By Trevor McDonald, Content Writer at TCM LLC –
When you think of PTSD, you may think of a male soldier returning from battle. But it’s important to understand that it’s not just men or soldiers who experience this disorder. In fact, one out of every nine PTSD sufferers is female and the way PTSD rewires the brain can be very disruptive to everyday life.
Anyone can experience PTSD from a traumatic experience. Some common experiences that are likely to result in PTSD are rape, battle exposure, child abuse, sexual assault, a physical attack or witnessing extreme violence. This isn’t an exhaustive list, for certain.
If you know someone who suffers from PTSD, the best thing you can do is understand the condition. With a little understanding, you’ll be equipped to offer better support.
Like depression, PTSD is a disorder that affects the mind. As such, it causes changes in the way the brain functions from the moment the person witnesses or experiences a triggering event.
It’s also important to note that not everyone who witnesses or experiences a traumatic event will experience PTSD. As an example, two people who witness the same gruesome murder may react in different ways. One may develop PTSD while the other does not. This doesn’t mean that one person is stronger than the other. It simply means that their brains reacted differently. PTSD is not a sign of weakness.
Let’s explore what happens in the brain during PTSD.
Fight or flight reaction
You may already be familiar with the “fight or flight” reaction. This is the body’s natural response to an extreme stress or trauma. Everyone experiences this reaction to some degree, but the triggering events may be different for different people. For example, someone with severe arachnophobia may experience some degree of fight or flight if a large spider gets too close. Others may be happy to see that spider.
For the most part, experiences that lead to PTSD are extreme enough that they’re likely to prompt a fight or flight reaction in anyone. So, in the example of two people witnessing a gruesome murder, they may both have similar reactions to the initial event.
Their reptilian brain takes over and all nonessential body and mind functions shut down. Fight or flight initiates.
Typically, the fight or flight reaction subsides as soon as the person returns to safety. But in our example, this only happened for one person. The other person remains in a heightened state of fight or flight.
The same holds true for 20 percent of people who experience trauma.
Elevated fight or flight reactions lead to heightened stress hormones, which can cause and exacerbate feelings of anxiety.
PTSD and the hippocampus
The most notable change in the brain of someone with PTSD can be seen in the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain responsible for memory functions. The hippocampus helps record new memories and also helps you to retrieve them later. This part of the brain plays a vital role in helping us distinguish past and present memories.
Patients with PTSD lose volume in this vital area of the brain, and this results in a reduced ability to distinguish between past and present experiences.
When someone with PTSD is presented with a trigger that reminds them of their past trauma, they may experience the same or similar reaction as they did in the initial event. This is why a war veteran with PTSD may not be able to watch violent movies or play shooting games.
Someone with PTSD will also experience loss of volume in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and an increase in activity in the amygdala. These changes are responsible for many of the symptoms we associate with PTSD.
The vmPFC is the area of the brain that controls the emotional response. Because their vmPFC is limited, people with PTSD find it harder to control their emotions and behavior.
The overactive amygdala may result in feelings of anxiousness or extreme stress whenever a person is triggered. The amygdala is the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions and handling the fear response.
Symptoms of PTSD
For people suffering from PTSD, trauma fundamentally changes how the brain operates. We may have ideas of how PTSD looks based on what we’ve seen in the movies, but it can be different for different people.
Someone who suffers from PTSD may have vivid nightmares, flashbacks or panic attacks. They may have trouble adjusting to change and/or they may need to avoid certain situations. Someone suffering from PTSD also may have difficulty expressing themselves.
Treatment for PTSD
Fortunately, PTSD doesn’t have to be a life sentence. It is reversible. The brain can resume normal functioning, which means the amygdala can calm down and the hippocampus can start regulating memories again.
If you think you have PTSD, it’s important that you get treatment. The outlook is good with the proper treatment, so don’t go it alone.
Your treatment plan will likely include a combination of medication and behavioral therapies. Your treatment may also include neurolinguistic programming, hypnosis or other therapies to help reprogram the mind.
How to get help
If you think you have PTSD, don’t delay in getting help. If you’re worried about the stigma surrounding PTSD, don’t. We’ve come a long way in addressing stigmas surrounding all mental health conditions. Although we have room to grow, there’s never been a better time to talk about mental health than now.
If you have a mental health counselor, talk to him or her about your symptoms. If you are a veteran, you may go find resources through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The important thing is that you start talking about the problem to people who can help.
And if you’re in a current state of emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911, go to the nearest emergency room or call the suicide prevention hotline (800-273-8255). Your life and mental health are too important to let PTSD go untreated.