This Is Your Brain On Trauma

Plus a FREE Worksheet on Integrating Brain Change Approaches

As a clinician, it's important to understand the latest developments in brain science because it explains why traumatized individuals experience such strong and distressing symptoms. This understanding can help therapists choose techniques that change the brain in ways that reduce these symptoms.
Trauma Toolbox Brain Copyright Image
Of course, every clinician at some point or another has heard clients bemoan the fact that they just can’t change.

That may be a good time to let them know the findings of cutting edge brain science, including bottom-up and top-down brain change approaches.

Bottom-Up Approaches To Brain Change


Bottom-up techniques work through the body to change the brain, especially the lower, subcortical areas of the brain outside of conscious awareness and conscious control.

Bottom-up techniques may alter these brain areas in the following ways:

1. Less activation in the fear center (Amygdala) of the brain, which reduces how strongly you react to trauma triggers, increases the relaxation response, and decreases hypervigilance and the feeling of “always being on guard.”

2. More regulated activation of the interoception center (Insula), which lessens how strongly you react to trauma triggers as well as reduces anger, emotional outbursts, dissociation, and numbing.

3. More activation of the memory center (Hippocampus) of the brain, which increases feeling of safety, reduces fear, increases ability to cope with negative memories, and helps individuals experience traumatic events as occurring in the past.

Examples of bottom-up techniques include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Body scan
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Autogenic training
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Tai chi
  • Some meditations

Top-Down Approaches to Brain Change


In top-down techniques, the mind is engaged to change the brain. In other words, the brain, especially the higher cortical areas, can be altered with thoughts. For example, top-down techniques can be used to strengthen the prefrontal cortex (thinking center) or cingulate (emotion regulation center).

Top-down techniques may alter these brain areas in the following ways:

1. Increased activation of the thinking center (Prefrontal Cortex), which help improve focus, concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and connection to others.

2. Increased activation of the emotion regulation center (Cingulate Cortex), which helps improve conflict monitoring, emotion regulation, thought regulation and, more broadly, self-regulation.

Examples of top-down techniques include:

  • Cognitive reappraisal or restructuring
  • Talk therapy
  • Some acceptance and commitment therapy techniques
  • Trauma-focused interventions that emphasize discussing traumatic events in detail
  • Some meditations
Learn how to put some of these techniques into action by downloading this FREE WORKSHEET on Brain-Changing Tips, Tools & Handouts to Move Therapy Forward, from my new book Trauma Treatment Toolbox.


Meet the Author:
Jennifer Sweeton. PSY.D., M.S., M.A., is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and internationally-recognized expert on trauma, anxiety, and the neuroscience of mental health. Dr. Sweeton has been practicing EMDR for nearly a decade and has treated a variety of populations using EMDR and other memory reconsolidation approaches, including combat veterans, individuals with PTSD and complex trauma, and those suffering from treatment-resistant anxiety.

She completed her doctoral training at the Stanford University School of Medicine, the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, and the National Center for PTSD. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in affective neuroscience from Stanford University, and studied behavioral genetics at Harvard University.

Dr. Sweeton resides in the greater Kansas City area, where she owns a group private practice, Kansas City Mental Health Associates. She is a past president of the Oklahoma Psychological Association and holds adjunct faculty appointments at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She is the president-elect of the Greater Kansas City Psychological Association. Dr. Sweeton offers psychological services to clients in Oklahoma, Kansas, and internationally, and is a sought-after trauma and neuroscience expert who has trained thousands of mental health professionals in her workshops.Learn more about her educational products, including her upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.
Trauma Treatment Toolbox Book Cover Image
Trauma Treatment Toolbox teaches clinicians how to take that brain-based approach to trauma therapy, showing how to effectively heal clients’ brains with straightforward, easy-to-implement treatment techniques. Each tool includes a short list of post trauma symptoms, relevant research, application, and clinician tips on how to complete the exercise.
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