The Science Behind PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes The Brain

The Science Behind PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes The Brain

After any type of trauma (from combat to car accidents, natural disasters to domestic violence, sexual assault to child abuse), the brain and body change. Every cell records memories and every embedded, trauma-related neuropathway has the opportunity to repeatedly reactivate.

Sometimes the alterations these imprints create are transitory, the small glitch of disruptive dreams and moods that subside in a few weeks. In other situations the changes evolve into readily apparent symptoms that impair function and present in ways that interfere with jobs, friendships and relationships.

One of the most difficult aspects for survivors in the aftermath of trauma is understanding the changes that occur, plus integrating what they mean, how they affect a life and what can be done to ameliorate them. Launching the recovery process begins with normalizing post-trauma symptoms by investigating how trauma affects that brain and what symptoms these effects create.

The 3-Part Brain

The Triune Brain model, introduced by physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean, explains the brain in three parts:

  • Reptilian (brain stem): This innermost part of the brain is responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes.
  • Mammalian (limbic, midbrain): The midlevel of the brain, this part processes emotions and conveys sensory relays.
  • Neommalian (cortex, forebrain): The most highly evolved part of the brain, this area outer controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory and inhibitory functions.

During a traumatic experience, the reptilian brain takes control, shifting the body into reactive mode. Shutting down all non-essential body and mind processes, the brain stem orchestrates survival mode. During this time the sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones and prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze.

In a normal situation, when immediate threat ceases, the parasympathetic nervous system shifts the body into restorative mode. This process reduces stress hormones and allows the brain to shift back to the normal top-down structure of control.

However, for those 20 percent of trauma survivors who go on to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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