Neurobiology and Its Association with Emotional Trauma

Introduction

Emotional trauma represents the damage to the psyche following a greatly distressing or terrifying occurrence and might lead to problems in coping or operating normally after the incident. Emotional trauma affects the brain and could be caused by the psychological reaction to distressful events such as natural calamities or rape. After a traumatic experience, denial and stupor are common.

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Long-term reactions include erratic feelings, reminiscence, physical effects such as prolonged headache and restlessness, and broken relationships. Although some of the sentiments may appear normal for some time, when prolonged, most of the victims find it challenging to proceed with their ordinary lives. Psychologists and counselors have a fundamental role to play in establishing positive ways of dealing with emotional trauma affecting the brain.

Neurobiology and Emotional Trauma

The signs and symptoms of emotional trauma seem to reflect a constant, anomalous variation of neurobiological systems to the strain of experienced traumatic occurrences. The neurobiological systems which regulate stress management encompass some neurotransmitter and endocrine tracts in addition to a meshwork of parts of the brain that are identified to control the occurrence of fear at both conscious and unconscious phases.

It is not surprising that most of the current studies have centered on the exploration of such systems in depth, in addition to trying to explain the pathological transformations that occur in people who experience emotional trauma (Arnsten, Raskind, Taylor, & Connor, 2015). In particular, there have been and still are continued endeavors to connect neurobiological variations witnessed in people experiencing emotional trauma to the particular medical aspects that result in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They encompass altered learning, intensified provocation, and sporadic dissociative conduct as instances pertinent to the main domains.

Attempts to establish neurobiological markers for emotional trauma originally presumed that abnormalities were developed “downstream” from experience, as an effect of the traumatic event. Nonetheless, it could be that some abnormalities in the people experiencing emotional trauma just signify preexisting or “upstream” health problem, which is functionally inactive till recognized by the exposure of emotional trauma comprising of genetic vulnerability and discovered afterward upon investigation. On the same note, recent concerns have centered on facets that appear to alter outcome disparity in neurobiological systems after traumatic experiences (Burke, Finn, McGuire, & Roche, 2017).

The aspects encompass earlier trauma, female gender, the early developmental phase at the period of traumatic experience, and physical harm (which includes traumatic brain injury) in the course of emotional trauma. Such factors possibly result in susceptibility to, vs. resilience against, developing the posttraumatic stress disorder.

Any scars emanating from physical injury in the course of the traumatic event heal but the resultant emotional wound lives within the victims until they are addressed effectively. For instance, some victims fear to go near other people or to develop new affiliations. Change frightens such victims, and they stay forever shy of articulating their needs and desires to realize their resourceful potential (Grupe, Wielgosz, Davidson, & Nitschke, 2016). It might not at all times be evident, but emotional trauma stifles the vitality out of the victims. Telling the victims to overcome it does not help them because emotional trauma essentially modifies the structure of the brain and changes its functionalities.

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Emotional trauma results in psychological torture of the victims. The recollections of the occurrence keeps recurring, and the victims usually get striking flashbacks. Traumatized and panicky, the victims are almost all the time on the periphery, and the least of signals drives them back into their protective cocoons (Krishnan, 2014). Normally, victims attempt to avoid other individuals, places, circumstances, and objects that make them recall the experiences of hurtful events; such conduct is debilitating and bars them from having a meaningful life. Most of the victims attempt to forget the details of the traumatic event, presumptively in an effort of reducing the effect.

However, such coping strategies have negative repercussions too because, without an effective means of making the victims accept and settle with the status quo, there can never be lasting peace and solution.

Comprehensive neuroimaging research on the brain of patients with emotional trauma demonstrates that numerous regions vary structurally and in their operation from the ones of healthy people. Particularly, the amygdala, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus have a great task of eliciting the characteristic symptoms of emotional trauma (Liberzon & Abelson, 2016). These parts of the brain jointly influence the stress reaction approach in human beings to the extent that the victims, even many days after the traumatic event, continue to perceive and react to stress differently when judged against other people not experiencing the after-effects of trauma.

