How the Brain Protecting Itself Can Cause PTSD

How the Brain Protecting Itself Can Cause PTSD

Sometimes a person’s physical response to trauma, like PTSD, creates changes in the brain

Too much of a good thing can be bad, and such is the case when a person’s brain learns to overreact in any emotional situation.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Brain

A person who develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic event experiences a natural chemical process that becomes exacerbated over time. Trauma is any event felt to be life threatening or have the ability to cause serious injury or harm to self or others according to research in the Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. When some people experience intense trauma, the body’s regulation of survival systems becomes damaged. Survival systems are the brain’s normal way of handling a dangerous situation, the so-called flight-or-fight response. In a dangerous situation, numerous hormones are produced as the body’s endocrine system and nervous system work together to coordinate an appropriate response to the danger.

Scientists aren’t sure about the exact causes of PTSD, but a growing body of research shows that some people are at higher risk than others according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Women are more likely to develop the disorder than men and some research indicates PTSD has genetic components. The following are risk factors for PTSD according to NIMH:

  • Past experience with dangerous events and traumas
  • History of mental illness
  • Injury
  • Seeing people injured or killed
  • Feeling horror, helplessness or extreme fear
  • Experiencing trauma without social support
  • Living with added stress after a trauma such as the loss of a loved one, pain and injury or loss of a home or job

Some researchers theorize living through traumatic events, particularly as a child, damages the natural regulation process that lets the brain know the difference between present danger and past danger. For example, the area of the brain that processes fear and then gradually forgets fearful memories may not fully mature until age 20 according to research compiled by the Dana Foundation. Other brain research shows the area of the brain that retains memory, the amygdala, may be overactive in people with PTSD while the area that reigns in fearful responses, the medial prefrontal cortex, is underactive. When these brain regions aren’t functioning properly, a person feels fearful at the slightest indication such as a smelling a scent prevalent at the time of the trauma.

Reversing PTSD in the Brain

A person who develops PTSD may experience symptoms within three months of the trauma or even years afterward according to NIMH. The symptoms include feelings and memories that make it seem like the traumatic event is ongoing. For example, a person may experience life-like memories of the trauma, known as flashbacks, or begin staying away from places that remind her of the trauma. Such behaviors related to the trauma may keep a person from living a normal life. Other symptoms may cause relationship troubles as the person withdraws from others to avoid feeling any emotions.

Since many PTSD symptoms seriously interfere with a person’s quality of life, effective treatment is important. Many traditional treatments include talk therapies that give a person with PTSD the chance to examine fearful emotions in safe settings.

While some older treatments were developed without knowing the brain responses that made them work, new research helps make treatments even more effective according to the Dana Foundation. Giving a person with PTSD the ability to talk about traumatic memories in a safe way and showing her the memories are in the past over and over again helps restore normal brain function. The brain areas controlling fear and memory learn to recall the fearful memory and replace it with feelings of understanding and calm.

Even newer studies about the effects of hormones such as ghrelin, a hunger hormone, and growth hormone on the brain may lead to medications that can prevent a person from developing PTSD after a traumatic event according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology news office. Higher levels of ghrelin in the brain are associated with more intense feelings of fear. The body produces more ghrelin when a person is under constant stress such as during times of job loss, being bullied or after the loss of a loved one.

Need Help Finding Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

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