When a person has experienced traumatic stress in childhood or as an adult it can change the architecture of the brain in unhelpful ways. This is because traumatic stress changes neural pathways in the brain, making it easier for the brain to interpret normal stimuli in abnormal ways. This rewiring can make the brain respond to trauma-related stimuli in maladaptive ways. This can happen even if the stimuli are not actually trauma but are reminders of past traumatic experience, reminders that may remain mostly at the sub-conscious level.
The good news is that the science of “rewiring the brain” back into more adaptive functioning is steadily progressing. There are several talk therapies that are very effective in helping people return to more adaptive responding.
If you have experienced traumatic stress over time and think you might be overreactive to stress-related events, you can begin to strengthen your own brain now. Doing so will help you recover, and if you need talk therapy a recovering, strengthened brain can help that process move forward.
The most basic brain-strengthening efforts you can make are simply to exercise more, eat in a more brain-healthy manner, and get adequate sleep. We have covered some of the practices related to these three improvements in presentation archived at the WellnessMN.org website. There you can also find a growing list of “one-pager” resources on these and other topics.
So just what can these practices do for your brain? Here are three to ponder:
- Increase the functioning and health of neurons and supportive tissues—including in brain areas that regulate emotions, improve thinking, and process memories
- Stimulate the growth of new neuronal connections and facilitate the formation of new neural circuits
- Reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which are linked to a wide range of psychological and medical disorders
So, what else can you do to strengthen your brain?
Get a healthy amount of sunlight. Sunlight is thought to optimize serotonin and melatonin levels to positively affect mood and sleep. Sunlight also is how the skin makes nitric oxide, which helps to lower blood pressure. Twenty to 30 minutes of morning sunlight may raise levels of vitamin D and increase the metabolic rate, while helping decrease inflammation and autoimmune activity. Vitamin D is vital to brain functioning.
Reduce your intake of anticholinergic medications. Anticholinergics block acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps in attention and memory (acetylcholine is low in Alzheimer’s disease). These medications may increase memory problems, accelerate brain aging, lower energy levels, and raise the risk for dementia. Anticholinergics include OTC antihistamines and sleep aids like diphenhydramine, and tranquilizers like benzodiazepines. Discuss any changes in usage of these with your medical providers.
Image of author’s brain, shown actual size.