The most noteworthy neurological effect of emotional trauma is evident in the hippocampus. Emotional trauma has been found to result in a significant decrease in the hippocampus’ volume. This part of the brain deals with memory functions and assists people to register fresh memories to later regain them in reaction to particular and related environment stimuli. Moreover, it enables people to differentiate between current and past memories. Due to the lessened hippocampal volume, the people experiencing emotional trauma lose the capacity to distinguish past occurrences from the present ones or suitably interpreting environmental perspectives. The specific neural approaches entailed prompt excessive stress reaction when faced with environmental conditions that just slightly look like something from the disturbing past (Mandelli, Petrelli, & Serretti, 2015).

For instance, victims of sexual assault might be horrified of parking areas because they were at one time raped in a comparable place. Another example is of war veterans who find trouble watching violent films since they make them remember their trench days. In such instances, the victims’ hippocampi fail to minimize the disturbance of past memories successfully.

Life-threatening emotional trauma results in lasting variations in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex part of the brain, which is accountable for the regulation of emotional reactions elicited by the amygdala. In particular, this part controls negative sentiments, for instance, fear, which arises when a person is facing a given stimulus. The people experiencing emotional trauma have a considerable reduction in the level of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the operational capability of this part (Samuelson, Bartel, Valadez, & Jordan, 2017). This explains why victims of emotional trauma have a tendency of exhibiting fear, anxiety, and excessive stress reactions even when encountering stimuli not related, or just slightly associated with past events.

Emotional trauma seems to boost activities in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for the processing of emotions and that is connected to fear reactions. The people experiencing emotional trauma show hyperactivity in response to stimuli that are in a way related to the traumatic occurrence (Felmingham, 2017).

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This could bring about excessive stress, anxiety, and dread when they come across photos of or are given accounts of other trauma victims whose encounters resemble theirs and when they hear sounds or conversations associated with their traumatic events. What is fascinating is that the amygdala in the victims of emotional trauma might be extremely hyperactive to the point that such individuals portray distress and fear even when they are faced with stimuli not linked to the particular trauma, for example, whenever they find pictures of people showing signs of fear.

The Source of Neurobiological Abnormalities in Emotional Trauma

Many research studies have focused on the basic issue as to whether the neurobiological variations recognized in people with emotional trauma characterize indicators of the neural threat to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder upon being exposed to excessive stress rather than problems emanating from traumatic experiences. One instance is the occurrence of low Cortisol intensity at the emergence of trauma, which foretells consequent incidence of PTSD (Sinclair, Wallston, & Strachan, 2016).

In this regard, low rates of Cortisol may be a preexisting risk aspect that stimulates the development of emotional trauma. Reduced levels may disinhibit corticotropin-releasing hormone/norepinephrine pathways hence encouraging unconstrained autonomic and neuroendocrine reactions to stress, in addition to increased dread conditioning and traumatic memory integration. In the same way, the decreased volume of the hippocampus in emotional trauma has been an unsettled issue for a long time. There have been arguments as to whether the shrinkage of the hippocampus emanates from traumatic experiences or if it may be generally small in such people even before the incidence of trauma.

Research based on twin discordant for traumatic experiences have offered an approach to addressing the issue of the size of the hippocampus in the victims of emotional trauma although devoid of comprehensive resolution. Many studies in this field have been directed towards identical twins, encompassing Vietnam Veteran soldiers who were supposed to deal with trauma alongside their twins who did not work in Vietnam and the measurement of the volume of the hippocampus in every participant. As anticipated, amid Vietnam Veteran soldiers, the hippocampal volume was lesser in the ones diagnosed with emotional trauma when judged against those who did not have the condition (Felmingham, 2017).

Nevertheless, this part of the brain has been established to have an excessively low volume in twins, who do not experience emotional trauma, in spite of being exposed to trauma or diagnosis. Such outcomes imply that low hippocampal volume may be a preexisting, possibly genetic, neurodevelopmental, and almost surely a multifactorial susceptibility aspect that predisposes to the advancement of emotional trauma (and possibly other disorders associated with stress). Recent research from similar studies demonstrates that gray substance loss in the anterior cingulate cortex appears in contrast to be an acquired aspect. Further research is required to establish the timing and etiology of other major neurobiological factors of emotional trauma.

