It’s not uncommon for many people, even doctors, to brush off PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a make-believe disorder. But it’s far from the fabricated psychological complaint some make it out to be. Researchers have used brain imaging to discover PTSD causes identifiable changes to the brain.Though war veterans garner the most attention for PTSD, the disorder also affects those who have suffered childhood abuse, sexual assault, near death experiences, attacks, witnessing violence, and other forms of trauma. In fact, more women than men suffer from PTSD.
PTSD causes a wide range of symptoms that are both emotional and physical in nature. It affects the ability of people being able to develop healthy relationships, grow in life, and meet their needs. People with PTSD often feel drained from constantly having to cope with ongoing and easily triggered fear responses.
PTSD brains structurally different
It’s not an unwillingness to change that anchors PTSD, but rather structural brain changes. PTSD shrinks some areas of the brain while enlarging another, all in a circuitry that keeps the person in a state of constant fear and hyper arousal. For instance, brain scans show PTSD sufferers have reduced volume in the hippocampus, the area of the brain on either side of the head responsible for learning and memory. This causes sufferers to have difficulty distinguishing between past and present memories and experience extreme stress in an environment that resembles that of the original trauma.
Another area that shrinks is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the inner frontal area of the brain. This area regulates negative emotions in response to stimuli. This explains why PTSD sufferers respond with extreme fear and anxiety to stimuli related to the original trauma. In the meantime, an area of the brain called the amygdala increases in size and becomes hyperactive with PTSD. The amygdala is in the center of the brain and involved with fear responses. This causes anxiety, extreme stress, and panic in response to stimuli associated with their traumas. These three areas of the brain form a circuit that, in a healthy brain, is able to respond appropriately to various situations. However, in PTSD, the compromised function of the hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex fails to adequately dampen an over active amygdala. The result? A brain that is easily startled and triggered into an over reactive fear response.
Rehabilitating PTSD with functional neurology
Now you can see why PTSD makes a person feel out of control when it comes to fear, turning the nervous system into a prison of almost unending stress that affects almost every aspect of life. Fortunately, the brain is very responsive to rehabilitation and PTSD sufferers can find considerable relief without drugs. In functional neurology, we use specific exercises and activities to dampen areas of the brain that are over responsive to stress and stimulate those areas that can help control the fear response.
Contact my office if you would like to learn more about functional neurology, and how to manage healthy brain function.