Want to find out a bit more about PTSD? Well read on. This article aims to shed some light on some of the symptoms of PTSD, some well known, some less so, and the explanations behind them.
What is PTSD?
First of all, what is PTSD? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological disorder which can affect someone who’s witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. The event could be a serious accident, war, rape or other assault (physical, psychological or verbal), terrorism or natural disaster. As seen from these possible causes, PTSD doesn’t only affect war veterans, though that was our first awareness of it. It was through the diagnoses of Vietnam war veterans in the late 1970s that the term PTSD was first used. Of course, it is not a new phenomenon, simply that it wasn’t recognised and termed PTSD until then.
It manifests in a number of symptoms that can make life increasingly difficult for sufferers. These can include flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, paranoia, mood swings, panic attacks and poor sleep. Much is written about PTSD, the symptoms and what qualifies someone as suffering from it. However, there is relatively little explanation about how our brains process trauma and that explains the symptoms. Our brains are incredibly complex organs and what is often not understood is that the way it protects us from harm is the same mechanism that can pave the way for PTSD. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the symptoms.
1. PTSD can affect anyone
PTSD can be caused by any event that elicits a strong emotional reaction. It isn’t reserved for war veterans. Any event our brain perceives as threatening, to our physical or emotional needs, is stored away as a trauma template. Once this template is stored, our brain will constantly be monitoring our environment, looking for anything matching these templates. These may become threshold traumas or even lead to PTSD. It is impossible to judge a trauma in severity from one person to another. So, what one person may find traumatic is not the same as another. If someone is stressed, their lives are unbalanced or they’re otherwise emotionally vulnerable, they’ll be much more likely to find an experience traumatic. Many situations that are traumatic often fade away after a short while and cause no further problems. But one in five people will go on to suffer with full blown PTSD.
Conversely, you may think that if someone’s been through a really tough time that they’d be guaranteed to develop PTSD. However, this isn’t the case; as we have said one person’s bad experience is another person’s PTSD. It’s important to understand that if someone is struggling, it doesn’t mean in any way that they’re weak. It is simply the way that their brain perceived the situation at the time. Additional factors may be their emotional state at the time, their stress levels or the amount of previous trauma that they have experienced.
2. You may feel as if you’ll die young
There’s often a sense of having a blighted future. This can take the form of not expecting to have a career, marriage, children or a long life. This comes under the ‘avoidance’ series of symptoms and is a result of the detached feeling that comes with PTSD. Feeling emotionally detached and numb is a defence mechanism to try to avoid situations that trigger an attack. When we are being repeatedly triggered by the trauma it keeps us in a state of heightened emotion.
Another feature of this state is that we lose the ability to think straight, as our thinking brain is compromised. So, we think in black and white, all or nothing terms. This might result in us thinking that a current situation will always be like this. e.g. I’ll never have a stable relationship or I’ll never be able to get a good job.
Our amygdala, the part of our brain that is constantly scanning our environment to keep it safe, gets bigger the more it is activated. This results in hyperactivity of the amygdala, and under activity of the thinking brain. In other words, the more the trauma is activated, the more likely it will be triggered in the future, since thinking is compromised. So it frequently happens that someone suffering with PTSD feels like they’re permanently under attack. Detachment is a defence against this feeling of attack. This makes it hard to feel an emotional connection to others.
3. Why you feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster
It is a well known fact about PTSD that sufferers can be highly emotional, often volatile. If your brain is perceiving that your situation is dangerous, this causes you to enter a state of fight or flight. In this state your body will be flooded with stress hormones and many other physical changes take place. However, we are supremely adaptable and with PTSD it’s likely that you are in this state a lot of the time without realising it. You’ve become so used to it that you’ve stopped noticing it, unless it’s a severe reaction. You might feel as though you’re suddenly overreacting to something, when it’s just that this situation is the last straw. It’s like a pot boiling over. You were unaware that the pot was quite full as it’s become normal for you, and then it doesn’t take very much for it to boil right over.
What happens then is that we feel as though we have a very short fuse. We may be quick to anger, to cry, to blame. This can also make us more jumpy and alert. Often someone with PTSD is in an almost permanent state of fight or flight. The brain is unable to rationalise sounds and images that when calm get fed back as normal. So it may feel as though you’re living life on a knife edge.
4. Why a traumatic memory stays fresh in our mind
A typical feature about PTSD is that a traumatic memory is likely to feel remarkably fresh in your mind. The event may have been years ago, but it can still feel like it’s only just happened. The reason for this is down to the amygdala, that part of our brain that acts like our security officer. As mentioned above, this part of the brain constantly checks our environment for signs of danger, using the templates that it holds as a reference.
In normal circumstances, the hippocampus, our memory store, works in conjunction with the amygdala to give the situation context. At this point it is explained and fed through to our neo-cortex, our rational thinking brain. However, if the brain perceives that it is under threat, it will trigger a state of fight or flight. This limits the ability of both the hippocampus and the neo-cortex from communicating with the amygdala. This stops the experience being stored away properly with context. Instead, it is kept in the amygdala, and forms part of the reference store that it uses to keep us safe.
The reason that the memory feels so fresh and new is that it is still an ‘open’ template. The emotional brain needs to keep it fresh so that it can be recognised if it happens again. Unfortunately the brain’s pattern matching is quite crude, and so it can mis-match frequently. This can lead to feeling panicky or under attack for seemingly no reason.
5. Why talking about trauma can worsen PTSD
Sufferers from PTSD are often given talking therapies as treatment. Whilst counselling can be effective, simply talking about PTSD is likely to worsen the trauma. Why is this? Well, when you talk about a trauma and re-experience it along with the emotion, your brain is reliving it. This embeds the trauma deeper. The emotional brain, having experienced this trauma again, will strengthen it’s need to keep it as a trauma. This is why any therapy that encourages the emotion of the experience, in a ‘better out than in’ approach, is in danger of worsening the PTSD.
The therapy needs to allow the client to access the trauma whilst still remaining calm. The treatment must allow the brain to re-process the trauma so it can be stored as a normal memory. Once this happens it won’t set off false pattern matches causing flashbacks and hyper-vigilance. It also will begin to feel less fresh and start to fade over time.
Find out about PTSD treatment
You don’t have to accept that there is no treatment for PTSD. There are therapies that address the traumas themselves, rather than just treat the symptoms. If you can process the trauma then the symptoms will not arise – it can be that simple. Make sure that any treatment you undertake will resolve the trauma rather than examine it and manage it. Remember that simply reliving the experience is likely to deepen it. The therapist should clearly understand about PTSD and how the brain processes trauma, and they must use techniques that allow the brain to reprocess it.
I hope you have found this information about PTSD helpful. As always, please share if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.
With very best wishes