The Neuroscience of Trauma

The brain is the most evolved, intricate, and sensitive organ in our bodies. Its role in survival is absolutely crucial, and it can also leave us feeling dysregulated. The way our brains process and integrate stressful situations is complicated so it is important to highlight how trauma impacts the brain’s structures.  In the therapeutic world, any stressor significant to an individual carries value and importance; the brain has more defined limits of what constitutes physiological changes.

The difference occurs in the limbic system of the brain. This system of brain structures deals with everything related to human emotion – processing, integrating, and controlling. Two important formations in the limbic system, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis, and the amygdala, are the targets of psychological disturbance.

The brain oversees stress hormone activity through the HPA axis.  When the hypothalamus receives threat perception, it sends a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then releases hormones to the adrenal gland, which in turn releases cortisol, a key player in the brain’s stress response system.  Prolonged stress can have permanent effects on cortisol secretion, making it difficult to maintain appropriate levels of stress and stress-releasing hormones.

The amygdala is another region that participates in processing stress.  This structure in the limbic system receives sensory information and creates signals that turn into conscious perception of fear.  A normally functioning amygdala reacts to scary images, events, or thoughts by increasing fear temporarily, but chronic stress will impact its regulation of anxiety.

Given that the amygdala works in the limbic system with the HPA axis, their dysfunction can be linked.  For those who have experienced trauma, both structures act in a similarly dysregulated way:  the HPA axis overcompensates cortisol production and the amygdala becomes overactive, initiating emotional fear more frequently than usual.

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The way the brain adapts to stressors is a biological mechanism of hormones and chemicals changing their patterns in response to a perceived threat. Our individual biology is impacted by genetic factors, intergenerational trauma, and societal factors. As much as we want to control our reactions to distressing circumstances, our bodies will often react in a certain way in certain situations. So, in the therapeutic relationship, the therapist and client work together to relieve the tensions created after a stressor. We study the somatic experiences and mental sensations to gain a better understanding of what is going on biologically. Our neural systems do their job, while we do our job to bring the symptoms within a tolerable range.  Counselors are trained to activate or reduce brain structure activity, like in the amygdala and the HPA axis, for example.  Of course, there are plenty more complexities to adjusting our neural circuits.  Talk therapy is effective for discovering what those complexities are. When we spend time learning the client’s mindset and thought patterns, we can better identify what needs adjustment and attention.

The counselors at Gaithersburg Counseling Center are equipped to guide you to clearer emotional and neurological understanding.  If you have questions, curiosities, or just feel an inspiration to discuss this topic, our phone and email are open for communication. You can reach out anytime at 240-274-5680 or Or you can visit our website for more information at