Trauma & Brain Health
Trauma and Brain Health
Victims of abuse are constantly under stress. They experience individual traumatic events from physical or sexual assault that causes this fight-or-flight response, but they also have chronic stress. This is especially true when in the stress/trigger phase of the abuse cycle, which eventually leads to a violent response from the abuser. These long periods of anxiety/fear/stress are extremely hard on the body and the brain. Trauma also has negative effects on the developing brains of children that witness or experience assault.
Watch: Dr. Nadine Burke Harris gives an important TED Talk on the impact of trauma on the developing brain.
Read on to learn more about the body's response to stress and trauma and how it affects a person's health and wellness.
The Stress Response
When our bodies experience a traumatic event or become stressed we experience a fight-or-flight response.
When we're under constant stress, the stress response stays turned on longer, which can lead to buildup of cortisol and constant high levels of adrenaline.
This can lead to high blood pressure, which can damage blood vessels and arteries, buildup of fat tissue because the body is trying to maximize energy stores, weight gain, anxiety, and depression.
Ways to Relieve Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Exercise. Hit Reset provides affordable access to this crucial component to survivors of abuse
Antidepressants (i.e. SSRIs) and other medications for anxiety
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Any traumatic event can lead to the development of PTSD. This can be witnessing a crime, being the victim of an assault, and even losing a loved one. PTSD is extremely common in survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and affects almost 15 million people in the U.S. each year. For survivors of IPV, 52% of women and 17% of men report symptoms of PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD include: flashbacks, nightmares, hyperarousal/awareness, intrusive thoughts that are often terrifying, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating and remembering things. To be diagnosed with PTSD, someone must have experienced these symptoms for at least a month after the traumatic event.
These symptoms can be triggered by sounds, smells, images, reading articles similar to their traumatic event, watching movies with relatable situations, etc. People with PTSD also typically avoid activities, areas, or situations that they feel will remind them of the event in hopes of preventing a stress response such as a panic attack or flashback.
Brain Abnormalities: Highly traumatic events can actually cause changes in our brain structure and chemistry. MRIs of patients with PTSD show that they have a smaller hippocampus volume, the region of the brain that controls memory, compared to the brains of people without a PTSD diagnosis.
There are also measurable differences in regions of their brain that process and relay information, especially in the amygdala, which can be thought of as the emotion center. When people with PTSD experience a flashback or trigger, their system gets flooded by the fight-or-flight response and it becomes an information overload.
They may have difficulty telling the difference between a real threat or an imagined threat, because their frontal cortex isn't operating effectively. When the prefrontal cortex can't send out the right signals, people can be overwhelmed by the sensory information, and may even freeze if they can't process a physical response to the rush of hormones and neurotransmitters.
PTSD Treatments: Therapy and/or antidepressants have been shown to be very effective in treating PTSD. There are many forms of therapy used but most common are exposure therapy and processing therapy. Exercise, physical activity, and a healthy diet have also been shown to be effective in relieving symptoms of PTSD.
1. The stress response starts in an area of the brain called the amygdala, which receives and processes the stressor and sends out an alarm signal to the hypothalamus, which is the control center of the brain.
2. The hypothalamus recognizes the stress signal and tells our adrenal glands to pump out stress hormones.
3. The adrenal glands release stress hromones- adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.
4. The stress hormones cause our heart to start racing, blood pressure goes up, breathing quickens, and we feel incredibly alert.
This stress response is normal and healthy, and eventually will shut off when our bodies perceive that there is no longer a threat. However, it becomes a problem when our bodies are under constant stress.
Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has more recently garnered national attention for its role in the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in professional football players. TBI refers to any type of force or blow to the head that affects brain function (all information on TBI and more can be found on the CDC website). Not every head impact leads to TBI, but every blow poses a risk for a TBI. Mild TBI is often referred to as a concussion and involves brief changes in consciousness or mental state, but in more severe cases of TBI there is a prolonged loss of consciousness and/or memory loss.
A TBI can produce a range of symptoms depending on the severity.
Common symptoms: impaired thinking, memory loss, impaired movement (such as loss of balance), affected vision or hearing, personality changes, depression, anxiety, dizziness, nausea, noise/light sensitivity, and difficulty concentrating or retaining information.
