Rewiring the Effects of Emotional Trauma on the Brain

I was so thrilled when Dr. David Perlmutter, the notable neurologist and bestselling author (and one of my mentors!), joined me for a Relentless Courage interview. Even before we had gotten to know one another, I had been following his impressive work because I was eager to learn as much as possible about how different things, such as certain foods, stress, and trauma, affect brain function. 

I was very flattered that he enjoyed reading my new memoir, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, and that he used it as a springboard to talk with me about the effects of emotional trauma on the brain, as well as how we can “rewire” the brain afterward.

Dr. Perlmutter explained that our experiences with stress and trauma—especially early in life— inform our perceptions of the world around us and play an important role in our present-day thinking. This occurs because certain parts of the brain—the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (PFC)—are intrinsically involved with the way traumatic experiences are processed and stored.

It’s not quite as complicated as it sounds. Let me explain.

Emotional Trauma in the Brain

The amygdala (pronounced uh-MIG-duh-luh) is a structure deep in the brain that is part of the limbic system, which is often thought of as the “emotional brain.” The amygdala is best known for our fight or flight response. When it is triggered, the amygdala assigns an emotional tag to any experience we should fear, and to protect us, the amygdala doesn’t forget anything which it has tagged as dangerous. It’s a survival function that served us well back in the Stone Age—it helped keep humans from being eaten by saber-toothed tigers.

The PFC is the most recently evolved part of the brain and its functions include decision-making, forethought, judgment, reasoning, and impulse control, among others. The PFC also acts to keep the amygdala under control most of the time. However, when a traumatic event occurs, the PFC tends to go offline temporarily while the fight or flight response kicks in so that our instinct to survive gets priority. 

For example, imagine you are on a city street and see a sudden explosion nearby. It’s likely you will have already turned to move away from it before your PFC lets you start thinking about what just happened. If your PFC were to stay fully engaged at the moment of the explosion while you pondered how to react, your chances of survival could be diminished. 

This same type of brain process occurs with all traumatic events. Especially when you’re young, the brain encodes these experiences in such a way that you never forget them. As you get older and even if you are safe, when you get triggered, you are more likely to respond to emotions from the past, rather than your current reality. In other words, the amygdala hijacks your brain!

5 Ways to Rewire Your Brain After Trauma

But the brain is an amazing organ and can actually change—even later in life! You can learn to rewire your brain in a way that strengthens and engages the PFC to get the amygdala under better control, so when something happens your response is more congruent with your current circumstances, and less a reaction to emotions from past traumas. 

With brain-healthy habits, you can learn to rewire your brain so your responses to events are more congruent with your current circumstances—and less a reaction to the emotions from past traumas. Click To Tweet

An important way to do this is by strengthening your PFC which then lets you tap into more thoughtful responses to triggers. The simplest way is with brain-healthy lifestyle choices that increase activity in the PFC and help regulate the amygdala. 

These include:

  • Get a good night’s sleep: I know you’ve heard me talk about this many times before, but it is critical for optimal functioning. Plus, the PFC is more active when you are well-rested.
  • Eat a low inflammatory diet: Lots of fresh greens, veggies, and lower glycemic fruits, along with healthy fats (i.e., avocados and walnuts), clean protein—especially fish like salmon that high are in omega-3s, and drink plenty of water. 
  • Meditate: Not only are there countless personal stories about the benefits of meditation, but multiple brain imaging studies support the positive changes to the brain, including the PFC. If you’re new to meditation, start with just a few minutes a day and increase your time with practice.
  • Spend time in nature: Being outside in the natural environment, whether it’s walking on the beach, strolling in a park, going for a hike, or spending time in your garden, is a great way to lower stress and improve cognitive function—which leads to healthier responses to things that happen.
  • Exercise regularly: Not only does this help improve blood flow in the brain, but it also activates the brain chemical BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which is like Miracle-Gro for your brain—and you want a lot of that as you work to rewire and change your brain.

Some people believe that because trauma happened to them it permanently shaped their lives. From personal experience, I can tell you that I felt that way for a long time. At one point, I became acutely aware of everything I’d been through in the past and how it had negatively affected me. I didn’t feel normal and had a lot of shame around it. Once I understood that it really was possible to recover from trauma, I went on a mission to find my way out of it. 

Through therapy and healthy lifestyle changes, I learned how to get control of my brain, so my past was no longer in the driver’s seat. Instead, I became in charge of my thoughts, emotions, and life—and by strengthening your brain, you can get control of yours too!

Check out more of my Relentless Courage interviews on my YouTube channel and order my new memoir, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child: How Persistence, Grit, and Faith Created a Reluctant Healer.

 If you’re struggling and need professional help, Amen Clinics is here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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