Post traumatic stress disorder is a serious mental health condition. It is thought several million Americans suffer from PTSD, with many going undiagnosed. PTSD is the result of a person experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, or a series of traumatic events. It was first recognized in soldiers returning from battle in World War I. At the time, it was said the affected soldiers were ‘shell-shocked’. We now know they were suffering from PTSD. PTSD is well known for its ability to cause disruptions to a person’s personal life. But how does PTSD affect the brain? That’s what we’re going to look at now.
First Things First
Before we get into how PTSD affects the brain, let’s talk a bit more about what it is. PTSD is, first and foremost, a response to trauma. That trauma may be encountered while on patrol in Iraq. Or it may be encountered in the home where a child witnesses acts of domestic violence. In either case, the result is the same.
The affected person typically experiences nightmares, flashbacks, intense feelings of anger or guilt (or both) and they often become isolated and fearful of triggering memories of the event. They may also become hypersensitive to stimuli, jumping when someone touches them or reacting to everything as though it were a potential threat. Mental health professionals, however, will not make a PTSD diagnosis unless the symptoms last for at least a month.
How Does PTSD Affect the Brain?
Today we have a much better idea of what PTSD is and how it affects the brain. Those effects are typically concentrated in two regions of the brain, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex or PFC. The amygdala is a small region of the brain located at the center of the temporal lobe. Its job is to:
● Detect and process threats and, if necessary, activate the ‘fight or flight’ response
● Activate parts of the nervous system whose purpose is to help manage threats
● Store memories related to specific threats for later recall
The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, has a related but distinct purpose. Its primary responsibilities entail:
● Helping you make decisions when faced with a threat that are in your best interest
● Regulating your level of attention and awareness
● Processing an event to determine its emotional importance
● Preventing inappropriate responses to events and regulating emotions
● Initiating behavior in response to the threat
As you can see, it makes sense that these parts of the brain would be affected by PTSD. PTSD is, after all, the result of events that often call for an emergency response from the mind. Comprehensive studies of people suffering from PTSD confirm the presence of a hyperactive amygdala and a less active prefrontal cortex. The end result being that the person seems stuck in a state of hyper-readiness without the benefit of the PFC and its moderating influence.
Exactly What Happens to the Brain with PTSD?
So, PTSD has a direct effect on those parts of the brain dealing with threat management. But how does PTSD affect the brain itself? The most common symptoms are:
● Hyperarousal – When a threat is detected the amygdala springs into action and extra norepinephrine is released to increase alertness and attention. However, the prefrontal cortex does not, for some reason, take on its normal regulatory duties. And so the state of hyperarousal continues unabated. The person becomes hypervigilant to potential threats (real or imagined) and restful sleep often suffers.
● Intense emotional responses – People who are always in a state of readiness, expecting a threat to emerge at any moment, are likely to become more emotionally volatile. They may be quick to anger or judge and they may manifest compulsive behavior as well. All because their amygdala is working overtime and their PFC is not performing its regulatory functions.
● Difficulty expressing or experiencing positive emotions – It’s not uncommon for people with PTSD to have extreme difficulty expressing or experiencing positive emotions. Because the PFC, which typically works to assign relative meaning to events, is not fully online the person’s ability to distinguish between positive and negative is compromised. And because they’re stuck in a heightened state of readiness they’re disinclined to entertain positive thoughts.
Treatment for PTSD typically takes the form of either therapy or medication. In some cases both. In recent years, mental health professionals have been impressed by the ability of ketamine to produce effective, positive results in even the most difficult cases. If you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD be sure to discuss ketamine treatment with your doctor.
Though most widely known for its remarkable ability to relieve pain and its history as an anesthetic, Ketamine is what some doctors are calling the biggest breakthrough in depression treatment in half a century.