Amid More Mass Shootings, A Study of Trauma and the Brain

life-threatening ordeals affect the amygdala, hippocampus, and more

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The United States is mourning the victims of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, as seen in this ABC News article. The two domestic terror incidents occurred within 24 hours, killing 31 and shocking the nation. How are survivors of trauma affected?

Trauma sufferer is shown dealing with psychological after-effects by talking with a therapist
Trauma sufferers experience lasting after-effects of traumatic events both physically and psychologically. Photo by / Shutterstock

The shooters in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, took 31 lives and injured dozens of others. In similar situations, uninjured witnesses to the murders often suffer serious psychological trauma. Even the public, who hears about incidents like these in the news, is sometimes affected by the fear that comes from mass shootings’ senseless and random violence. In times like these, it can be beneficial to look at how we process traumatic events and cope with their consequences.

Trauma: In the Moment

Understanding what trauma is can help us manage it. “Trauma is what happens to our body when we experience an extremely distressing and often life-threatening event or series of events,” Molly Birkholm, trauma specialist, said. “Think of trauma as an emotional injury. When we injure ourselves physically, we are often left with a scar or body part that is more susceptible to pain, discomfort, or injurytrauma can leave similar scars and vulnerabilities on our emotions.”

Birkholm said that traumatic experiences are stored in our body’s cells, so when we’re reminded of that traumatic experience, it’s similar to aggravating an old physical injury that has affected us. In addition, unlike physical injury, trauma can affect us even if we weren’t the victims of the traumatic event. “Even hearing about the trauma that someone has experienced can be traumatic for some peoplean experience known as vicarious trauma,” she said. “This can happen especially if the person who experienced the trauma is someone we’re close to.”

Trauma and the Brain

Unfortunately, trauma isn’t merely the fear or stress we feel during a severely distressing eventit can last a lifetime and it takes a toll on the brain. “Trauma is often too big for our brain to process,” Birkholm said. “When this happens, it becomes stuck in our brain as a series of fragmented, unprocessed memories, rather than being stored as a processed memory of a past event. These unprocessed bits of memory make it feel as though we are living our traumatic experience in the present moment, and can cause us to relive it again and again through nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive memories.”

Trauma can also leave the amygdalathe brain’s fear centerin a frequent hyperreactive state. This creates what Birkholm called a “practically constant flood of stress hormones.” Furthermore, trauma can physically affect the hippocampus and the Broca’s area of the prefrontal cortex. “The hippocampus is a piece of our brain that is largely responsible for our ability to form memories,” she said. “Trauma causes the hippocampus to shrink; and when this happens, it becomes more difficult for us to process our experiences and form complete memories.”

The Broca’s area “is heavily involved in our ability to talk,” Birkholm said. During a flashback to a traumatic event, the Broca’s area can completely shut down, making it physically impossible for a traumatized person to verbalize what they’re going through to someone like a therapist.

When someone experiences a traumatic event, the trauma that results from it could be with them for life. Understanding what trauma is and how it affects the sufferer both psychologically and physically are two good, first steps on the road to healing.

Molly Birkholm contributed to this article. She is a trauma specialist and iRest® trainer affiliated with the iRest Institute; a cofounder of Warriors at Ease; and the CEO of Molly Birkholm, Inc. As a yoga and meditation teacher and trainer, professional speaker, consultant, and writer, she inspires others to create meaningful life changes using research-based yoga and mindfulness meditation techniques.