PTSD and the Brain

brain illustration

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

There have been many news reports regarding war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in recent years. The most recent case involves an Army vet, who suffers from PTSD, climbed the White House fence and went inside the White House in Sept. 2014, according to news reports.  But PTSD, a type of anxiety disorder, just doesn’t affect veterans. The PTSD risk is certainly much higher for veterans. But sexual assault, a bad car accident, a terrorist event, surviving a natural disaster, and the death of a loved one are examples of situations that can cause PTSD.

One in 30 adults in the United States has PTSD each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI). In the U.S., 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience a traumatic event in their lifetimes, according to WebMD. Of this group, eight percent of men and 20 percent of women may suffer from PTSD.

The Effects of Traumatic Events on Your Brain

Traumatic events can lead to difficulties that affect a person’s emotional and physical responses. In stressful or terrifying situations, your body goes into “fight or flight” response mode and elevates physical safety. At the same time, other body functions such as the parts of the brain where memory is processed get turned off, according to NAMI. Because these traumatic situations aren’t integrated, you may experience unprocessed feelings related to the horror and memories that can appear during unexpected and unpredictable times.

Furthermore, NAMI states that if you suffer from PTSD, you may have abnormal responses to the normal flow of emotion such as the following:

  • Hypoarousal – This response includes a numbness and avoidance of situations or feelings that indicate the brain’s self-protective efforts to reduce or keep overwhelming emotions under control.
  • Hyperarousal – This state is an elevated “startle response” to triggers that are perceived as threatening. This state of emotion is an effort to prevent another traumatic experience.

Source: NAMI Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet

Additionally, brain imaging studies have shown that PTSD does impact the brain’s biology. For instance, the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for emotional processing, is reduced in size. The amygdala, also known as the brain’s alarm system, is over-reactive. And the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s integration system, is under-reactive.

PTSD Symptoms

PTSD-related symptoms can appear until several months or even years after a traumatic situation. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the disorder is characterized by three main types of symptoms:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
  • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
  • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.

In general, symptoms can include the following, according to the AADA:

  • repeat avoidance of distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic events or of external reminders (i.e., people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations)
  • inability to recall an important aspect of the traumatic events
  • persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world
  • persistent, distorted blame of self or others about the cause or consequences of the traumatic events
  • recurring fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame
  • diminished interest or participation in significant activities
  • feelings of detachment or estrangement from others
  • persistent inability to experience positive emotions

How to Diagnose PTSD

A mental health professional such as a psychiatrist can diagnose PTSD. A mental health professional must determine if the symptoms have been active for more than one month after the traumatic event and associated with a decline in your well-being. Specifically, a mental health professional will assess any symptoms that fall under the three main areas mentioned above.

Treatment for PTSD

The Holiner Psychiatric Group will customize a treatment plan for you based on your needs. A treatment plan may consist of medication, avoidance of certain substances and psychotherapy to help you overcome the disorder.

Research has shown that 88 percent of men and 79 percent of women with PTSD also suffer from another mental illness, according to NAMI. Nearly half suffer from major depression, 16 percent from other anxiety disorders, and 28 percent from social phobia.

It’s critical that you get help if you suffer from PTSD. At Holiner Psychiatric Group, we understand how debilitating  PTSD can be and we want to help you on the road to recovery so that you can regain your life. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

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