podcasts

From Hurt to Hope: How Traumatic Experiences Affect the Brain – Podcast

By Jason Clayden on February 1, 2023

Studies have shown that traumatic experiences can affect the brain in so many ways, even to the point of actually changing the brain. 

On this episode, Sarah Beadle, a clinician from one of our Columbus Ohio offices explains the major areas of the brain, what these areas look like when they’re functioning healthy and how trauma affects these areas. 

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Nicki Leanza:

Welcome to Convos from the Couch, by LifeStance Health, where leading mental health professionals help guide you on your journey to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Convos from the Couch by LifeStance Health. I’m Nicki Leanza, and on today’s episode, I’ll be talking with Sarah Beadle, a clinician from one of our Columbus Ohio offices, and we’ll be talking about how traumatic experiences affect the brain. So welcome, Sarah. Great to have you on.

Sarah Beadle:

Yeah, thanks so much, Nicki. I’m excited.

Nicki Leanza:

Yes. Oh, same here. I’m really glad we’re having this conversation today because studies show that traumatic experiences can really affect the brain in so many ways, even to the point of actually changing the brain. So I’m looking forward to you sharing your knowledge on this topic.

Sarah Beadle:

Yeah. Yeah.

Nicki Leanza:

So let’s dive in. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sarah Beadle:

Sure. So I originally grew up in northeast Ohio. So about where you are at right now is where I grew up.

Nicki Leanza:

Yeah. You got it.

Sarah Beadle:

And I moved to Columbus in order to go to the Ohio State University for school.

Nicki Leanza:

Love that you put the Ohio State University.

Sarah Beadle:

Of course.

Nicki Leanza:

Of course, right, got to put that there.

Sarah Beadle:

What kind of alumni would I be? But there I earned both a Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience as well as getting my Master’s Degree in Social Work. So when I was in that program at Ohio State, I started interning at what was formally Nemeth counseling, but that is now a branch of LifeStance Health in Hilliard, Ohio, and there I’ve been working for the past few years as a full-time outpatient therapist. In my work, I typically work with people who have experienced trauma and tend to specialize and have a real passion for working with teenagers and young adults. I guess about me outside of work, in my free time, I play volleyball twice a week.

Nicki Leanza:

Nice.

Sarah Beadle:

And I really just like to spend as much time with my friends and family as I can.

Nicki Leanza:

Which is very important for sure.

Sarah Beadle:

Yeah, so for sure.

Nicki Leanza:

And you got a great background of the neuroscience and the therapy kind of mixed together, as well as having the specialty in trauma. So my gosh, you got a good trifecta there going on. So how would you define trauma?

Sarah Beadle:

Yeah, I think trauma can be defined in a lot of different ways. It’s something that’s talked about a lot more, which is great. But generally trauma is a response to some type of negative event or experience. We know that there are three different types of trauma. There’s more acute trauma, which results from a single incident, something like being in an accident or something like that. Then there’s chronic trauma, which is more of a repeated and prolonged exposure, something like domestic violence or even being a part of a war.

And then lastly, there’s complex trauma, which is exposure to more varied, multiple traumatic events. These events are often more invasive, they’re more of a personal nature, something like child abuse or physical, emotional, sexual abuse, something like that. Really no matter what type of trauma, we immediately see symptoms such as shock and denial, those things are pretty typical. But more longer term, we see more of these emotional, behavioral, physical responses. Things like confusion, anger, fear, guilt and shame, symptoms of anxiety and depression, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, withdraw from friends and family, fatigue, insomnia, the list can continue. Lots of different symptoms that can be pretty debilitating for people who have experienced some of these negative events or things in their lives.

Nicki Leanza:

And since many of those symptoms relate back to affecting the brain, let’s have you tell us about three major areas of the brain?

Sarah Beadle:

Sure. I mean, I think in order to understand the brain, it’s important to understand that it’s really only part of a bigger network of neural connections, neural connections that are our brain and our spinal cord, nerve endings that go out to all of the muscles and different parts of our bodies. The brain’s only part of it. And that whole series of connections is the nervous system. Some things in the nervous system, some of those functions are autonomic or more automatic, things like breathing or our heart beating. I’m not sitting here talking to you telling my heart to beat, it’s just doing it. And then some things are more somatic, or voluntary, something like talking to you right now. My brain is queuing my lips and my lungs to do that. That’s more of the voluntary functions of our brains, and just our nervous system in general.

