Trauma affects the brain in several ways, including the activation of the nervous system’s three levels of dealing with threats, which are social engagement, fight or flight, and collapse or freeze. In this article, we’ll explore the neuroscience of trauma and how it affects individuals in these three stages. We’ll also discuss how trauma can lead to physical and emotional symptoms, and what you can do to help yourself or others experiencing trauma.


The Three Levels of Dealing with Threats 

The nervous system has three levels of dealing with threats: social engagement, fight or flight, and collapse or freeze. Social engagement is the first level, where you instinctively call out for help, support, and comfort from people around you. If no one comes to your aid or you’re in immediate danger, you revert to a more primitive way to survive, fight or flight. If this fails, you preserve yourself by shutting down and extending as little energy as possible. This last stage often happens if the abuse or trauma is repeated without the ability to escape. This type of trauma falls into the category of CPTSD or complex post-traumatic stress disorder. During this freeze response, one might collapse, disengage, or dissociate.


Physical Symptoms of Trauma

Trauma can lead to physical symptoms like stomach aches, kidney problems, and a drastically reduced metabolism. Heart rate plunges, and breathing becomes shallow. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, explains that when fighting or running does not take care of the threat, we activate the ultimate emergency system, the reptilian brain. This system is most likely to engage when we are physically immobilized, as when we are pinned down by an attacker, or when a child has no escape from a terrifying caregiver. Collapse and disengagement are controlled by the DVC, a part of the parasympathetic nervous system that is associated with digestive symptoms like diarrhea and nausea.


Mental and Emotional Symptoms of Trauma

Trauma affects mental, emotional, and physical health. It challenges not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think. When something reminds you of the past, your right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. Because the left side of your brain is not working very well, you may not be aware that you are re-experiencing and reenacting the past. You may be furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen stuck in one of the three levels you experienced when the traumatic event actually happened.


Real Change Needs to Take Place

While finding the words to describe what has happened to you can be profoundly meaningful, it is often not enough. The act of telling the story doesn’t necessarily alter the automatic physical and hormonal responses of your mind and body, which remain hypervigilant, prepared to be assaulted or violated at any time. For real change to take place, the body and mind need to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the present.



Trauma affects the brain and body in many ways, including physical symptoms, mental and emotional symptoms, and a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. Trauma can challenge not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.

To heal from trauma, it’s important to understand the neuroscience behind it and seek professional help. Our team is trained, experienced, and ready to help you thrive again. Click here to book a complimentary 15-minute discovery call today.

Our 3-video series, Healing from Trauma, can help you take the first step towards recovery. Our videos provide insight and advice that will help you decide if therapy is right for you, and give you the tools to start your healing journey.

Video One: How to Get Traumatic Images Out of Your Head

Video Two: Can you be Traumatized and Not Know It?

Video Three: Can You Get PTSD from Emotional Abuse?

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