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Why We Should Understand How Trauma Changes the Brain

Marshall University counseling professor Carol Smith says new research about how trauma can change the brain shows a lot of practical promise. (Dan Heyman)
Marshall University counseling professor Carol Smith says new research about how trauma can change the brain shows a lot of practical promise. (Dan Heyman)
May 2, 2016

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - A new understanding of how trauma changes the brain shows promise of helping with crime, education, health care, even parenting.

Marshall University professor of counseling Carol Smith says traumatic injuries can be emotional or physical. She says the bad news is they can change the way someone's brain chemistry works, and leave them struggling to stay rational through a fog of stress.

"They can't think clearly," says Smith. "They can not put a sentence together very well. They can't remember where they put things. Their bodies are reacting to traumatic stress."

Smith says trauma is widespread, in fact by some counts there are more people wrestling with it than not.

Which she says may be one reason complaints of stress are so common. But Smith says the good news is that we know how to treat it, that people can come back.

In the past few years, techniques based on the new brain research have begun showing up in all sorts of places.

Smith says it often depends on being more self-aware; everything from teaching parents to take a breath before yelling at their children to teaching prisoners yoga or meditation as anger management.

"There are a lot of very smart people who believe that mindfulness is the antidote to trauma," Smith says. "The more we take care of ourselves, and the more we're gentle with ourselves and with other people, the less impact the trauma has."

Smith says our criminal justice and school-discipline systems are often based on the assumption that people make rational decisions.

She says that can work in a lot of cases. But she points out if people are dealing with trauma and are under enough stress, they have a hard time thinking through the consequences of their actions.

Smith says those people should be handled differently.

"When we look at somebody's bad behavior, we say 'What is wrong with you?' And a better question is to say 'What is happening with you?' Or 'What happened to you,'" says Smith.

Smith spoke about the topic last week during the National Association of Social Workers West Virginia chapter spring conference, the largest event of its kind in the country.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV