When healthy, our brain is the greatest supercomputer on earth. A complex network of about 100 billion neurons, it’s not only great at processing and organizing information – it’s incredibly fast. Every second, trillions of electric pulses are zipping through your brain. This matrix meticulously encodes and stores your memories and experiences, collectively composing the special mosaic of you.
But what happens when a shock interrupts this system? And why is it that this shock or trauma can stick around in the body and mind, affecting your health for many years?
The truth is that trauma is not just “in your head”. It leaves a real, physical imprint on your body, jarring your memory storage processes and altering your brain.
Neglected past trauma can have a large effect on your future health. The psychological and physical responses it triggers can make you susceptible to severe health conditions including stroke, heart attack, weight problems, diabetes, and cancer, according to a Harvard Medical School research study.
Additionally, the risk of developing psychological and physical health conditions increases with the number of traumatic events you’ve experienced. “For instance, your risk for problems is much greater if you’ve had three or more adverse experiences, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs),” claims Harvard study scientist Andrea Roberts.
From outside appearances, a trauma survivor might look healthy and complete, yet trauma can fester like an invisible wound, compromising the body’s defenses up until it shows up in the form of a disease.
What changes when we experience trauma? Where is it stored in the body?
What happens to our brains when we experience a psychological shock.
Explicit memory is our type of memory associated with recollecting our previous experiences. This type of memory is contrasted with implicit memories which are ones in which we obtain subconsciously; like tying your shoes without thinking about it. Trauma can cause our memory processing system to malfunction: the explicit memory system fails, so the traumatic memory isn’t logged and stored properly.
Rather, our brain reverts to an easier technique of transcribing signals and encrypts traumatic memories as body sensations and images. This is called dissociation: memories are divided into pieces. These continue to be ingrained in the mind like shrapnel, hindering the brain’s natural recovery process. Harmful fragments can show up as indicators typically related to post-traumatic stress and raise our risk of becoming seriously physically ill.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can noticeably alter the brain. After the 2017 Manchester suicide bombing attack killed 22 people at Ariana Grande’s concert, she launched a picture of a brain scan that showed the effect of trauma on her brain.
The 3 parts of the brain in charge of handling stress change when people experience PTSD:
- The hippocampus shrinks – the area focused on emotion and memory
- The amygdala function increases – area associated with free-thought and creativity
- The prefrontal (anterior cingulate) activity decreases – the area associated with more complex functions like planning and self-development
These unaddressed traumatic experiences eventually linger, and like a roadblock, break up the normal flow of our body, breaking down our physical and psychological processes. Early evidence of cellular memory reveals that it’s not simply our brain, but our body’s cells that might hold an imprint of past traumatic events.
What can be done regarding this “real thing?”
Fortunately is that past trauma doesn’t have to affect you for life. It’s a treatable problem and help is available.
Therapy can help in unlocking or handling the traumatic memories, releasing them from being stuck in your system. When the traumatic memory is rehabilitated in the mind, the brain can begin to heal.
Holistic exercises like meditation and yoga can genuinely release these physical and mental storages of trauma; aiding in the healing process.
One Trauma center research study on PTSD treatment discovered that “yoga was far more effective than any type of medicine that people have studied up to now. Yoga makes a substantial difference in the right direction, but that does not mean yoga cures it”.
Releasing trauma from the mind and body can have unbelievably powerful consequences. Ph.D. Kelly Turner extensively studied terminally ill cancer patients who beat their condition against all expectations. She found that people in spontaneous remission commonly mentioned releasing emotional stress or trauma as a crucial component of their recovery. “You don’t have to be stuck,” says Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. Kerry Ressler, “there is a good chance that you can move past this.”
Our body may ‘keep the score’ (see Bessel van der Kolk’s book of the same name), however, it’s the incredible capability to heal makes it the most fascinating system behind the human condition. As Helen Keller claimed, “Although the world has lots of suffering, it is likewise packed with the overcoming of it.”