early Childhood Trauma

Early childhood trauma can include domestic violence within the home, the death of a parent or close relative that acted as a caregiver, or sexual molestation. In many cases, the person might not consciously remember the trauma, although it caused changes to their brain and the way they react to different situations. When the person was too young to remember the trauma, they may experience it during dreams and realize they have an issue due to their mental health disorder.

Natural Disasters

From tornadoes and wildfires to hurricanes, natural disasters strike with little notice, and nothing can be done to avoid them. Natural disasters can also include home fires. During a natural disaster, a person is filled with terror and a sense of inability to control the situation. 

This fear and terror can follow a person throughout their lives, especially if the disaster does significant damage. They’ll always be worried about another disaster striking and live in fear.

Medical Trauma

While not everyone who needs to go to the doctor experiences medical trauma, some people have significant medical issues. It might be a car accident that causes extensive damage or someone who has an accident and needs medical care. This can leave both physical scars and emotional ones. The trauma can be relived repeatedly or pop up at the worst time.

Physical Abuse

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 25 percent of women and one in seven men experience domestic violence. [4] This type of physical abuse sustained over months and years is sustained trauma. Almost 25 percent of children experience physical abuse or outright neglect during their childhood. While most children won’t remember abuse experienced at a young age, this abuse can color their future relationships and how they deal with their emotions, especially anger.

Verbal and Emotional Abuse

Many survivors of domestic abuse will tell you that verbal and emotional abuse is more traumatic than physical abuse. Gaslighting and name-calling can damage a person’s self-esteem and confidence. 

Someone who experiences this type of trauma will not only doubt themselves. They will have a hard time trusting others. Children, who experience this type of trauma, will experience mental health disorders associated with the abuse as they grow older.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can happen to anyone at any age. In the United States, every 68 seconds, someone becomes a victim of sexual violence. [5]  One in every six women experiences a sexual assault once in their life, and women between the ages of 12 and 34 are most likely to be assaulted. In America, around 25 percent of female children are sexually abused, while one in 12 male children are sexually assaulted. [6]

Participation in a War or Other Violent Conflict

For more than 20 years, the United States has been involved in the war against terrorism and other armed conflicts worldwide. Many of the men and women who serve their country return without processing the violence and trauma experienced during their service.  Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans experience PTSD and require therapy to return to their former lives. In contrast, others remain untreated and experience the issues accompanying untreated trauma, including separation from their families and homelessness. [7]

Witnessing a Violent Crime

From murder to an armed robbery, witnessing or being the victim of a violent crime produces trauma in the person who lives through the event. These events usually occur quickly instead of over a period of time, but they still leave lasting scars. The person feels intense fear during the event and a sense of powerlessness that can leave them traumatized. Some people work with a trauma counselor immediately to mitigate the effects of the trauma while others try to solider on without help.

Long-Term Impact of Trauma and How the Brain Changes Immediately After Trauma

Immediately after trauma occurs, the person might need medical attention, such as in cases of an accident or sexual or physical abuse. The person often moves forward, and the trauma is never discussed, and the changes in the person’s brain and thought patterns are never dealt with. 

This unresolved trauma can lead to mental health issues as time goes by. The person might experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or addiction. People around a person with unresolved trauma might only see reckless behavior or someone who is highly emotional. 

There are changes to the person’s brain when they undergo trauma, and this can drive inappropriate reactions and behaviors. To start with, the brain is a complex organ, and scientists still disagree about exactly how it works and affects a person’s actions. 

Trauma-induced changes to the brain can change how the person sees life, views their behaviors, and the intensity of their emotions. These changes can also lead to mental health disorders that require therapy or medication to help the person resume a more normal life. 

Some of the changes to a person’s brain after trauma include:

Trauma Triggers the Amygdala

After a trauma, future stress will activate the amygdala. This portion of the brain is small, and the shape resembles an almond. It’s believed that the amygdala is the area of the brain responsible for how a person processes emotions.

The fear response experiences the most significant change. The person may experience nightmares and have a heightened response in situations where someone who hasn’t experienced trauma wouldn’t respond with fear. An overactive amygdala can lead to problems sleeping, which can lead to other issues.

The amygdala can also create a disparity between understanding that trauma happened in the past and the person might experience it like it’s happening in the present. It can feel exactly like the trauma did the first time when the person is reminded of the trauma. 