The Impact of Traumatic Experiences

The rising rates of people who continue to develop mental problems or death emanating from emotional trauma show that traumatic events are highly widespread. Such events encompass refugees fleeing in search of safety, occurrences of severe family violence, sexual abuse, and brutal killing of a loved one to mention a few (Felmingham, 2017). If not urgently addressed, emotional trauma could go a long way to distressing the integration of the victim’s system, emotions, and psychological and physical aspects (brain and body functions).

Moreover, emotional trauma might have effects on people’s spiritual and interpersonal welfare. Some impacts of psychological and physical effects of emotional trauma encompass the inducement of stress-associated hormone and neurobiological activity with influence on cognitive, behavioral, and mental coping.

Though occurrences of emotional trauma have neurobiological effects at every age, they are especially harmful to children since they can influence the progress of their growth and development negatively. The brain functions are enhanced in the course of growth through genetic stances and experiences in life (Sinclair et al., 2016). As emotional trauma brings about sensitization in people’s brains, it at times affects the operating ability over and above growth and development.

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Moreover, it has also been established that children who have encountered emotional trauma for long have a poorer academic performance and are easily scared when judged against their other counterparts. In this regard, even in situations where the children are not encountering emotional trauma anymore, the stress reaction capacity in their brains is persistently triggered.

Owing to the reality that the human brain has a fundamental role in a person’s daily life, its functioning may be easily adjusted and controlled with the resultant effect of motor hyperactivity, in addition to nervousness (Felmingham, 2017). Such circumstances are vividly illustrated in children who have suffered prolonged emotional trauma being easily sensitized, existing in a situation of extreme fear, distrusting other individuals (especially following experiences of sexual abuse), and overly responding to common stressing issues. A wide pool of studies affirms that changes in the brain function may sway the effects of emotional trauma through influencing the cognitive synthesis that controls remembrance thus creating problems in the articulation of personal encounters in an expressible emotion.

Emotional trauma affects the fundamental presumptions of the importance of the life of the victim, the positive insight of self, and feelings toward other people (Sinclair et al., 2016). The majority of the reflections and ideas that could be provoked by emotional trauma encompass viewing the world to be an unlivable place, decreased sense of worth, perceiving God to be unfair, and loss of confidence to mention a few. Other negative perceptions in the victims of emotional trauma include lack of self-respect, the existence of self-blame (finding as though they are guilty and deserved such maltreatment or punishment), loss of memory, and problems in handling the traumatic experience logically.

Coping With the Effects of Emotional Trauma

Effective interventions for the emotional trauma emanating from such experiences as sexual assault and sexual abuse affect the victim, parents (especially in cases where the victims are children), and at times the culprits if they are brought to book with the aim of thwarting future negative occurrences. On this note, both the perpetrator and victim of such vices as sexual abuse and sexual assault ought to go through counseling aimed at inculcating insights on the most excellent manner of managing their frustrations, animosity, insatiable craving, and psychological health problems. In situations where the perpetrators are alcoholics, the therapy offered ought to focus on assisting them to stop the consumption of alcohol (Brewer-Smyth & Koenig, 2014).

In severe occurrences, for example, the death of the victim subsequent to sexual assault, sexual abuse, or other forms of crime, imprisonment, and other strict legal measures ought to be put into effect alongside counseling.

It is useful for the counselor or psychologist to inquire about the incidences of sexual abuse or sexual assault from the victim. However, such conversations with the victim could draw negative recollections, and the therapist should be concerned that such memories could result in the victim engaging in such behaviors as alcohol consumption in an effort of forgetting the awful experiences. Nevertheless, to ensure success in counseling, the therapist must get as many details as possible in order to devise an effective approach to therapy (Sinclair et al., 2016). The therapist has to mull over both the present and past incidences and issues behind the emotional trauma, for example, sexual assault or sexual abuse.

