How can trauma affect the brain?

How can trauma affect the brain?

I don’t know about you, but I find the human brain fascinating!

Our brains are such powerful and delicate organs, and what they do to protect us is incredible.

Have you ever read the book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Dr. Kevin M. Gilmartin? Even if you are not in law enforcement, if you are in any first responder role, you need to read this book!

Dr. Gilmartin talks about the biology behind hypervigilance. He describes hypervigilance as the “necessary manner of viewing the world from a threat-based perspective, having the mindset to see the events unfolding as potentially hazardous.” 

Basically, expect every situation to take a turn for the worst.

Whether you are a firefighter, police officer, dispatcher, EMS/EMT, corrections officer, ER medical staff, or any other first responder, this is the mindset you have to have when working to ensure everyone survives the day.

Why is that? Because you literally have to plan for traumatic events to occur.

Hypervigilance is actually a product of trauma. 


So how does this all impact my brain?

First, we have to get a little technical.

In your body, you have the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS runs all of the systems in your body that you don’t even consciously think about, such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and digestion. 

In the ANS, you have two branches:

  1. The Sympathetic Nervous System, which speeds everything up.
  2. The Parasympathetic Nervous System, which slows everything down.

When you face a threatening situation, your Sympathetic Nervous System takes control, and your amygdala hijacks your brain. The amygdala is the emotion regulation center of the brain (if you have seen the Pixar movie Inside Out, it is “headquarters”). It basically screams “DANGER!” and the rest of the brain diverts chemical and electrical energy to the Sympathetic Nervous System in order to help you overcome the threat. 

Now, as a first responder, you are trained to not react when your Sympathetic Nervous System is triggered.


By drilling the procedures over and over again into your brain until the neurons in your brain are able to quickly send signals of what to do with each specific potential threat. It becomes muscle memory rather than a logical thinking and processing response. 

But here is the thing. Sometimes, your brain still doesn’t quite compute that the perceived threat was not a real threat, and your brain can stay stuck in the heightened state.

As a first responder, you have a more challenging time with managing this state. You are constantly being exposed to a perceived threat (even outside of the global pandemic), but there is constantly a real and present threat in the work you face every day, whether it is directed at you or someone else’s life is in danger. 

Your body is trying to navigate this every day, and this can directly impact the fatigue and tiredness you feel often during your work week. You are going from regulated to dysregulated to regulated to dysregulated over and over again throughout the week, if not throughout your shift. 


The Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster

What does this do to your brain?

Dr. Gilmartin calls it the “Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster”.

On shift, you are in your Sympathetic Nervous System, when you are alert, focused, and alive. When you get off shift, your Parasympathetic Nervous System takes over, and you become detached, exhausted, and apathetic

This is your brains natural response to the constant exposure to threatening situations. 

Little note, your brain does this to keep you alive when there are threats. It is fascinating! It is just frustrating when your job exposes you to threats over and over again every single shift.


So how do I overcome this brain stuff?


You CAN overcome the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster!

Here are 3 simple ways you can care for your brain with the trauma you are exposed to:

  1. Drink more water.
  2. Schedule time to exercise. 
  3. Get professional help.


1. Drink more water. 

I know, everyone is tired of hearing this one, but it is so true! When you are constantly pumping coffee and energy drinks into your body to make it through a shift, your heart and digestive track get out of synch. And this messes with your ANS. 

A general rule of thumb is a minimum of 65 ounces of water a day.

But really, you should try to drink half of your weight in ounces of water each day (if you weigh 190 pounds, you drink 95 ounces of water each day). 


2. Schedule time to exercise. 

I cannot even begin to tell you in a blog how important it is to exercise! Exercising helps to regulate your ANS and get your brain back to a logical thinking state, rather than being hijacked by the amygdala.

Exercising also helps to relieve stress an make you feel more relaxed. You may be tired, but it will definitely help you if you are feeling detached or apathetic. 

But make sure you put it in your schedule! If you don’t schedule it, it won’t happen.


3. Get professional help.

Here is the thing about your brain: your brain is unique and doesn’t respond to all coping strategies the same. 

A counselor who gets the first responder lifestyle can help you to learn ways of controlling your ANS and your responses to the biological rollercoaster that are helpful. 

Learn more about how counseling can help first responders. 


Don’t wait until your brain is overwhelmed with the trauma you are exposed to every day! We can help first responders learn how to better manage your responses and live your life in control again!



Take care, friends!


Alisha Sweyd


Alisha is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is also the Director and Co-Founder of Code 3 Counseling. Alisha specializes in working with first responder couples. You can contact her through our website. 

If you find that this exercise or these conversations brought up some stuff you are struggling with, either individually or in your relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. We are here to support you, and we understand that this can be a challenging issue to face. 



Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash