Your Brain on Trauma Part Four: Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis
Here is the final part of our Your Brain on Trauma blog series; if you missed Parts One, Two, or Three make sure you check them out. In some ways, we have saved the most damaging for last. Although an overactive amygdala, an imbalanced prefrontal cortex, and fried hippocampus cause all sorts of havoc it is in some ways our overactive Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA) that causes the lasting damage.
First, what is this HPA thing? Basically, it is a loop in your brain and body that releases different hormones in response to different stressors. So, you get stressed or scared your body activates the HPA to release stress hormones like cortisol. The HPA plays a vital role in our emotions, sexuality, immune system, sleep, and energy storage. As you can see it’s really important.
In a healthy system, it releases the stress hormones and then once the stressor has passed it goes back to baseline and everything is back to normal. When we experience trauma the HPA get overactive and it does not go back to base line; we lose our ability to bounce back. This sounds bad as is but what’s even worse is that over time when we do not have the ability to return to normal it begins to have long lasting effects.
There was a study done known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) where the researchers looked at different hardships people experience prior to the age of 18 and what they found was incredible. Basically, the more stressors your experiences the greater likelihood you are to experience not only depression, anxiety, substance abuse, but you are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and early death. The theory is that when our HPA is overactive it inflames our entire nervous system causing a damage and chaos everywhere and therefore having long term consequences. Fear not, however, there is hope.
In order to help the HPA chill out there are things you can do:
Learn To Be Resilient:
Resiliency is our ability to bounce back to baseline. When we can strengthen our resiliency muscles we can retrain the HPA to function normally rather than being overactive all the time. Check out our earlier post one different ways to bounce back to learn more about how to become more resilient.
Learn to Calm Your Nerves:
Throughout this series, we have talked about trauma and the brain but there is much more to it than just that. Trauma affects our whole nervous system so if we want to heal from hardships we have to retrain the nervous system to relax. Some ways of doing that are deep breathing, singing/humming, yoga, and cold showers. There are a lot of others but those of some of the more common ones.
Also Read: Your Brain On Trauma Part One: The Amygdala
Every here the phrase “you are what you eat”? Well, in some ways this is true. Our nervous system is a machine and we can forget that a healthy machine needs proper fuel to run. Fast food, excess sugar, caffeine, and all around junk food is not the fuel our machine needs. In fact, in one study they discovered that being dehydrated by 8 ounces can lead to an increase in cortisol by 25%. That’s just one glass of water, imagine what could be done with a well-rounded diet.
Here’s the challenge: If you have read through all of these posts on trauma you must be interested or struggling yourself. So the challenge this week is to take care of yourself or a loved one by getting them the professional help they need. Have compassion and empathy for yourself or a loved one and know that even with all the tips in this blog there is still a journey that needs to happen in order to heal.
Disclaimer: This blog is designed for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. It not meant to be a substitute for any mental health or medical treatment. If you need a doctor or therapist please find one near you. Please do not attempt to do anything without your doctor and therapist or other professionals go ahead and remember to use common sense. Pictures from Pixabay.com.