Constructive spiritual coping methods encompass seeking solace from the Bible to make sure that the victims establish a strong relationship with God via practices such as prayer and forgiveness. Understanding the unconditional love and pardon of God and godly people could offer spiritual support that will assist the survivors/victims realize quick recovery and relinquish fury and bitterness. Such an approach will also enable the perpetrator to steer clear of wickedness and center on God for forgiveness (Brewer-Smyth & Koenig, 2014).

Consequently, the Bible does not just center on the victims but the criminals as well hence creating a comprehensive remedy to the problem. On this note, spirituality enhances pastoral counseling for the benefit of both the victim and the perpetrator by the elimination of fear, emotional trauma, and guilt through biblical assurances of the unfailing love of the creator. Pastoral counseling offers reprieve and hope, which eliminate the chance of helplessness following emotional trauma and remembrance of the occurrences that arose. Getting the sense of living through pastoral counseling provides strength beyond oneself and may lead to the development of optimism.

Positive coping methods in Christianity instilled through pastoral counseling by offering lessons on the significance of praying, reading the Bible, and the encouragement given by other believers apply spirituality and the power of God in dealing with emotional trauma. Such approaches create divine strength and develop sufficient coping practices to overcome the sense of weakness, susceptibility, and guilt effectively.

Conclusion

Emotional trauma denotes the psychological response to a dreadful incidence such as a natural disaster, adversity, or sexual abuse. The occurrence of emotional trauma hurts the fundamental suppositions of the insinuation of existence in the victims, the optimistic perception of the self, and the perspective of others. Most perpetrators of sexual abuse and sexual assault are male and normally the ones whom the victim knows. While suffering emotional trauma, the victims may sometimes seek safety and refuge from God, parents, and other people in whom they can confide, mainly pastors. If the sought refuge and support is not forthcoming, the victims of emotional trauma may start feeling devastated.

Spiritual aspects offer vital elements for deliberation regarding one’s experiences, practices, and beliefs. Learning of the unconditional love and forgiveness of God could offer spiritual support to assist both the victim and the perpetrator in recovering, avoiding criminal activities, and turning down wrath and resentment. Successful coping mechanisms could be offered in pastoral counseling through teaching the victim and the perpetrator the importance of praying, studying the Bible, and support from other believers, which employ spirituality and the power of God in addressing emotional trauma.

References

Arnsten, A. F., Raskind, M. A., Taylor, F. B., & Connor, D. F. (2015). The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurobiology of Stress, 1, 89-99.

Brewer-Smyth, K., & Koenig, H. G. (2014). Could spirituality and religion promote stress resilience in survivors of childhood trauma? Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 35(4), 251-256.

Burke, N. N., Finn, D. P., McGuire, B. E., & Roche, M. (2017). Psychological stress in early life as a predisposing factor for the development of chronic pain: Clinical and preclinical evidence and neurobiological mechanisms. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 95(6), 1257-1270.

Felmingham, K. L. (2017). The neurobiology of posttraumatic stress disorder: Recent advances and clinical implications. Australian Clinical Psychologist, 3(1), 31-46.

Grupe, D. W., Wielgosz, J., Davidson, R. J., & Nitschke, J. B. (2016). Neurobiological correlates of distinct post-traumatic stress disorder symptom profiles during threat anticipation in combat veterans. Psychological Medicine, 46(9), 1885-1895.

Krishnan, V. (2014). Defeating the fear: New insights into the neurobiology of stress susceptibility. Experimental Neurology, 261, 412-416.

Liberzon, I., & Abelson, J. L. (2016). Context processing and the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder. Neuron, 92(1), 14-30.

Mandelli, L., Petrelli, C., & Serretti, A. (2015). The role of specific early trauma in adult depression: A meta-analysis of published literature. Childhood trauma and adult depression. European Psychiatry, 30(6), 665-680.

Samuelson, K. W., Bartel, A., Valadez, R., & Jordan, J. T. (2017). PTSD symptoms and perception of cognitive problems: The roles of posttraumatic cognitions and trauma coping self-efficacy. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(5), 537-540.

Sinclair, V. G., Wallston, K. A., & Strachan, E. (2016). Resilient coping moderates the effect of trauma exposure on depression. Research in Nursing & Health, 39(4), 244-252.

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