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Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

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Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby Kassandra » Wed Jun 01, 2016 5:57 pm

by Michele Rosenthal
from The World of Psychology blog



After any type of trauma (from combat to car accidents, natural disasters to domestic violence, sexual assault to child abuse), the brain and body change. Every cell records memories and every embedded, trauma-related neuropathway has the opportunity to repeatedly reactivate.

Sometimes the alterations these imprints create are transitory, the small glitch of disruptive dreams and moods that subside in a few weeks. In other situations the changes evolve into readily apparent symptoms that impair function and present in ways that interfere with jobs, friendships and relationships.

One of the most difficult aspects for survivors in the aftermath of trauma is understanding the changes that occur, plus integrating what they mean, how they affect a life and what can be done to ameliorate them. Launching the recovery process begins with normalizing post-trauma symptoms by investigating how trauma affects that brain and what symptoms these effects create.



The 3-Part Brain

The Triune Brain model, introduced by physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean, explains the brain in three parts:

Reptilian (brain stem): This innermost part of the brain is responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes.

Mammalian (limbic, midbrain): The midlevel of the brain, this part processes emotions and conveys sensory relays.

Neommalian (cortex, forebrain): The most highly evolved part of the brain, this area outer controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory and inhibitory functions.

During a traumatic experience, the reptilian brain takes control, shifting the body into reactive mode. Shutting down all non-essential body and mind processes, the brain stem orchestrates survival mode. During this time the sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones and prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze.

In a normal situation, when immediate threat ceases, the parasympathetic nervous system shifts the body into restorative mode. This process reduces stress hormones and allows the brain to shift back to the normal top-down structure of control.

However, for those 20 percent of trauma survivors who go on to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — an unmitigated experience of anxiety related to the past trauma — the shift from reactive to responsive mode never occurs. Instead, the reptilian brain, primed to threat and supported by dysregulated activity in significant brain structures, holds the survivor in a constant reactive state.



The Dysregulated Post-Trauma Brain

The four categories of PTSD symptoms include: intrusive thoughts (unwanted memories); mood alterations (shame, blame, persistent negativity); hypervigilance (exaggerated startle response); and avoidance (of all sensory and emotional trauma-related material). These cause confusing symptoms for survivors who don’t understand how they’ve suddenly become so out of control in their own minds and bodies.

Unexpected rage or tears, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, shaking, memory loss, concentration challenges, insomnia, nightmares and emotional numbing can hijack both an identity and a life. The problem isn’t that the survivor won’t “just get over it” but that she needs time, help and the opportunity to discover her own path to healing in order to do so.

Throughout the brain several chemical and biological imbalances can present after trauma. Their effects are especially exacerbated by three major brain function dysregulations:

Overstimulated amygdala: An almond-shaped mass located deep in the brain, the amygdala is responsible for survival-related threat identification, plus tagging memories with emotion. After trauma the amygdala can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.

Underactive hippocampus: An increase in the stress hormone glucocorticoid kills cells in the hippocampus, which renders it less effective in making synaptic connections necessary for memory consolidation. This interruption keeps both the body and mind stimulated in reactive mode as neither element receives the message that the threat has transformed into the past tense.

Ineffective variability: The constant elevation of stress hormones interferes with the body’s ability to regulate itself. The sympathetic nervous system remains highly activated leading to fatigue of the body and many of its systems, most notably the adrenal.



How Healing Happens


While changes to the brain can seem, on the surface, disastrous and representative of permanent damage, the truth is that all of these alterations can be reversed. The amygdala can learn to relax; the hippocampus can resume proper memory consolidation; the nervous system can recommence its easy flow between reactive and restorative modes. The key to achieving a state of neutrality and then healing lies in helping to reprogram the body and mind.

While the two collaborate in a natural feedback loop, processes designed for each individually are vast. Hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming and other brain-related modalities can teach the mind to reframe and release the grip of trauma. Likewise, approaches including somatic experiencing, tension and trauma releasing exercises and other body-centric techniques can help the body recalibrate to normalcy.

Survivors are unique; their healing will be individual. There is no one-size-fits-all or personal guarantee for what will work (and the same program will not work for everyone). However, the majority of evidence suggests that when survivors commit to a process of exploring and testing treatment options they can, over a period of time, reduce the effects of trauma and even eliminate symptoms of PTSD.


Source: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2 ... the-brain/




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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby firebirdflys » Thu Jun 02, 2016 10:55 am

