Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when psychological or physical trauma becomes too much for the mind to normally process. In a crisis, the body’s “fight, flight or freeze” reaction naturally reacts in ways that enable coping, as survival mechanisms respond to a crisis state. Blood tends to move from the extremities to the vital organs such as the heart, brain and lungs, as adrenaline surges to enable quick decisions, physical strength and heightened alertness to enable escape. However, in some cases, these emergency responses repeatedly occur once the trauma has subsided, taxing the brains and bodies of those suffering from PTSD.
What Actually Causes PTSD?
PTSD occurs when the brain cannot process memories that are particularly harrowing or threatening in its usual manner. Memories that would normally resolve into the past remain just under the surface, causing the PTSD sufferer to believe that events are reoccurring in the present – often triggering a series of crisis responses when they are no longer needed for survival. However, to the traumatized brain, the threat of death persists, as cues are stored to prevent the pain and threat of a recurrence. This leads sufferers of PTSD to exist in a state of hypervigilance – constantly on guard for signs that their lives or well-being may be in danger, particularly when cues mimic those associated with the trauma itself.
Potential Factors Contributing to PTSD
Of course, not every individual who survives a life-threatening situation develops PTSD. This has led to a host of scientific research and ensuing speculation by experts as to why some develop PTSD while others do not. Historically, theories have included the incidence of childhood trauma predating the adult traumatic experience, lack of support systems or coping skills, negative world or self-views, personal body chemistry, existence of comorbid mental health disorders and even the physical size of the PTSD sufferer’s hippocampus region in the brain. However, many individuals develop PTSD without these factors present, and many such dynamics also demonstrate themselves as part of the disorder, causing issues of causality to arise. While no hard, predictive evidence exists to indicate why certain individuals exhibit symptoms of PTSD, the incidence of life-threatening trauma remains a commonality among sufferers.
Complex, Delayed Onset and Chronic PTSD
In order to elicit a diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms associated with the dissociative anxiety disorder must persist for at least one month. In cases where PSTD symptoms persist for six months or more, chronic PTSD is diagnosed. As the mind suppresses trauma, some individuals find that PTSD symptoms do not arise immediately after the traumatic event itself – particularly if the individual has existed in a state of denial. Delayed onset PTSD occurs in cases where PTSD symptoms first surface six months after the traumatic event or later. One final variant of PTSD, known as complex PTSD or C-PTSD, generally involves multiple points of trauma, some aspect of captivity, and loss of identity and self-worth.