When all is well, our brain is the greatest supercomputer on earth. A complex network of about 100 billion neurons, it’s not only great at processing and organising information — it’s really, really fast. Every second, somewhere between 18 and 640 trillion electric pulses are zipping through your brain. This matrix carefully encodes and stores your memories and experiences, collectively making up the unique mosaic of you.
But what happens when a shock disrupts this system? And why is it that this shock or trauma can linger in the body and mind, affecting your health for years to come?
The truth is that trauma is not just “in your head”. It leaves a real, physical imprint on your body, jarring your memory storage processes and changing your brain.
Untreated past trauma can have a big impact on your future health. The emotional and physical reactions it triggers can make you more prone to serious health conditions including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer, according to Harvard Medical School research.
Additionally, the risk of developing mental and physical health problems increases with the number of traumatic events you’ve experienced. “For example, your risk for problems is much higher if you’ve had three or more negative experiences, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs),” says Harvard research scientist Andrea Roberts.
From outward appearances, a trauma survivor may look whole and healthy, but trauma can fester like an invisible wound, weakening the body’s defences until it manifests in the form of an illness.
So what changes when we experience trauma? And where is it stored in the body?
Let’s take a look at what happens to our supercomputer when it experiences a shock.
Trauma can cause our memory processing system to malfunction: the declarative explicit memory system fails, so the traumatic memory isn’t logged and stored properly.
Instead, our supercomputer subverts to a simpler method of recording signals and encodes traumatic memories as pictures or…