Kassandra wrote:During a traumatic experience, the reptilian brain takes control, shifting the body into reactive mode. Shutting down all non-essential body and mind processes, the brain stem orchestrates survival mode. During this time the sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones and prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze.
This is why one frequently cannot remember what happened or the sequence of events, it is not possible for the brain to form new memories when in the trows of a traumatic event, the forebrain gets overidden. It's also the reason memory becomes impaired, when fluxuating between hypervigilance and a relativly normal state, same situation, the forebrain shuts off. I had a teacher explain it once like this...our fight, flight or freeze response is in place to keep one safe from things that are threatening, back when we were running from the sabertooth tiger back to our cave and we saw a great blueberry bush whilst trying to escape....we will not be able to remember where that berry bush was. Forebrain overidden, memories unable to take hold.
Problem is those with PTSD are unable to regulate what is a real threat and what was a sound, smell, situation etc...that reminds them of threatening situation, bing! Now why did we go to the store?
This is a good article Kass.
I have some doubts about the claim that it can be overcome completly though. Takes many factors in treatment, lots of patience, lots of thearpies, a will to overcome, a quiet place to heal, a very strong support system. The symptoms may lessen and recovery will be more likely the closer to the onset of the trauma. Those in continual trauma for extended time or years, or do not have the resources or support to recieve healing therapies are likely to find their struggle harder.
In my opinion this problem is getting stronger and more prevalent in our society today. Games that promote war are creating distructive grooves in our brains, the constant onslaught of tragedies in the world broadcast for all to consume is hard for our brains to take. We are becoming a PTSD nation...well, world really. Its scary.
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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby Kassandra » Thu Jun 02, 2016 4:07 pm

firebirdflys wrote:We are becoming a PTSD nation...well, world really.

That.
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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby Xiao Rong » Thu Jun 02, 2016 7:04 pm

Hmm, Kass & FF: are traumas becoming more and more frequent, or are we simply able to recognize that many of us have experienced trauma and realizing just how much it affects us?
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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby Kassandra » Thu Jun 02, 2016 7:57 pm

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Recognition, awareness. They were always there. But like ff pointed out, I too am more shocked at how many people in the world are so traumatized, than I am of my own situation. Masses of people. There is a lot of good in the world, true. But, so much cruelty. It's always been there. Just realizing more and more "this is not normal" and shouldn't be so. What we may have just passed off as, "Oh, that's just their culture," we're seeing as, "No, those people are seriously traumatized. The dominant group doesn't see the damage it's causing the suppressed group...or doesn't care. But we should care." Less coldness now I guess, more compassion. But, the situations have always been there. Our own front yard is far from clean in America. We should start there before cleaning others', lol.



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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby silverowl » Thu Jun 02, 2016 8:35 pm

I've been coping with PTSD for the last almost 3 years now. Even with therapy and support groups it's been an incredibly exhausting process. What shocks me is how we can be so lacking of empathy with the awareness we have of the traumas that people endure in our own countries and around the world. But I'm an empath so maybe that's just me thinking that.
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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby firebirdflys » Thu Jun 02, 2016 10:31 pm

Yeah, there may be a bit of both. Like when you buy a car and suddenly you see that model everywhere, your awareness has become more acute to that car. But the one thing I can blame is media. Of many varieties nowadays. Not just the news which in the 60's we got rare glimpses of Vietnam and such. Stuff we never saw before. NOW, it is on all day in many forms. You are bombarded with traumatic images of war, fire, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, the chase of the day, and the latest shooting, who's been kidnapped, planes going down, not to mention the threat of terrorism....that alone is enough to keep one hypervigilant and that unfortunately is exactly what they are hoping for.
The other media I mentioned prior is video war games. They should be abolished. It's nothing short of brain programming. Course this is my opinion and I'm sure there is many who partake in such a game that would disagree, but I would be interested in a study upon these folks before and after they play these games to see how their brains are reacting to such stimuli.
Once upon a time I wanted to start the "Good News" channel with happy reports that made one all warm and fuzzy, news about higher achievers, people saving the planet, helping each other, children excelling in arts and music that sort of thing. No one thought it would fly, more rather "Chases from around the World" channel would be a hit. :twisted:
Then we have bullies who would want to be president, I can see kids all around the states thinking it must ok to lie, sling insults, call people names, putting them down and yelling at them. We want that as a norm? Who are these people?
So yeah, it's been out there all along but there are newer more saturating forms and we see sooo much more of it than we did 50 years ago. I think without a proper decompression between injury one cannot heal. Everyone gets a little post traumatic stress after a traumatic situation, it seems to be unclear why some people develop into full blown post tramatic stress disorder and why others don't.

How bout we can post strategies that we have found useful in overcoming PTSD?

1. Firstly forgiving oneself for any harsh or negative self talk that may have generated due to uncontrollable outbursts or other symptoms. You were not in controll, but maybe now we can apply the help we seek and find some relief. It may take time, little by little the healing can begin.

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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby tigerlilystarot » Fri Jun 03, 2016 2:25 am

This was so interesting to read. My fiancé is a combat veteran and has PTSD and tbi traumatic brain injury. I've been with him 2 years and seeing what he goes through hurts me because I can't help him. Sometimes he closes himself off gets distant and goes into his own little place. That's when I just sit relax and wait for him to respond to me. It is very hard sometimes but I wouldn't trade him in for anything..PTSD or not he's the other half of my heart. Thank you for sharing this. Blessed Be!!!
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Re: Science of PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain

Postby Kassandra » Sat Jun 04, 2016 8:35 am

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We started a thread sharing ideas for coping strategies to deal with PTSD here: ptsd-strategies-for-healing-thriving-t33363.html#p249691

But readers, feel free to continue to post here regarding the science of PTSD if you'd like. :wink:

Thanks.


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