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PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Affects the Brain

Have you ever had someone say to you any of these things:

  • “PTSD isn’t real; it’s all in your head”
  • “Just get over it already!”
  • “Only veterans get PTSD”?

I speak all over the country about PTSD symptoms. Mostly, these audiences are comprised of civilians: survivors, caregivers and healing professionals. Sometimes, too, there are people who have no PTSD connection but have been invited to hear the presentation. Inevitably, whether it’s before the presentation has started or after it has finished someone addresses me to say some variation of one of those three things (on a really awful day, all three!).

Why don’t people “get” what it means to struggle with PTSD?

Essential PTSD Information

PTSD and PTSD symptoms are real and real science says you can't just get over it. Here are 3 important facts on how trauma affects the brain.As a PTSD survivor, I hated those comments while I was in recovery. They made me feel powerless, invalidated, stupid, pathetic and as if people believed I was actually choosing to feel as miserable as I did.

Now, as a healing professional, I make it a point to educate everyone I meet about what symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder are, where they come from and what can make them go away.

I don’t think most people intend to be unkind or dismissive when they say the things. We, as survivors, hear them as hurtful. I think they really just don’t get PTSD, or what it means to live with it. A few years ago, I wrote 10 Tips for Understanding Someone with PTSD. It was meant to inform outsiders what it means to be on the inside.

3 Facts on How Trauma Affects the Brain

Those ten things were my own ideas about why we behave the way we do and what we need while we’re working on coping. It occurs to me now there is even more basic information that we, as survivors, need to spread around: The science of PTSD, which we know now more than ever. So, today, three important facts about how trauma affects the brain that every survivor should know — and share with those who don’t understand:

Fact #1:

During trauma your amygdala (an almond-shaped mass located deep in your inner your brain) is responsible for emotions and actions motivated by survival needs. In threatening situations it:

  • increases your arousal and autonomic responses associated with fear
  • activates the release of stress hormones
  • engages your emotional response
  • decides what memories are stored and where they should be placed around the cortex
  • applies feeling, tone and emotional charge to memory (including the creation of ‘flashbulb memory’: when strong emotional content remains connected to a visceral experience of fear or threat.)

Your amygdala tunes to dominant experiences. The fear induced by trauma makes a deep imprint on your amygdala and hypersensitizes it to danger, which makes it seek out threat everywhere. In some PTSD cases, the amygdala has actually been shown to enlarge through excessive use. (In healing, this change often reverses.)

Fact #2:

Adjacent to the amygdala, the hippocampus is responsible for the formation, organization, storage and retrieval of memories. Technically, it converts them from short-term to long-term, sending them to the appropriate parts of your outer brain for storage. Trauma, however, hijacks this process: the hippocampus is prevented from transforming the memories and so those memories remain in an activated, short-term status. This stops the memories from being properly integrated so that their effects diminish. In some cases, when the hippocampus’ function is suppressed, it has been shown to shrink. (In healing, this change often reverses, too.)

Fact #3

Lastly, the prefrontal cortex (located in the front, outer most layer of your brain) contributes two important elements of recall: Your left frontal lobe specializes in storing memories of individual events; your right frontal lobe specializes in extracting a theme or main point from a series of events. After trauma, a few things can occur:

  • your lower brain processes responsible for instinct and emotion override the inhibitory strength of the cortex, so that the cortex cannot properly stop inappropriate reactions or refocus your attention.
  • blood flow to the left prefrontal lobe can decrease, so you have less ability for language, memory and other left lobe functions.
  • blood flow to your right prefrontal lobe can increase, so you experience more sorrow, sadness and anger

There are many reasons why we know PTSD is not “all in your head”, and why you can’t “just get over it”. With the three offered above, I’m hoping we can start a conversation around proof of what you and I know to be true: if PTSD were easy to heal from, you would have done it yesterday. Since it isn’t, respect must be paid and support given.

Michele is the author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your IdentityConnect with her on Google+LinkedInFacebookTwitter and her website, HealMyPTSD.com.

14 thoughts on “PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Affects the Brain”

  1. Agree and concurr with most of what you write and the advice given.
    As a veteran with the illness, your reference to Combat PTSD was unhelpful. I judge no one.
    My heart and mind goes out to all who suffer regardless of the cause of their PTSD.

    I would like to introduce the concept of ‘Moral Injury’ as a distinct an often severe symptom of PTSD. Often a symptom and a terrible complication of Combat PTSD as a result of active military action. The service personnel or veteran obeying orders acts contrary to their own moral conscious. For the military as a whole, the very nature of armed conflict rests on the foundations of ‘Justice and honour’ and the integrity of government mobilising the countries armed forces.

    1. Graham, the same is true when PTSD results from parents who abuse their children. Every authority figure known to a child will typically validate the actions of their parent, without even knowing what those actions are. By law, in the USA, children are property. And they can’t look back on their decisions to say, “if I just hadn’t enlisted, I could have avoided this.” How do I just refuse to be born?

  2. What about how a bipolar brain processes emotional stress/trauma? I fit all of the symptoms of PTSD after two major personal issues I’ve gone through in the past year, but since it’s a lot more common than witnessing a death or something similar, how would you know for sure the brain is processing it like PTSD?

  3. For Nearly TenYears I was The Victim Of Domestic Violence, Coping And Believing I Was Protecting My Son By Always Being There To Take The “Punishment”. In 2011 We Were Able To Leave And I Almost Immediately Became Increasingly Unable To Manage The Aspects Daily Life That Should Have Been Easier Without The Daily Verbal And Physical Abuse. ThIs Past Spring I Was Told I Am Suffering From Severe PTSD. I Have A 12 Year Old Son Who In A Year Has Developed What I Thought To Be Behavioral ProBlems Due To The Absence Of His Father. In Reading Your Articles, I Recognize My Own Symptoms, But Am Shocked To Realize My Child Also May Very Well Be Suffering From This! I’m Amazed I Did Not Recognize The Behavior And Even More Upset That Two Psychologists And One Psychiatrist Have Not Seemed To Make The Association. It’s

    1. Love to comment on what you shared. Doctors don’t make money off of well patients. I am an educator. I have a masters degree in education. I also have 24 years recovery from bulumia. I also was a victim of domestic violence and was sexually abused in the early ninties by a spiritual teacher when I was 23 years old. It has been a six year journey for me. My parents drugged me for 17 years on top of all this for something I didn’t have and I am a near death survivor. (Shouldn’t be alive right). I have studied incessantly about ptsd and the brain starting with a book that someone gave me on rage. It talked all about the amygdala and the hypocampus. Read up on that. To much adrenaline, fight-flight, cortisol levels raise damages the brain. The hippocampus no longer can effect the amygdala’s response to fear. It is like hitting your brakes to much on your car. Eventually they don’t work. You feel frazzled, out of control, angry and tired (adrenal burnout, chronic fatique syndrome, fibermyalgia) We have been burned out and drained (adrenal burtnout) and no longer have the power or energy to care for ourselves. We get angrier and more out of control. To feel in control some do drugs, others do alcohol, some become violent and end up in prison like my ex. Anyway. Stay grounded and intergrated. Unfortunately part of my abuse was being drugged when I didn’t need to, so I am very against that. Omega 3’s can help and Dhea. I also am taking coq10 which is really leveling me out. It helps with cell damage. Love your son with all your heart. Unconditionally. We need to look for solutions, not problems. My mother has an illness where she is obsessed with mental illness and tries to make everyone sick around her. It is an obsession. I believe in empowerment and healing. Empower your son. Give him encouragement. We are human beings first. We are not ill. We are many times healing from the sickness of others. We are the heroes and we are the survivors. We must carry on and not let others make us believe we are less than we are. Peace

    1. I too would be interested in the references. The number of substances now known to be involved in the response to stress and their evolutionary history makes it clear that a focus on the brain is a focus on the tip of an iceberg. There is a very long way to go before PTSD is fully understood. In the meantime a psychological approach offers the best help in coming to terms with this extremely variable condition.

  4. I too suffer with ptsd, but in a different way. After a botched surgery 3 years ago…..to which I nearly died…..was diagnosed with ptsd manifesting itself as out of control insomnia which I still have to this day. On average I get about 4-5 hours of sleep each day. Not good considering my many other medical issues from tbat horrendous botched surgery that I will now have tbe rest of my life.

    1. A herbal remedy I use occasionally to help me sleep is cat nip tea blended 50/50 with sleepytime tea.The water should not be boiled but heated to almost boiling(overheating destroys the oils meant to help) steep the tea 5 minutes add a tiny bit of honey and drink.
      Hope this helps!

    1. I have very strong feelings in general about the public’s ignorance. Do I have PTSD? It is just a word, It is a label. If it has cheese, tomato sauce and bread we call it pizza. It is a word to identify something. Why does it matter. Are you suffering from flashbacks, hypervigilance, fight or flight. Do you not feel safe? Has your life and survival been severly threatened. Those are symptoms which the stupid DSM has stated is what would be called post (after) traumatic stress disorder. Meaning that your stress is not really able to regulate itself because your body is still in the fight flight stage from too much cortisol in your blood stream. It does effect ones brain severely which can cause emotional outburts, trust issues, hyperarousel etc. I am a survivor myself. I was trapped and drugged for 17 years by my parents. I am terrified for my life everyday! They basically have me on life support right now. My brain is so damaged and if I interact with them at all my brain could break. You probably suffer from grief loss and depression. Ptsd. no. Unless you are fleeing for your life all the time and never feel safe and have had your very survival threatened, I would say not. You may have some trauma. We all have trauma. Some cause it and others suffer from their abuse. I am very sorry for your loss. It is not fair. A matter of fact when we lose someone we love, sometimes we lose a part of ourselves. An emptiness occurs. But with time and healing and the right support, I believe we can heal and become whole again and those parts that broke off can come back. I hope your son is in a good place. Bless you on your journey. Be kind to yourself. Healing takes time. Don’t let anyone tell you don’t deserve to heal. I think it is okay to have bad days and feel bad. Just let go and walk through it. And I hope you hold on to your faith (whatever that is) to walk through those doors that might seems scary, but may ultimately heal you. Take care

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