Brain, Body, Behavior

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we learn about the levels of impact of accumulated change following chronic stress and trauma.

Let’s take a moment to summarize much of what we’ve learned so far.

Both chronic stress and trauma affect us at three important levels: the brain, the body, and behavior. 

This means physiological changes, and changes in alertness, attention, and mood. All of this is influenced by alterations in hormone production, communication between neurons and brain regions, and various organs’ responses to signals from the nervous system. 

Some of the biological and physiological changes we’ve mentioned also contribute to changes in thought patterns, and possible changes in personality, sense of self, and relationships. Or in other words, our social behavior in general. 

Before talking about the effects on behavior in detail, for now, let’s review. 

Remember that allostasis is the predictive regulation of various systems. 

Allostasis ensures that our various systems–everything from our HPA axis to our immune system–are preparing and adapting based on predicted needs. 

And so much of what happens in the brain and body in chronic stress and trauma is due to a massive shift in how we predict and interact with possible risks. 

Simply, the hyperarousal and hypervigilance so characteristic of chronic stress and post-trauma responses sustains allostatic changes that favor and assume possible threats. 

Systems are turned “on” when really, they could use a break. But recall that all of the changes we’ve mentioned are in service of your brain’s number one goal: survival. 

Various symptoms associated with life after trauma–things like nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and avoidance–are, at their core, well-intentioned in service of protecting you. 

And in a world filled with adversity and stress, the adaptations our brains and bodies make are oftentimes unwanted, unwelcome, and detrimental in the long-term, especially in terms of their effect on relationships and behaviors. 

As the brain and body work to make sense of what happened in the trauma, or what is happening under chronic stress, all systems mobilize to protect you from future traumas, to help you survive at all costs. 

In such conditions, your body and brain and focusing on keeping you alive, and little else. Essentially, the elephant may take control of the situation, displacing the rider. 

With time, this disrupted communication can cause us to lose trust in our bodies and to lose our interoceptive abilities, negatively affecting how we notice and how we interpret signals from the body. 

Chronic stress and trauma fill the world with false alarms, inappropriate responses, and sensations that may be incongruent to reality. As such, it is easy to lose trust in your body and yourself. Before the stress or trauma, signals from the body as part of the interoceptive and predictive cycles were often accurate. After trauma, however, the body may respond to false alarms of imagined scenarios. And in an attempt to cope, you may ignore those false alarms, those bodily sensations. And over time, you learn to ignore your body entirely. 

Again, the brain and the body are deeply affected by stress and trauma, and those effects, with time, can affect how you think about yourself, others, the world. And that leads us to the final set of effects–the effects of stress and trauma on our behavior, our behavior towards ourselves, and others.