Back in 2009, when I ran the Edinburgh marathon with no training (very bad idea!), I didn’t eat for three days afterwards. If I told you that scientifically it’s cause my body was so busy repairing my muscles and dealing with the shock I put it under by running a marathon that it shut down the normal ‘unnecessary’ bodily functions like digestion, that would make sense, right?
Well PTSD is very similar. As you experience something really traumatic such as a physical attack, burglary, miscarriage, or car accident, your body shuts down some bodily functions and suspends ‘normal operations’ such as the memory processing function. Your brain thinks ‘processing and understanding what is going on right now is not important! Getting your legs ready to run, your heart rate up, and your arms ready to fight this danger is what’s important right now, I’ll get back to the processing later.’
When your brain eventually goes back to process the trauma and the mind presents the memory for filing it can be very distressing. The brain is unable to recognise this as a ‘memory’ as it hasn’t been processed as one, so the facts of what happened, the emotions associated with the trauma and the sensations touch, taste, sound, vision, movement, and smell can be presented by the mind in the form of nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive unwanted memories.
These re-experiences and flashbacks are a result of the mind trying to file away the distressing memory, but understandably can be very unpleasant and frightening because they repeatedly expose the sufferer to the original trauma.
As a result of this overworking of your brain trying to process the memory, it physically changes:
– A PTSD sufferer may struggle to find the right words to express what they are thinking and feeling. This is due to the prefontal lobe (responsible for language) being adversely affected by trauma and so disrupts its linguistic function.
– People with PTSD can find it hard to control their emotions as the amygdala (responsible for emotional regulation) is in overdrive, due to its increase in physical size.
– Short term memory loss can also affect those with PTSD as the hippocampus (responsible for memory and experience assimilation) actually shrinks.
– PTSD can make you feel frightened no matter what you’re doing – your medial prefontal cortex is responsible for this (its role is to regulate emotion and fear responses) as it can’t regulate itself or function properly after trauma.
Because of this, when it comes to treatment of PTSD, you need specific treatment to allow your brain to finally get round to doing this processing. This is why counselling, medication and other therapies may reduce PTSD symptoms in the meantime, but they serve to ‘mask’ the symptoms rather than solve the root problem and get rid of them completely. This is also why PTSD is not truly a mental health condition, but considered a psychological trauma, and needs to be treated as such, with different techniques.
I had incredible success with EMDR and it rid me of all my symptoms (physical and mental).
EMDR (and CBT too) gives your brain the time, space and capacity to heal. EMDR uses a natural function of the body, Rapid Eye Movement (REM), as its basis. The human mind uses REM during sleep time to help it process daily emotional experiences, but when trauma is extreme, this process breaks down and REM sleep doesn’t bring the usual relief from distress.
The EMDR process is thought to produce an advanced stage of the REM processing. As the brain, via the eye-movement, processes troubling images and feelings, resolution of the issue can be achieved by dampening the power of emotionally charged memories.
This ‘healing’ and the eventual processing of the memory it allows your brain to do, means your brain is no longer over, or under active and so can return to how it was before trauma occurred.
Your brain will return to being able to distinguish between past and present memories, regulate and allow a processing of emotions and fear responses.
With the right treatment, PTSD doesn’t need to be something you have to live with or just manage, you can heal from PTSD years after the original trauma and you can heal completely – I’m proof of that!
Written by Jacqui Suttie, Founder of PTSD UK
SOURCES: DrKathleenYoung, POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER , The New England Journal of Medicine, 108 · N Engl J Med, Vol. 346, No. 2 · January 10, 2002 , RACHEL YEHUDA, PH.D, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder What Happens in the Brain? Sethanne Howard and Mark W. Crandall, MD US Naval Observatory, retired, Wash. DC Reisterstown, Maryland, Brain Blogger, Heal my PTSD, Bremner JD (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8 (4), 445-61 PMID: 17290802, Bremner JD, Elzinga B, Schmahl C, & Vermetten E (2008). Structural and functional plasticity of the human brain in posttraumatic stress disorder. Progress in brain research, 167, 171-86 PMID: 18037014, Hull AM (2002). Neuroimaging findings in post-traumatic stress disorder. Systematic review. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 181, 102-10 PMID: 12151279, Koenigs, M., & Grafman, J. (2009). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Amygdala The Neuroscientist, 15 (5), 540-548 DOI: 10.1177/1073858409333072, Nutt DJ, & Malizia AL (2004). Structural and functional brain changes in posttraumatic stress disorder. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 65 Suppl 1, 11-7 PMID: 14728092, Rocha-Rego, V., Pereira, M., Oliveira, L., Mendlowicz, M., Fiszman, A., Marques-Portella, C., Berger, W., Chu, C., Joffily, M., Moll, J., Mari, J., Figueira, I., & Volchan, E. (2012). Decreased Premotor Cortex Volume in Victims of Urban Violence with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder PLoS ONE, 7 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042560, Shin LM, Rauch SL, & Pitman RK (2006). Amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, and hippocampal function in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071, 67-79 PMID: 16891563
IMAGE: A Heart Sewn Back Together by Jinx!