Effects of Emotional Trauma on the Brain and Learning

Effects of Emotional Trauma on the Brain and Learning
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Introduction to Trauma

Trauma is a serious consideration in special education. When a child is exposed to a traumatic event, such as abuse, neglect or

death, it can have a life long effect on her mental health. The National Center for PTSD states that 15 to 43 percent of girls in the United States and 14 to 43 percent of boys experience a traumatic event.

Exposure to traumatic experience may lead to psychological conditions, with one of these disorders being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that affects many survivors of trauma. Three to 15 percent of girls and one to six percent of boys who have a traumatic experience in their life develop PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD; the organization adds that the percentage increases with certain types of traumas, such as seeing a parent killed or being sexually abused. For a child to be diagnosed with PTSD, she must meet the criteria delineated in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-IV-TR), which are at least one symptom from the intrusive recollection criterion, at least three symptoms from the avoidant criterion, and at least two symptoms from the hyperarousal criterion.

Besides the psychological effects of PTSD, the anxiety disorder can damage the brain, resulting in problems learning and maintaining attention. Many PTSD studies have focused on Vietnam war veterans, finding the more severe the symptoms of PTSD are, the smaller the hippocampus is (Bremner). The hippocampus is the region of the brain that consolidates short-term memories into long-term memories. Damage to the hippocampus can affect the patient’s ability to learn new information. Severe effects on the brain are seen with patients who experienced trauma during childhood (Bremner, Vermetten, Afzal and Vythilingam). Addressing these issues early can help the patient heal emotionally and progress in school.

Effects of Emotional Trauma on the Brain

During a stressful event, the sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response. The stress hormone cortisol is released. Normally, when the stressor goes away, the parasympathetic nervous system responds and returns the body to normal. However, in a traumatic event, which is caused by unusually large amounts of stress, excess cortisol is released in the body. That large amount of cortisol has negative effects on the brain, damaging the CA3 neurons in the hippocampus (Nixon, Nishith and Resick).

Impact of Trauma on Learning

The damage to the hippocampus impairs the patient’s ability to form new memories, thus affecting her ability to learn. Verbal learning can be affected, in which the patient has difficulty retaining information gathered from verbal sources, compared to visual. Another factor that affects learning after trauma is attention. Trauma can affect sustained and focused attention, though selective attention, which is used when processing sensory memories into short-term memories, is not affected (Jenkins, Langlais, Delis and Cohen). The combination of the emotional problems from the trauma and the physiological damage can impair the child’s performance in school, especially if she is not receiving psychological counseling. When teaching a child with PTSD or another psychological disorder that is a result of trauma, coordinating lesson plans with a psychologist can help address the child’s needs and difficulties.


  • Jenkins, M. A., Langlais, P. J., Delis, D., & Cohen, R. A. “Attentional Dysfunction Associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among Rape Survivors.” The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 2000.
  • Nixon, R. D., Nishith, P., & Resick, P. A. “The Accumulative Effect of Trauma Exposure on Short-Term and Delayed Verbal Memory in a Treatment-Seeking Sample of Female Rape Victims.” Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2004.
  • Bremner, J. D., Vermetten, E., Afzal, N., & Vythilingam, M. “Deficits in Verbal Declarative Memory Function in Women with Childhood Sexual Abuse-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2004.
  • National Center for PTSD: PTSD in Children and Teens
  • Bremner, J.D., et al. “MRI-Based Measurements of Hippocampal Volume in Combat-Related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” _American Journal of Psychiatry,_1995.

This post is part of the series: How the Brain Works

Informational articles about brain and how it relates to special education arenas.

  1. How Trauma Affects Learning, Memory and Attention
  2. Traumatic Brain Injuries: Resourceful Education Websites
  3. Looking Into the Dyslexic Mind
  4. Improving Memory in TBI Patients
  5. Online Traumatic Brain Injury Advocacy: Information Is Power