A person with a triggered amygdala might feel like they’re constantly in danger. This can release feelings of constant fear or the person may feel the need to be continuously guarded against imagined threats. 

Some issues can include:

An overactive amygdala is one of the effects on the brain, but it isn’t the only one.

Decreases in the size of the Hippocampus

In the brain, it’s the hippocampus that retrieves and processes memories. It’s also the area of the brain that determines if something is a memory or events happening in the present.

With a smaller hippocampus, the person has trouble processing new memories, and the traumatic memories are pushed into the forefront of the person’s thoughts and actions. The person might be unable to create new memories that aren’t tainted by old traumas. 

When people find themselves in a situation or location that reminds them of the trauma, they’re more likely to feel abnormally high levels of stress and fear. It can also create feelings of panic. People living with a smaller hippocampus may find themselves constantly vigilant for dangers that aren’t there.

Lower the Function of the Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s center that solves problems, processes emotions, and reason, and digests new information and learning. The lower functioning of the prefrontal cortex can lead to inappropriate behavior and poor decisions. 

A prefrontal cortex that doesn’t function properly can cause problems with learning and decision-making. It can also leave the person struggling to think logically, which can increase the fear response in the person.

Long-Term Effects on the Brain Affects Daily Life

When a person experience changes to their brain due to trauma, it affects their daily lives. They may struggle to make decisions or act appropriately in new situations. The long-term effects might be subtle or create glaring issues, such as a substance abuse disorder. 

Some of the most common effects on daily life are:

A person may notice other ways trauma seeps into their daily life. It might be the inability to trust others or to think of themself as a good, worthy person. Many people who experience changes in their brains may realize that they aren’t acting the same as others in the same situation but cannot make changes or voice their concerns.

Mental Health Issues Caused by Trauma

Due to the changes in the brain and the memories of fear and terror, people who experience trauma during childhood or later are prone to experiencing mental health issues. Most of these mental health issues will require therapy, and the person might need to take steps to heal from the trauma before getting relief.

While these mental health disorders are the most commonly seen in patients with childhood traumas, it’s by no means a complete list. Anyone who experiences trauma needs to process it healthily to ensure that they heal and lead a more normal life.

Trauma Statistics

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it can be challenging to know precisely how many people have experienced trauma because it isn’t always reported. Many people experience trauma without mental health disorders, or they never seek any type of treatment. [8] It is easier to track people with PTSD than the number of people who experienced trauma. When it comes to PTSD, men are slightly more likely to experience it than women. [7] Six out of every ten men experience PTSD at some point in their lives, while only five out of 10 women do.  However, this means that more than half of all people experience debilitating trauma at some point in their lives. Working with the right treatment center can help a person heal.
how does trauma affect the brain pexels los muertos crew 8880105 Large No Matter What Recovery

Find Help for Trauma With No Matter What Recovery

When left untreated, trauma can shape a person’s life in unpleasant ways, and the person needs help to heal from the trauma and undo some of the changes made to the brain and their thought patterns. Some people might experience depression or anxiety, while others might struggle with substance abuse disorder. 

At No Matter What, we provide compassionate care and strive to work with patients who experienced childhood trauma to overcome the damage to their thought and behavioral patterns. We offer a variety of therapies to help a person heal from trauma and overcome addiction. 

Contact us today with any questions!


  1. American Psychological Association. (n.d.), Trauma. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Trauma and Violence. Retrieved from: https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence
  3. The Trevor Project. (October 2021). Bullying and Suicide Risk Among LGBTQ Youth. Retrieved from: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/research-briefs/bullying-and-suicide-risk-among-lgbtq-youth/
  4. Huecker, M., et al. (September 2022). Domestic Violence. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499891/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20CDC%2C%201,sexual%20violence%20during%20their%20lifetimes.
  5. RAINN. (n.d.). Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
  6. Centers for Disease Control. (n.d.). Fast Facts: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childsexualabuse/fastfact.html#:~:text=About%201%20in%204%20girls,States%20experience%20child%20sexual%20abuse.
  7. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). How Common is PTSD in Adults?. Retrieved from: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp#:~:text=Going%20through%20trauma%20is%20not,assault%20and%20child%20sexual%20abuse.
  8. National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Coping with Traumatic Events. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/coping-with-traumatic-events