What Does PTSD Do to the Brain?

What Does PTSD Do to the Brain?

Illustration of soul searching

You witnessed someone getting mugged from a distance, and now you’re having trouble sleeping and are constantly afraid to walk alone. This response is normal after seeing a trauma, but if the symptoms persist for months and control everyday life, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.”

It’s normal to be afraid during and following a traumatic incident. Fear causes eruptions of many split-second shifts in the body to defend against danger or escape it (i.e., “fight-or-flight”). Most people react after trauma but recover from symptoms without treatment. Those who don’t heal naturally may be diagnosed with PTSD.

 

Who Does It Affect?

PTSD first appeared in the psychiatric lexicon around 1980 but has been loosely described in different ways for centuries. It’s been tagged as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” when describing its effect on battle-scarred soldiers, but anyone who’s survived a trauma or witnessed one may develop its symptoms. The National Center for PTSD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that seven or eight of every 100 people will get PTSD during their lifetime.

 

Know the Symptoms

Four kinds of symptoms characterize PTSD: 

  • Intrusive thoughts like repeated involuntary memories, bad dreams, or flashbacks.
  • Avoiding activities, objects, people, places, and situations that trigger painful memories.
  • Inability to remember critical event details; distorted or negative thoughts about oneself, others, or the world; and self-blame, among other alterations in cognition or mood.
  • Irritability, anger, reckless or self-destructive behavior, lack of interest in formerly pleasurable activities, being easily startled, or being overly watchful of your surroundings.

 

Ketamine and PTSD

Ketamine, used initially only as pre-surgical anesthesia in humans and animals, is now known to reduce symptoms of PTSD, other kinds of mental illness, and chronic pain conditions, using repeated and controlled low dosages. At Mount Sinai, one study from the Icahn School of Medicine noted that ketamine infusions “significantly reduce symptom severity.” Improvement was fast and remained over several weeks. The results “suggest this may be a promising treatment for PTSD patients.”

 

What Does PTSD Do to the Brain?

Over the past four decades, scientific techniques of “neuroimaging” have helped scientists find out that PTSD leads to distinct biological variations in the brain. Not everyone with PTSD has precisely the same symptoms or the same changes in the brain, but there are discernible patterns that can be recognized and treated.

  • The amygdala triggers our natural alarm system. When you survive a distressing event, it transmits a signal which causes a fear response to keep you safe. If you have PTSD, this response is over-reactive.
  • Scientists also note changes in the prefrontal cortex in people with PTSD. This is the brain region that helps us think through and make decisions and helps us put on the “brakes” if something we perceive as a threat isn’t one, after all.

If PTSD affects the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, you can expect a terrible mixture of emotions and behaviors: anxiety, avoidance, and strong reactions to something that isn’t a threat.

  • The memory center of the human brain, the hippocampus, also shows signs of distress in people with PTSD. Think of this region of the brain as the hard drive, a vast neural net with near-unlimited storage capacity for memories. Because trauma can be overwhelming, the hippocampus gets deluged and can’t process memory recall attempts, making it harder to remember what happened.

All three contribute to how we process thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Understanding how each one functions may lead to better treatment for people who have PTSD.

 

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing PTSD, as is the case with many kinds of mental illness, can be tricky because of overlapping symptoms and other health issues. Diagnosis involves:

  1. A medical exam, which may include blood tests, imaging scans, and other diagnostic procedures. The goal is to uncover any underlying conditions which may contribute to PTSD symptoms.
  2. A psychiatric assessment, where a mental health specialist will ask about thoughts, feelings, and behavior and inquire about personal and family history of mental illness.

Treatment may include psychotherapy, self-help, antidepressants, or hospitalization. Another form of therapy is ketamine infusion or Spravato for symptoms.

 

Final Thoughts

PTSD affects millions of people all around the world. You don’t have to be a military veteran to get its symptoms, but they can have a devastating effect on your life if not treated properly. If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, contact us today to learn more.

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