Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
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PTSD Brain Science
The brain is especially sensitive to the effects of traumatic stress. Brain scans show that areas of the brain differ significantly in trauma survivors compared to healthy individuals.
PTSD disrupts the brain’s normal response to stress. Long after the traumatic experience, the individual continues to feel threatened.
Researchers are trying to understand the underlying biological mechanisms that drive PTSD. People with PTSD relive a traumatic event acutely enough to disrupt their daily lives. They suffer from avoidance, emotional numbness, anxiety, depression, and anger.
Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in three brain areas. The regions implicated in PTSD include:
- The amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter, is the brain region that experiences emotions and recognizes them in other people. Trauma activates the amygdala, sparking the body’s fear-response system.
- The hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure, is the center of memory, emotions, and motivation. Antidepressant drugs appear to counteract stress by acting on the hippocampus.
- The prefrontal cortex regulates negative emotions such as fear. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex [a region of the brain’s frontal lobe] plays a role in triggering emotions. Severe emotional trauma can cause lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex.
Trauma has also been linked to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. Other hormones drive hyperarousal. Individuals with PTSD tend to startle easily and have an exaggerated response to loud noises. Sights, smells or disturbing thoughts can trigger flashbacks.
Childhood trauma doesn’t just go away. Chronic stress turns into complex PTSD, leaving adults vulnerable to health problems and personality disorders. The landmark Childhood Adverse Experiences (ACEs) study of the mid-1990s showed the impact of childhood physical and sexual abuse, neglect, parental mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence. The repeated stress of abuse and parental issues changes the brain for life.
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