Understanding Trauma’s Effect on the Brain and Body

When we feel threatened, our “survival brain” takes over—that’s what it’s supposed to do. If we waited for our intellectual brains to analyze some situations, we’d be dead. For example, our survival brain helps us jump out of the way of an oncoming car before our intellectual brain can compute the best course of action based on the velocity of the vehicle.

The survival brain makes sure we get out of the immediate danger by a fight, flight or freeze response. Survivors of trauma have brains that are filled with information that includes hundreds of cues tied to the traumatic event. The survival brain does a good job of storing the information needed to protect us again in a similar situation.

Clients often remain in survival mode after the danger has passed. But the exact same behaviors that protect them in a crisis can become obstacles to their daily living. Others interpret the working of the survival brain as dishonesty, suspicion, anger, stubbornness, and a whole host of other negative attributes.

Because of this, some clients come to believe that they are no longer nice people. Rather than recognizing and valuing the efforts of the survival brain, they come to view it as a “bad” part of themselves.

Much of the torture and torment suffered by trauma survivors comes from an internal conflict between what they believe is the “good” and “bad” them. They may judge themselves harshly because they don’t understand why they do what they do.

Survival Brain and Intellectual Brain

So, help raise your clients’ awareness of the survival brain and intellectual brain, as two very helpful sides of themselves. Many dually diagnosed clients’ brains are still in survival mode, maintaining the behaviors that saved their lives or made their lives bearable, even after the immediate threat has passed. This surely does not make them bad people.

We should never try to undermine our survival instincts, because we will almost surely need them again. What we can do, instead, is to have our survival and intellectual brains make friends with each other.

Clients benefit from recognizing the importance—and “goodness”—of the survival and intellectual brains. This recognition keeps them from being at war with themselves and helps restore balance in their lives. If necessary, educate trauma survivors on the contributions of each of their “good” sides.

  • Good Side #1 is our survival brain, and it’s truly amazing. It makes goal directed action possible without any conscious thought! It helps us duck out of the way of a falling object before Good Side #2 even knows it is coming.
  • Good Side #1 includes our instincts for survival and self-preservation. Nobody has to teach us to be hungry or sleepy or horny. We can thank our survival brain for all the good stuff that nobody has to teach us.
  • Good Side #2 is our intellectual brain, with an equally important job. It can help clients observe and regulate the behaviors they are trying to change. It is logical and problem-solving. It gives us values and our ideas on right and wrong. Language, and all the other good stuff we’ve learned, would not be possible without Good Side #2.

Help clients value all of these internal resources. When their survival brain responds to cues tied to the trauma, don’t misinterpret the anger or other coping skill as resistant or a lack of interest in treatment.

“Amygdala hijacking” is an unfortunate term some professionals are using to describe the survival brain’s response to certain cues. It may lead clients to feel as if they have a defective brain, even though they have a perfectly good brain. The term also reinforces the unhelpful idea that a client is at war with a part of himself or herself.

Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that initiates the “fight, flight, or freeze” response; cortisol and adrenaline are released as an end result. Elevated amounts of cortisol may cause damage to the hippocampus which may result in an acceleration of the aging process, depression, fatigue and memory loss.

The size of the hippocampus seems to provide clues to the extent of the damage—the smaller the size, the more likely that traumatic symptoms are severe. So it’s important to address the traumatic cues that continue to bother the client.

Some levels of depression/traumatization result in permanent damage to the brain. Once the cortisol level is reduced, the brain will start regenerating cells, but not replace the lost ones. Vitamin C, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and ginseng are reported to have beneficial effects on the cortisol level.

Of course, a physician must be consulted before a client tries any of these. Endorphins also bring down cortisol levels, so laughing, exercise, acupuncture, etc. can be very helpful.


To a certain extent, clients can control the chemicals released in their bodies. Neuro-networks are formed when one of billions of neurons in our brains makes a connection with another. The more a behavior is repeated the more likely the neural connections become stronger.

Research suggests that neurons that fire together will eventually wire together. Our brain doesn’t seem to know the difference between a helpful and an unhelpful neuro-network. We can only weaken the unhelpful connections by building the helpful ones.

The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that does executive functioning. When you experience trauma, your middle brain (limbic or mammalian brain) takes over. So counselors need to help clients re-connect with their cerebral cortex.

Those with a pre-verbal trauma may never be able to describe it in words, because they experienced it in images. Art therapy may be helpful here, as clients may be able to draw images and then describe them.

Trauma can be addressed by building hope and resilience. People cannot feel hope and fear at the same time—they affect different parts of our brain. Resiliencies are areas of strength that we can call upon to deal with adversity.

This can help us mobilize resources and coping strategies appropriate to the occasion. During treatment, hope and resilience can be built upon to help clients transcend the traumatic event.

Woman running photo available from Shutterstock

Understanding Trauma’s Effect on the Brain and Body offers home study courses pre-approved by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB ACE Provider # 1137), the Board of Behavioral Sciences of the State of California (Approval No. PCE 3780), the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC ACE Provider # 6194), NAADAC (Approved Education Provider # 452), and many other credentialing bodies.


APA Reference
, s. (2015). Understanding Trauma’s Effect on the Brain and Body. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Jun 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Jun 2015
Published on All rights reserved.