Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental condition where an individual fails to recover or process an adverse experience such as death, sickness, financial loss, or divorce. The distressful event induces trauma. Trauma is a long-lasting negative and overwhelming emotional response to thoughts, feelings, stimulants, memories, and reminders of the adverse experience. The response diminishes a person’s sense of safety and ability to regulate emotions, function, or relate with others.
The body reacts to threats and danger through a physiological reaction called the stress response, also called the fight or flight reaction or anxiety. The stress response is essential because it is the only way the body can defend itself from danger. Unfortunately, trauma can interrupt this body reaction. It rewires the brain interfering with a person’s ability to process and react to the distressful experience.
Trauma’s Effect on the Amygdala
Trauma impacts the amygdala first. The amygdala, or stress response center, gathers, processes, and assigns meaning to internal and external sensations. It gets information from nerve cells and sensory organs. However, during a traumatic experience, the amygdala becomes overstimulated from the sensory overload, leaving it hypersensitive.
It malfunctions, creating glitches and errors in the information acquired from the ordeal. Every time nerve sensations relating to the traumatic experience reach the amygdala, it overreacts, sending phantom signals to the hypothalamus, which prematurely launches the stress response.
The premature launching manifests as agitation, restlessness, hypervigilance, apprehension, tension, helplessness, and hopelessness. The amygdala responds to the arousal as though the ordeal is happening in real-time. However, the person could be sleeping or working in the office with no danger in sight.
The Effect of Trauma on the Hippocampus
The second part of the brain affected during the traumatic event is the hippocampus. Information from the amygdala gets stored in the hippocampus. When the amygdala gets activated by triggers from past trauma, it retrieves the memory and stored stimuli from your sensations – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, touch, perceptions, and associated emotions to activate and sustain the stress response.
Each time the amygdala gets activated by stimuli from the trauma, it reinforces the trauma pathway, augmenting the severity of the resulting response. The hippocampus continues to record and build on this inaccurate memory, making the person believe the ordeal is happening again. It creates a vicious cycle of relieving the traumatic experience.
The Effect of Trauma on the Prefrontal Cortex
Trauma diminishes activities in the prefrontal cortex. The brain regulates emotions and cognition in the prefrontal cortex. In cases of intense arousal like anxiety, this part of the brain delays a person’s response, despite the emotional charge, encourages reasoning, and prevents overreaction. Unfortunately, its decreased function makes it impossible to think logically as the stress response rages on, spurring an intense and uncontrollable emotional reaction.
Symptoms of PTSD
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) lists the following symptoms of PTSD.
- Flashbacks – sudden and uncontrollable vivid snippets of the traumatic event flood evoking a strong emotional response.
- Intrusive memories – persistent and uncontrollable distressful thoughts concerning the traumatic experience.
- Nightmares – recurring dreams about the distressing event, eliciting an intense and prolonged response similar to your initial reaction.
- Deliberate thought and emotional suppression, and avoidance of matters regarding the ordeal.
- Memory distortion on crucial aspects of the traumatic event.
- Extreme negativity – accompanied by an inability to experience positive emotions.
- Detachment and isolation from people – resulting in strained and problematic relationships.
- Severe anxiety and hyperarousal.
- Hypervigilance – feeling like something bad is going to happen.
- Anger, irritation, and agitation.
- Diminished cognition.
- Behavioral symptoms like drinking, drug abuse, reckless living, promiscuity, or gambling.
Types of PTSD
Acute stress disorder occurs three days to a month after the traumatic experience. People with acute PTSD exhibit some PTSD symptoms, including flashbacks, intrusive memories, and nightmares, leaving them numb or detached from their experience. The symptoms are intense and interfere with daily living. It is possible to overcome this condition with support from loved ones or a support organization or therapy.
Without treatment, acute PTSD can morph into actual PTSD, which is a severe form of the disorder. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective form of counseling to help people with acute PTSD process their trauma. They get to piece together their fragmented recollection and use that information to develop resilience over triggers of the traumatic event.
Trauma pegged on a major traumatic event can become uncomplicated PTSD. This mental illness is uncomplicated because it is easy to treat. It also hardly co-occurs with other mental conditions. The intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, negativity, and overreaction have one theme – the traumatic experience. People with uncomplicated PTSD also exhibit irritation, mood swings, avoidance, or suppression of thoughts and emotions concerning the ordeal.
Although uncomplicated PTSD is not severe, it can morph into complex PTSD without treatment. The condition is manageable with therapy and medication. The therapist focuses on helping the person process their ordeal, know their triggers, and learn to respond to them without harming their health.
When a person experiences multiple traumatic events, they are susceptible to developing complex PTSD. It could be through repeated violence, war, or dealing with the death of a loved one and sickness. The condition can co-occur with other psychiatric disorders like dissociative disorders and depression.
The symptoms are severe and are usually accompanied by maladaptive impulsive behavior like substance abuse, reckless living, self-harm, or promiscuity. Therapy is crucial for people with complex PTSD because the burden of the condition impedes the desire to live. Complex PTSD is unbearable.
A condition is comorbid when it co-occurs with other illnesses. Comorbid PTSD occurs with other mental disorders to a greater degree than complex PTSD. Substance abuse always accompanies this disorder. All the mental conditions present require treatment because they function as enablers worsening and sustaining each other.
Comorbid PTSD is treatable with therapy and medication. The therapist administers treatment according to the mental illness combination. Therapy provides support, accountability, techniques, and skills to minimize the severity of the symptoms. Medication helps balance brain chemicals, improving therapy outcomes.
Getting Help for PTSD at My Psychiatrist
At My Psychiatrist, we understand how difficult it can be to live with PTSD. Our team of mental health professionals are here to provide compassionate and personalized care to help you manage your symptoms and lead a happier and healthier life.
Our physical offices in South Florida and virtual consultation services mean that anyone in the state of Florida can access the support they need. Our team is dedicated to helping you reach your goals, no matter what life throws at you. We are here for you every step of the way as you take back control of your life. Schedule your consultation today.