And then everything in our nervous system is made up of different types of electric and chemical signals that control everything that we do. So I think that’s important to understand, while when we see trauma, it is majorly the three areas of the brain that are impacted. Those three areas then impact the rest of our system in different ways. But to answer your question, those three areas are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex, or what is sometimes just referred to as the PFC. And we know that it’s these three areas because studies on doing brain imaging, things like functional MRIs, have shown that there’s a difference in these areas in people that have experienced trauma or have some of these trauma symptoms versus people who haven’t or don’t have those symptoms.

Nicki Leanza:

So what do these areas look like when they’re functioning healthy?

Sarah Beadle:

So the amygdala is responsible for our survival response in our body. It is the area of our brain and of our nervous system that senses danger. And when it senses danger, it signals our brain to pump stress hormones, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. And again, this activates that survival response. That survival response is made up of what we call the four Fs, which is fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. And how I typically describe this with my clients in therapy, is this survival response dates back to our earliest days of humans. When I was maybe leaving my area to go look for food, I might run into a lion, and that lion would scare me and so my amygdala would become activated and it would tell me that I either need to run away, I would need to fly, flight, I would need to fight it off in some way, fight, or I would need to freeze. I would need to hide from the lion, play dead, something like that.

The last one you notice I didn’t mention was fawn in that lion metaphor, and that’s because this is sort of more newly recognized by researchers as a response to something more related to some type of abuse or neglect. It is what we see with people when they kind of fawn over perpetrators to try to keep things calm, to keep things less dangerous and more safe. What’s important, I brought up that sort of autonomic versus somatic is because this is all an automatic response. If I were to see a lion, or now what is maybe stressors at work that I perceive as fear of a lion, it’s kind of the same thing, we make those associations, we have those automatic responses to go into that survival response, and that serves us well. That’s why we’re here today as a human species.

The next area, the hippocampus, is more responsible for learning and memory. This is where we consolidate and create memory, and it’s also responsible for differentiating between the past and the present. And then lastly, we have the prefrontal cortex. And when most people think of the brain or the mind or kind of our cognition that makes us human, this is where that resides. This is the area that houses our cognition and is the most evolved part of our brains or of our nervous systems. This area is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior. It’s where our personality is expressed. It’s where we make decisions. It’s where we moderate our social behavior. It’s where our attention is influenced, and it’s also where a lot of our impulses are inhibited. And I think the important thing to know about this area too, is that it’s not even fully developed until we are 25 years old, or around 25 years old typically. So it takes a while to get there for sure. So yeah, that’s how those three areas work when they are healthily functioning.

Nicki Leanza:

So then how does trauma affect these areas?

Sarah Beadle:

Sure. A little different for each. So the big idea is that trauma disrupts the healthy connectivity in our brain, which then disrupts our healthy connectivity in our spinal cord, our whole nervous system. What we see with the amygdala specifically, the housing of that survival response, is it becomes hyper-activated, or activity in that area actually increases. And what this causes is an increased perception of danger, and it becomes a lot more difficult to think rationally. We become much more anxious, and again, we are stuck in a near constant state of a survival response. So adrenaline and cortisol are much higher in our systems in general. This can have a lot of impacts on our mental health, things like PTSD and anxiety, but it also can impact our physical health too. High cortisol levels are associated with things like heart disease or diabetes as well.

So while the amygdala activity increases, we actually see a shrinkage in size of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. And as both of these areas shrink, what we see with the hippocampus specifically is sort of these lost and confused memories that we see with a lot of patients that have trauma. Things like flashbacks tend to happen. And if they start to live in more of the past, the past sort of starts to feel more like the present. And then with that prefrontal cortex shrinking, it reduces our ability to regulate top down.

And basically that regulation top down, what that means is with our prefrontal cortex working healthily, it is regulating, it is telling the rest of our body how we want to make decisions, how we want to express our personality, how we want to manage our behaviors. When that isn’t able to regulate the rest of our system because it’s shrinking and not working as well, more primitive brain circuits start to take over, and those primitive brain circuits are more things like our amygdala, so it increases even more. And even parts of our brainstem and just other areas of the brain. So more negative emotions take over, again, we maybe have a harder time inhibiting our impulses, we have a harder time with social interactions, just expressing who we are in general. And all of this, the damage or the shrinking of the prefrontal cortex can be particularly hurtful when trauma takes place during periods of development. That’s not even fully developed until we are 25 years old.