These symptoms can persist for days or even weeks, and if particularly severe can last even longer. While these symptoms often show up right away, in some cases they don't take effect until several days or even months after the injury, making it difficult to explain why you may be feeling off. It isn't always obvious that the symptoms are the result of a TBI, especially if a significant amount of time has passed since the head trauma. This makes it difficult to diagnose and treat. Survivors of abuse have a high likelihood of suffering multiple TBIs over the course of their relationships. They are also least likely to report an injury and seek treatment, which is a major concern in diagnosing and treating a TBI. This makes it difficult to track TBI occurrences, rates, and development of CTE in victims of abuse.
CTE used to be most commonly associated with professional boxers that had sustained repeated blows to the head without appropriate headgear. Within the last decade, research published out of the Brain Research Institute has clearly shown a link between playing professional football and the development of CTE, which has resulted in more public awareness and a push for more research on CTE.
Common symptoms: memory loss, confusion, personality changes- including aggression, violent outbursts, severe depression, impulsive and erratic behavior, difficulty concentrating, impaired balance and motor skills, and suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Very little is known about how CTE develops and what exact mechanisms cause it, but research clearly shows that people who have suffered multiple concussions (even without loss of consciousness) are most at risk. Our concern here at Hit Reset is how TBIs and CTE may be affecting survivors of abuse, especially considering their reluctance to seek treatment. We believe this is a potential major health concern for survivors of abuse.
TBI and CTE Statistics
TBI incidences in the U.S. each year
There has been a steady increase in TBI-related emergency room visits over the last decade
~1.7 million people are diagnosed with a TBI each year in the U.S. - this number does not include the likely millions of people that do not report mild brain injuries or seek medical attention.
75% of TBIs are considered mild and diagnosed as concussions
Men are treated for TBIs at higher rates than women
The biggest cause of TBI-related emergency room visits in the U.S. each year are due to falls
Children aged 0-4, and seniors >65 account for ~70% of fall-related emergency room visits
People in the 15-24 age group and 25-44 age group are most likely to seek treatment for a TBI due to an assault.
~160,000 people between the ages of 15-44 seek treatment for a TBI due to an assault each year, and this is just the number of reported cases.
Causes of TBI-related Emergency Room Visits in U.S.
Exercise & Post-Trauma Recovery
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Exercise can help make you stronger both physically and mentally, and studies show that patients that participate in group exercise during their recovery from trauma and abuse have quicker and more successful recoveries than patients that only do traditional therapy.
Studies show that 45-60 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as running, boxing, swimming, cycling, and cross-training, can improve brain function and boost cognition. Experts recommend that adults exercise ~150 minutes a week, and it's even more crucial for survivors to find ways to be active, relieve stress, and absorb all the benefits that exercise has to offer.
Survivors of abuse may be battling issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, which can make it incredibly difficult to reach that exercise recommendation without a strong support system.
Hit Reset offers an opportunity for survivors to meet this recommended exercise goal by providing affordable access to fitness classes with an emphasis on community and support, which puts them in the best position for a successful recovery.
Exercise is a critical physical part of maintaining mental health. Regular exercise regulates the sleep cycle as victims of trauma can suffer from hypersomnia or insomnia. It improves mood by increasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, as well as reducing stress and anxiety by lowering stress-induced cortisol levels. This overall reduces the risk of depression. Building strength and staying active improves self esteem damaged by trauma and abuse.
Trauma affects the way the brain functions, causing trouble with cognition and memory as well as damage to the brain's neurons. Exercise helps heal this damage, releasing endorphins and mood-boosting chemicals, producing new neurons, healing parts of the brain responsible for cognition and memory (the structures of the brain shown to have the most damage in those with PTSD), and generally increasing blood flow to the brain.
Health & Function
Regular exercise improves heart function while lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. This in turn lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke. The healthier the heart is, the better the body can take in oxygen which allows the body to heal more quickly while making tasks like walking, going up stairs, etc. easier and more efficient.
Strengthening bones and muscles with exercise slows bone density loss as well as controls weight. This lowers risk of Type II diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and several types of cancers. Regular exercise also benefits joint health by improving blood flow and circulating nutrients and fluid to cushion your joints. This also helps alleviate the progression, pain, and symptoms of arthritis.