Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a label that many of us have heard of in the modern environment. In Europe, it became acknowledged after the first world war and has since expanded to encompass trauma not only related to warfare, but also car accidents, abuse and other traumatic events.
Dependent of which model of therapy you work with, it has different jargon and a different lens used for assessing issues. From a neuroscience point of view, we look at how trauma impacts the brain in this article and some treatment options.
What does it mean to suffer with trauma?
Let’s look at the Limbic Area of the brain and how the different parts of it interact. Within this area is housed the long-term memory (Hippocampus) and the connecting emotional centre (Amygdala).
If we encounter any type of threat which could impact our safety, the amygdala goes into high alert or high arousal and it is this, that gets transmitted to the body as well as the brain. This causes both stress and anxiety that needs to be managed.
The key feature and symptom of trauma is that the amygdala is constantly in a state of heightened arousal; our inbuilt antennae are scanning any possible threats from around us all the time.
When this state occurs, we then produce too much cortisol into our bodies, which over a long-term period will place a strain on our organs.
Oftentimes symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder include nightmares and flashbacks of traumatic events. It is the Limbic Area of the brain that is the reason for why these dreams can feel so especially disturbing and real upon waking.
What does it mean to "relive" trauma?
Trauma is an association connected to the long-term memory, where someone affected by trauma keeps reliving a past event that the brain recognises as an experienced threat. The situation or event that the brain "replays" may not be exactly the same, but similar, because the long-term memory (hippocampus) and emotional centre (amygdala) interact with each other, it is perceived as such.
How many times have you been somewhere and picked up a aroma that reminds you of a smell from the past? The unconscious mind has its own language interpreted by sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and instinct, and any of these interpretations can trigger a memory and "reliving" a situation.
Another important factor with trauma is, that the brain has its own process of dealing with things and as each person is individual, the scale of the time process can vary and manifest itself from immediately (when the mind goes into shock mode to protect us), to any time in the future (delayed or repressed).
Are there different types of trauma?
There are many states of trauma levels — from mild to high, and different types of therapies target the variances of trauma. For PTSD, Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (E.M.D.R) has emerged as a successful treatment plan for many individuals. Within EMDR therapy, trauma is broken down into two areas — small t trauma and capitol T trauma (PTSD).
Small t Trauma: With small t trauma, it often presents as anxiety, which when prolonged for six months is diagnosed as General Anxiety Disorder (G.A.D). For many people, they are unaware that this condition is with them.
Capitol T Trauma - PTSD: With capitol T trauma, also known as PTSD, the symptoms are far more varied and severe, often including:
- Inability to sleep for long enough or disturbed sleep (flash backs).
- Feeling on edge all the time as if something is going to happen.
- Feelings of paranoia.
- Feeling irritable, suspicious, bad tempered and shut down from your normal self.
- Feeling drained with little energy (high arousal state takes a lot of our energy to maintain within the mind and body).
- Palpitations or a skipping heartbeat, internal and external tremors to varying degrees.
After experiencing a potentially traumatic event, make sure to check-in with yourself on how you may be truly feeling — in body and mind.
It’s extremely hard for us to fathom and understand our feelings and emotions, when we can’t understand what’s happening in our brains and bodies within the realms of trauma. Therefore, it becomes important to seek professional help when experiencing the above symptoms.
For many people, it takes the support of family, friends and other loved ones to give us the courageto identify that we need help, and make the next step in seeking professional help.
To find out more about depression or seek treatment from Elizabeth Van Rein, you may contact her directly through her profile (here). She offers online therapy and counselling, and is an accredited therapist in counselling and psychotherapy. She is also a fully qualified hypnotherapist practising in medical hypnotherapy and hypno-analysis.