Understanding the Long-Term Effects of Trauma on the Brain

I often talk about the need of adults to have empathy toward children who have suffered from childhood trauma. Empathy toward them can help you react in a more effective way to unwanted behavior.

But what about the ability for those who have experienced traumatic events to show empathy toward themselves? Empathy toward yourself and how your brain works is powerful. Knowledge and understanding the reactions your brain has can be extremely helpful when it comes to properly interpreting our emotions and reactions accurately. It can even help us to discover treatment strategies that are better for the unique need of the moment.

Is it a Regression?

I always say it is possible to heal from childhood trauma. But I always stress that it is a long journey that can be filled with bumps and turns. Many individuals who have gotten to a good place in their healing journey have sometimes felt like they had a sudden relapse or a “mental breakdown.” 

But what causes that sudden period where you feel like you are experiencing your trauma all over again? What makes you have such a potent reaction that you can’t function for some time?

Focusing in on Your Feelings

When you have a sudden relapse, ask yourself what you are truly feeling in the moment. Are there any sensations that you have? Do those sensations make you recall any traumatic experiences in your life? 

You may be surprised to realize that your sudden, unexplained relapse is related to a past traumatic experience. But why? It can be confusing when you feel you are well on your way to a life of healing. 

Your Brain Keeps a Record

Even a decades old traumatic event can resurface. It can seem highly unfair after all the work you have done toward healing. But trauma experts like Bessel Van der Kolk have written about this phenomenon. The body literally keeps a record of trauma events and they resurface based on similar circumstances, reactivated memories, and anniversaries. 

This means there is the potential for you to relive those events and the emotions, even at the same strength as the original reaction. This is called dissociation. For those who have experienced childhood trauma, this reaction can occur at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways. 

In other words, it’s just how your brain and your body work.

From a Different Angle

Understanding this is powerful because it allows you to show yourself some grace. Seeing how your brain works from another angle can be a discovery that brings you relief. You aren’t regressing or having a “mental breakdown,” but rather it’s just your brain remembering a past experience or reenacting a memory. This trauma knowledge can make all the difference in how you understand your own emotions and reactions. 

When you are unaware of this knowledge, it can lead you to make conclusions about your reactions that are inaccurate or misleading. But when you understand the long-term impact of trauma and how your brain works, you can more accurately interpret your emotions and reactions. But more importantly, this knowledge can help you find better treatment strategies for your unique needs at that moment. 

Final Thoughts

It is so important for individuals who have experienced trauma to understand the impact trauma can have on them even if that trauma happened years ago. Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have life-long effects on our physical, emotional, relational, and behavioral well-being. Understanding these effects and how our brain works gives you the opportunity to show yourself some empathy. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel you are regressing even after all your hard work of healing. Trauma changes the brain and how it works. So give yourself some grace. Be kind to yourself during these moments, and know that all of your hard work toward healing has not gone to waste.