A few months ago, we wrote about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD, a mental health disorder that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, accident, assault, terroristic act, or military combat.
Common symptoms of PTSD involve re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., nightmares, flashbacks, or emotional flooding), attempts to avoid reminders of the event, hyperarousal (e.g., feeling constantly on edge), and distressing thoughts or emotional reactions. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms need to last for at least two weeks and interfere with daily functioning. It’s estimated that almost 4% of the general US population is affected by PTSD — a number that rises to 55% of those who are serving or have served in the military.
For those experiencing, living with, or treating someone with PTSD, it may be helpful to learn how trauma affects specific parts of the brain in order to better understand the symptoms and treatment options.
PTSD Is Unique Among Psychiatric Diagnoses
First, it's important to note that PTSD is unique among psychiatric diagnoses because of the significance placed on the cause of the condition (i.e., the trauma itself - more on that below), rather than merely the condition. In fact, with the advent of DSM-5, PTSD is no longer classified as a type of Anxiety Disorder but its own designation: Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders — which acknowledges that its onset is preceded by “exposure to a traumatic or otherwise catastrophic, adverse environmental event”.
Start By Understanding How Trauma Affects The Brain
Over the past several decades, research using neuroimaging has enabled scientists to see that PTSD causes distinct biological changes in the brain; and in fact, functioning is impaired in areas responsible for threat detection and response, and emotion regulation — which accounts for most outward PTSD symptoms. Not everybody with PTSD has exactly the same symptoms or same brain changes, but there are definite “typical” observable patterns that can be seen and treated.
To put it simply, when trauma first occurs, our “reptilian brain” takes over — that part of the brain known as the brain stem which is responsible for the most vital functions of life (breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.). The brain stem kicks in the “fight or flight" response and all nonessential body and mind functions are shut down so that we can focus only on what we need to survive. Then, when the threat ceases, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in again and resumes those higher functions that were recently shut down.
However, for some trauma survivors, after effects remain, which we now know is PTSD. In these people, the brain’s “threat and alarm system” becomes overly sensitive and triggers easily, which in turn causes the parts of the brain responsible for thinking and memory to stop functioning correctly. When this occurs, it’s hard to separate safe and “normal” events happening in the present from dangerous events that happened in the past.
PTSD Impacts Three Parts Of The Brain Significantly, Causing Disruption To Normal Life
Research shows PTSD mostly impacts three parts of the brain: the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Here’s how these three parts of the brain work (or don’t work) together to cause symptoms of PTSD:
Amygdala: a collection of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobe (the lobe of the brain closest to the ear). The amygdala is designed to detect threats in the environment and activate the “fight or flight” response, and then activate the sympathetic nervous system to help deal with the threat. Those with PTSD tend to have an overactive amygdala, causing irrational thoughts and primal reactions. For example, a harmless loud noise could instantly trigger panic.
Prefrontal Cortex: covers the front part of the frontal lobe located just behind the forehead. The PFC is designed to regulate attention and awareness, make decisions about the best response to a situation, determine the meaning and emotional significance of events, regulate emotions, and inhibit dysfunctional reactions. In those with PTSD, the PFC is underactive, meaning that regulation of emotion and dysfunctional reactions does not occur when it should. An overactive amygdala combined with an underactive prefrontal cortex creates a perfect storm, causing those with PTSD to feel anxious around anything even slightly related to the original trauma, and/or have strong physical reactions to situations that shouldn’t provoke a fear reaction.
Hippocampus: a complex brain structure also located deep in the temporal lobe. The hippocampus regulates the storage and retrieval of memories, as well as differentiating between past and present experiences. After a trauma, the hippocampus works to remember the event accurately and make sense of it. But because trauma is typically overwhelming, all the information doesn't get coded correctly, meaning that someone with PTSD may have trouble remembering important details of the event and/or find themselves overthinking a lot about what happened because the hippocampus is working so hard to try to make sense of it.
Consequences Of PTSD Brain Dysfunction On Quality Of Life
Understanding how the after-effects of trauma impact the brain so significantly helps explain why PTSD causes such serious disruption in daily functioning. PTSD often affects the ability to have healthy, satisfying relationships or tolerate uncertainty and rejections without excess distress. It causes sleep disturbances, negative mood, anxiety, and attention/concentration difficulties that often interfere with academic or career success.
Other Disruptive Symptoms Of PTSD Include:
Extreme startle response
Decreased Positive Emotions
Detachment From Others
PTSD also often occurs with other related mental and physical health conditions, such as depression, substance use, and memory problems.
PTSD Is Treatable
The good news is that PTSD is treatable by trained behavioral health professionals. Treatment may include a combination of medications and behavioral therapies which have been proven effective on those with PTSD. And it goes without saying that each PTSD treatment and management plan should be tailored to meet an individual's specific needs since everyone is impacted differently.
The important thing to take away is that PTSD is real, it is explained by highly-studied changes in the brain, and that millions suffer from it.
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National Center for Biotechnology Information - National Institutes of Health (NCBI - NIH): Traumatic stress: effects on the brain
American Psychiatric Association: What is PTSD?
US Dept. of Veterans Affairs: PTSD History and Overview