Nicki Leanza:

Right. Now my understanding, the role of the amygdala in trauma triggers for people. For example, if someone was in a house fire, and maybe they’re hanging around with some friends around a campfire, and maybe the smell of the campfire maybe triggers them back to when they were trapped in the house fire. My understanding, it’s the amygdala’s like, “Uh oh, alarm system going off. Oh, we’re right back to where we were when we were trapped.” Is that your understanding of how the amygdala works and the trauma triggers?

Sarah Beadle:

Absolutely right. And I think it’s the amygdala is doing that, it’s perceiving that as a threat, and it’s just a bonfire with some friends. But the hippocampus is also maybe confusing some of those memories and the prefrontal cortex, which is maybe our system of checks and balances in our brain, isn’t working properly either. So it’s not able to kind of logically say, “Hey, amygdala, hey, survival response. We are okay.” So it’s a combination of all three of those things. But that’s a great example of that.

Nicki Leanza:

And so we know trauma affects the brain and can obviously change it. And so how does one… I know there’s a very trendy term, neuroplasticity, and so I think this would be a great time for you to tell us more about neuroplasticity and that change of the brain and things like that.

Sarah Beadle:

Yeah. I think you can’t have this conversation without thinking about neuroplasticity, because otherwise it is just super depressing and super upsetting. Neuroplasticity is our big word of hope here.

Nicki Leanza:

Yes. I love that. Right.

Sarah Beadle:

So experts previously believed that after a given point in our lives, our brain could no longer change or develop further, and thankfully now we know that this isn’t true. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to restructure or rewire itself when it really recognizes the need to do so. So we can continue to develop and change throughout our lifetimes, which again, is our big hope in all of this. With time and patience, challenging yourself, experiencing new things, having an open mind, we can actually change and build new connections in our brains. Some of the easiest ways that we see this happen is something like learning a new language or playing music or playing a new video game. We’re exposed to new things, which tells our brain, “Oh wow, we have this new information. Let’s incorporate it and connect in new ways.”

Nicki Leanza:

And so what I also hear you saying is that you can teach an old dog new tricks that the brain can change. That’s a very simplified way of putting it, but… So that does bring in the idea of hope.

What can people do who’ve been affected by trauma experiences? What can they do to help themselves?

Sarah Beadle:

I mean, I think the biggest thing with trauma is that it’s not usually helpful to go through it alone. So my biggest suggestion, I say neuroplasticity can be encouraged with things like video games and music and opening your mind, but I think specifically when we talk about neuroplasticity as almost a way to combat or to alleviate these symptoms of trauma, I most highly recommend seeking help and getting some type of treatment. Things like cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, medication, things like EMDR especially, all those things can help us really activate some of that neuroplasticity in our brains, which helps us heal. And trauma treatment can help patients feel so much more safe. They feel heard, they feel validated, they feel understood. But really it helps people challenge the way they perceive, think about, and manage stress and those triggers of threat. So trauma treatment can help us use neuroplasticity to lower the activation of the amygdala, to increase the size of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, and all of a sudden our brain is functioning much more healthily again.

Nicki Leanza:

Any other takeaways you’d like to share with us?

Sarah Beadle:

I mean, I think the biggest thing is I think trauma and PTSD, the kind of the bigger diagnosis related to trauma, all of those things have become a lot more… or a lot less stigmatized, which is awesome. But I think information on the fact that this is truly impacting and changing the way our brains work. This isn’t something made up. You’re not making it up. And so I think this insight can be really helpful to clinicians, but also really helpful to people who are experiencing this themselves. So I think educating yourself, and hopefully this provided some education and some better understanding. But I think biggest takeaway again, is just that there is so much hope. I think a lot of people who feel like they’ve been through something traumatic feel like they’re just kind of stuck that way, and that’s not at all true. That’s a symptom of what you have experienced. There’s a statistic that was done that said that 70% of people have experienced something traumatic at some point in their lives, which is very… that’s a huge statistic.

Nicki Leanza:

Yes. Yeah.

Sarah Beadle:

So you’re not alone. Help is out there. And I think just overall, let’s try and have more empathy and understanding for people and the things they’ve been through, because that helps us heal and open our minds, all these things that we know are a path to getting better.

Nicki Leanza:

My gosh, Sarah, thank you. This was a wealth of knowledge you shared on this topic, and I think for sure any of our listeners listening will be like, “Wow, I didn’t realize how pervasive trauma is in affecting our society with 70%,” and that there is hope. So thank you again for everything you shared during our episode today.

Sarah Beadle:

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.