trauma and the brain:

an interactive infographic

Trauma survivors sometimes feel as if they must be crazy because of symptoms or feelings they experience—like becoming triggered by certain sights, sounds, and smells or having difficulty with emotions or relationships. But these reactions don’t define who you are. They are part of your brain’s natural response to unsafe experiences, and as you take steps to engage in your healing journey, you can actually heal many parts of the brain that are still using those now unhealthy responses.

Explore some of the common brain areas that are affected by childhood sexual trauma below.


FRONTAL LOBE

The frontal lobe is the executive in your brain that helps you solve complex problems, make judgments, resist impulses, and regulate emotions. It’s the braking system that stops you from acting out on the cravings or compulsions that originate from the limbic system.

In survivors of childhood sexual trauma, the frontal lobe has fewer resources to process information and to help the limbic system relax. This can make it harder to focus, make complex decisions, manage impulsivity, and respond to the limbic system’s automatic reactions.1,2,3

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LIMBIC SYSTEM

The limbic system helps you survive by influencing emotions and memories.4 It tries to keep you safe by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. When the limbic system perceives danger, it reacts by getting your mind and body ready to run, fight, or freeze to keep you safe.

In survivors of childhood sexual trauma, the limbic system can go into overdrive. Even little triggers can create big emotional reactions and unwanted memories can continually surface.1,2,3,5

Learn More


FRONTAL LOBE

The frontal lobe is the executive in your brain that helps you solve complex problems, make judgments, resist impulses, and regulate emotions. It’s the braking system that stops you from acting out on the cravings or compulsions that originate from the limbic system.

In survivors of childhood sexual trauma, the frontal lobe has fewer resources to process information and to help the limbic system relax. This can make it harder to focus, make complex decisions, manage impulsivity, and respond to the limbic system’s automatic reactions.1,2,3

Learn More



LIMBIC SYSTEM

The limbic system helps you survive by influencing emotions and memories.4 It tries to keep you safe by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. When the limbic system perceives danger, it reacts by getting your mind and body ready to run, fight, or freeze to keep you safe.

In survivors of childhood sexual trauma, the limbic system can go into overdrive. Even little triggers can create big emotional reactions and unwanted memories can continually surface.1,2,3,5

Learn More



1. Thomason, M. E., & Marusak, H. A. (2017). Toward understanding the impact of trauma on the early developing human brain. Neuroscience, 342, 55–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.02.022
2. Dannlowski, U., Stuhrmann, A., Beutelmann, V., Zwanzger, P., Lenzen, T., Grotegerd, D., … Kugel, H. (2012). Limbic scars: Long-term consequences of childhood maltreatment revealed by functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging. Biological Psychiatry, 71(4), 286–293.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.10.021

3. Blanco, L., Nydegger, L. A., Camarillo, G., Trinidad, D. R., Schramm, E., & Ames, S. L. (2015). Neurological changes in brain structure and functions among individuals with a history of childhood sexual abuse: A review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 57, 63-69.
4. Rolls, E. T. (2015). Limbic systems for emotion and for memory, but no single limbic system. Cortex, 62, 119-157.
5. Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.