According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), almost 4% of American adults have PTSD. Of those, 37% have symptoms that are classified as severe.
When a person experiences a trauma, the brain starts a process designed to sustain life. It first shuts down all systems that are nonessential and it moves all functions to a more primal area: the brainstem which connects to the spinal cord and sits in front of the cerebellum. This is where many of the bodily functions necessary for survival are located.
The lower brain contains three vital sections:
- Midbrain – Coordinates facial sensation, facial and eye movements, balance, and hearing.
- Pons – Works with other parts of the brain to regulate wakefulness and helps the person to be aware and alert, (paying attention to what is around them and their environment).
- Medulla Oblongata- Controls heart rhythms, blood pressure, and swallowing.
In short, the brain focuses everything on survival, releasing stress hormones that prepare the body to move into a particular response: fight response, flight response, freeze response, or the fawn response.
Once the threat is gone, the brain switches back to normal function, bringing the parasympathetic nervous system back online. This is a rest period that allows the person to process what happened.
Sometimes the brain does not switch back, it just remains in survival mode. That is what PTSD is. And the PTSD brain is not able to relax or process what has happened because it perceives the threat to be ongoing.
The brain of a person who has experienced trauma or has PTSD is often on hyperdrive.
The Trauma Damaged Brain
Here are some of the areas of the brain that are affected by trauma and lead to the development of PTSD.
- Amygdala – This is the area of the brain that activates the fight or flight mode. When there is no threat, that response is at rest. However, the brain of a person living with trauma is not able to differentiate past threats from current threats. When something reminds the person of the traumatic experience, the brain responds as if the experience is happening for the first time. It triggers a flood of stress hormones, and the fight or flight response is activated.
- Hippocampus – This is the area of the brain where learning occurs. A person who experienced trauma has a hippocampus that is less active and smaller than someone who has not experienced trauma. This causes problems with information retention, problem-solving, and memory. The person has trouble discerning past from present so they remain in a hypervigilant state and have intense emotional reactions.
- Prefrontal Cortex – This is the area where rational decision-making functions occur.
However, a person living with trauma has a less active prefrontal cortex. This impacts their ability to learn new information, affecting their ability to learn healthy coping skills and manage their fear. The hyperactive amygdala prevents the prefrontal cortex from making the rational decision to override the fight or flight response.
- Nervous System – PTSD keeps the nervous system in overdrive all the time which shortens the person’s tolerance of stress. This means that their stress response can become unmanageable much faster than a person who has not had trauma. It takes less to set them off or to experience a trauma response.
The psychological effects of this can include anxiety, rage, flashbacks, nightmares, memory lapses, decision making, panic attacks, irritability, concentration, sleep, and more. The person may feel exhausted or unmotivated and they may have trouble communicating.
How to Heal the Brain and PTSD
Some treatments can help heal the brain and diminish or eliminate the effects of PTSD. Some of the more common PTSD treatments include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy – This is a process that allows the person to change their behavior by identifying negative thought patterns and interrupting them.
- Cognitive processing therapy – This is a process that helps the person restructure the perceptions that they gained from the trauma.
- Neurofeedback – A non-invasive treatment that helps the person “rewire” the brain and form new, healthy neural pathways (thus reducing the symptoms of PTSD).
At Sandstone Center for Neurofeedback, we care about all our patients. If you have experienced trauma or PTSD, we can help. Call today or make an appointment online to talk with some of our knowledgeable, friendly health care professionals to create a plan to help you heal your brain from trauma.
*Sandstone Center for Neurofeedback does not diagnose medical conditions. Sandstone Center for Neurofeedback is a nonmedical, medication-free program for children and adults who struggle.