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How trauma affects the brain: U of T expert

Trauma has a huge effect on the brain, but the brain responds well to treatment, writes U of T's Dr. Dana Ross (photo by Penn State via Flickr)

We’re living through an important moment where people who have been through traumatic experiences feel more comfortable coming forward with their stories, says Dr. Dana Ross.

A lecturer in the University of Toronto's department of psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine, Ross says trauma can have a profound impact on every area of person’s life. And “it is important for people to be familiar with the different ways that trauma can cause distress,” because studies have shown that traumatic experiences such as physical and sexual abuse are common, she says.

“We still have a lot to learn about the effects of trauma but we do know that a number of changes occur in the brain and body that can make it difficult for people to live the life they would like to lead,” Ross writes in this week's edition of Doctors' Notes, the Toronto Star's weekly column created by U of T medical experts.

Read more Toronto Star Doctors' Notes by U of T experts

Ross, who also practises as a psychiatrist in the trauma therapy program at Women's College Hospital, says she is often asked about how trauma affects the brain. People can feel trapped and helpless during the trauma, and overwhelmed and unable to cope for a long time afterwards, she writes. Also, their symptoms can emerge or re-emerge later in life.

Ross outlines four main areas of the brain affected by trauma: the hippocampus, which is responsible for laying down and integrating memory; the amygdala, which lays down emotional memory and is important in detecting emotions such as fear; the prefrontal cortex, used when thinking, planning and solving problems; and the brain stem, which reacts to acute trauma by activating the fight, flight, freeze and collapse responses. 

“The experience of trauma can have far reaching consequences and can contribute to developing additional mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Ross writes. “Studies show that traumatic experiences are also linked to an increased likelihood of developing a multitude of health issues including chronic inflammation and heart disease.”

However, Ross says there is help available: Research shows the brain has a "tremendous” ability to heal itself with proper treatment, including psychotherapy and/or medication.

She writes: “At Women’s College Hospital, when we work with traumatized patients in our trauma program, we often draw a big circle to represent the trauma, and a small circle within it to represent the self. In the beginning, trauma is overwhelming, but with treatment we hope to reverse those circles.”

 Read the full column in the Toronto Star