an author, speaker and post-trauma coach I interact with many diverse audiences from several different cultures, backgrounds and social groups. And I’m always amazed that, no matter what kind of group I’m with, I often hear the same misperceptions about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including:
I thought only veterans could have PTSD.
PTSD isn’t real.
Survivors are lazy and really want to hold on to their trauma.
The list of erroneous statements goes on and on and ignores the very human essence of this disorder. PTSD begins as an instinctual response to threat and continues as a reaction to the overwhelming nature of fear. The reason PTSD can happen to anyone who experiences a trauma – and why the effects of trauma can continue to reverberate even years after the original incident – has everything to do with the brain and how it processes (or doesn’t process) a frightening experience.
PTSD is a Normal Response to an Abnormal Experience
On any given day, more than 25 million trauma survivors experience symptoms of PTSD. If you or a loved one struggles with the many symptoms of PSTD – intrusive thoughts, recurring memories, nightmares and flashbacks, mood swings, insomnia, hypervigilance, anxiety, fear, panic, sleep deprivation, depression, memory loss, brain fog, concentration problems and the desire to avoid anything that reminds you of a past traumatic event – then you know how hard it is to live with a mind hijacked by fear.
It’s easy to condemn yourself for unwanted behaviors (e.g., rage, tears, addiction) and wonder why you aren’t “strong enough” to stop them, but the truth is this: In the grip of PTSD, you are not fully in control of your brain (reclaiming that control is one of the biggest benefits of healing). Instead, you’re at the mercy of how trauma affects your brain and the very deep ways it changes who you are.
How Trauma Affects Your Brain Function
Your brain contains three levels that work together to help you survive and succeed. The first level, your oldest and most inner brain (your “reptilian” brain), is responsible for instinctual survival mechanisms. The second level, located in your midbrain (your “mammalian” brain), is responsible for emotional processing. The third, and most advanced level, located on the outer band of your brain (your “neomammalian” brain), is responsible for cognitive thinking and decision-making.
In the best-case scenario, these levels work together in a balanced program – responding to true threat, processing emotions, and making choices and taking actions in alignment with creating your best life. Typically, your outer brain is in charge using its ability to assess and understand your environment to help inhibit any over-reaction that might occur in your mid- or inner-brain regions.
During and after trauma (and specifically in the presence of PTSD), however, these systems can become dysregulated. In the wake of trauma, instinctual brain processes override the work of your logical mind effectively causing it to shut down. In addition, that instinctual survival mechanism begins to overwork by detecting threat everywhere. When this happens emotional brain processes suffer, often becoming underactive. This causes memories to remain unprocessed and hung up in an activated loop (making you continually feel pain, fear or upset).
Healing the PTSD Brain
While brains scans prove that trauma can literally alter the formation of brain structures, similar evidence suggests that recovery often occurs. In brains of PTSD survivors who undergo successful treatment and make healing gains, many of the effects of trauma on the brain are seen to reverse. For example, overactive threat detection ceases, memories properly process and survivors experience increased clarity and thought processes. The key to creating these successful outcomes lies in learning to increase blood flow to the outermost layer of your brain, which can begin with good nutrition, breathwork and brain-training programs, including mindfulness and meditation.