The Effects of Trauma on the Brain

Trauma can be a deeply distressing and disturbing experience. These experiences can significantly impact the development of a teenager’s brain. Trauma can cause teens who are prone to questionable decisions to participate in riskier behaviors, such as using harmful substances. It can also cause teenagers to feel detached and isolate themselves. 

Treating trauma requires a significant amount of work, persistence, and therapy. Let’s take a closer look at how trauma affects the brain and how to find effective ways to help teenagers cope.  

Trauma’s Effects on the Brain

According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, trauma has an almost immediate effect on the brain. Depending on the trauma, it may be difficult to gauge what a teenager is going through. Their reactions can vary, and their countenance may change. Once they feel safe and aren’t in a “fight or flight” mode, they can process their pain and may have significant and delayed reactions to their trauma. Their trauma experience requires treatment in a safe environment to help mitigate lasting damage to their brains.

Trauma and Pieces of the Brain

When trauma happens, different areas of the brain become affected. 

These areas include:

  • Amygdala. The amygdala helps regulate emotions and encode memories. It is most recognized for being the main processor of fear. This part of the brain triggers the “fight or flight” response, helps a person regulate emotion through fear, and will help them make decisions to get to safety.
  • Hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a significant role in learning. It also processes and encodes long-term memories and helps a person learn from stressful stimuli, like trauma.
  • Prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the cognitive, coherent control in the brain. It helps create self-generating behaviors, makes decisions, and works with memory organization. When affected by trauma, the decision-making control panel that is the prefrontal cortex, will be programmed based on a trauma response.
  • Brain stem. The brain stem is another important piece in how the brain harbors trauma. The brain stem not only organizes future trauma responses but is the building block of how children learn. It controls unconscious body functions and will store any anxious or aroused states of discomfort.
  • Norepinephrine system. The norepinephrine system is the surge of neurons and connections in the sympathetic nervous system that stimulates the brain stem, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and other parts of the brain to begin an action. It can simulate a trauma response and the neural pathway changes.
  • Cortisol System. The cortisol system is the body’s alarm system. It’s a stress-response hormone that will follow the pathways of the norepinephrine system when triggered.

The 5 R’s of Healing Trauma

Healing from trauma can be difficult and painful for a teenager experiencing trauma. However, working through trauma is worth the effort. While starting can be difficult, there are effective therapies that can help a teen heal from trauma. 

At Havenwood Academy, we focus on the 5 R’s to help teens heal from trauma. They include:

  1. Rhythmic: Performing a physical activity with rhythm can help calm the teen through self-regulation. When a teen needs to calm down from a trauma response, rhythmic activities like dancing or drumming can help them self-soothe.
  2. Repetitive: A single positive interaction cannot replace or overturn a learned trauma response. Repetition and consistency with a safe person and space are important for teenagers to overcome trauma. The teen is consistently and repetitively having good experiences so they can heal.
  3. Rewarding: Creating a rewarding experience to replace traumatic ones is an important concept for teenagers to grasp. They need to know not everything or everyone is scary, and, though their fears in that past were valid, there are happy memories and rewarding experiences to be made.
  4. Relational: Every teen needs an adult they can trust. It may be a parent, therapist, or group of adults who help the teen cope with their trauma. Having a trusting adult to go to when the long-term effects of their trauma catch up to them can make a world of difference.
  5. Relevant: The treatment or therapy the teen receives needs to be relevant to them. Make sure that the teenager is the main focus of treatment, not any adults or siblings involved. Relevant treatment for trauma should meet the teen’s individual needs.

Teenagers are resilient, but sometimes trauma responses are all they know. It often requires professional care to help them effectively process their trauma and find strategies for coping. Therefore, seeking help from a professional is the best approach to helping a teen manage symptoms associated with trauma. 

Trauma is scary and can be harmful to the development of a teen’s brain. Some teenagers who experience extreme trauma need more than family support; they need professional support. Therefore, it is crucial to find help specifically designed to meet your teen’s needs. Understand that treatment also requires time, patience, and effective treatment models such as the 5 R’s to help a teen overcome their trauma. If your child is currently struggling to overcome their trauma, don’t wait. Get help today. At Havenwood Academy, we can help teenage girls process symptoms related to traumatic experiences. We also understand that your child needs therapy tailored to them. Our professional and experienced staff know how to create a plan that will work for your daughter. While it will come with its challenges, ultimately, seeking care will benefit your daughter. To learn more about our programs, reach out to us today by calling (435) 586-2500


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