Nightmares, flashbacks, distorted thoughts and overwhelming emotions. These are all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. This disorder occurs not only in those that experienced a traumatic event such as war, rape, or an extreme accident, but also those witness to them, such as a cop studying harrowing cases.
Individuals with PTSD tend to experience severely unsettling thoughts and feelings long after the traumatic incident has occurred, reliving the event and the emotions that came with it. People suffering from PTSD may even feel disconnected from others, remaining estranged and detached (Torres, 2020). Not everybody diagnosed with PTSD experiences the same symptoms, but scientists have discovered observable patterns through a method known as “neuroimaging” (Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, 2019). It was found that symptoms of PTSD can be a behavioral manifestation of stress-induced changes in brain structure resulting from previous trauma (Bremner, 2006).
Scientists have found that long term changes caused by PTSD to the brain mainly occur in the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus. The amygdala is in charge of your fear response; during a stressful event, the amygdala sends a signal to release stress hormones that trigger your innate alarm system. Individuals with PTSD often have an overactive amygdala, causing fear responses to harmless events such as a loud noise. This effect on the brain is responsible for the onset of panic attacks and overwhelming emotions in circumstances that one wouldn’t normally consider a threat. In addition, studies suggest that an impaired prefrontal cortex further exacerbates symptoms. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision making and differentiating between fears and actual threats. Normally, the prefrontal cortex would halt fear responses once the idea of a threat is removed. However, in service members with PTSD, researchers found that the prefrontal cortex failed to carry out this function. An overactive amygdala coupled with an underactive prefrontal cortex forms a dangerous combination, as there are no mechanisms in place to slow the onslaught of stress responses. Other PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks and distorted thoughts, are related to the hippocampus, the area of your brain dealing with memory. Due to the unbearable impact of a trauma, the stressed hippocampus fails to code information correctly, resulting in a faulty memory. This causes gaps when recalling details of the traumatic event, and individuals may constantly think about what happened because their hippocampus is working to make sense of the memory (Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, 2019).
Post traumatic stress is commonly expected with trauma, and is a typical response to something distressful. However, PTSD is a far more serious condition, changing the structure and functions of your brain. If you’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it is very important to understand how your brain may be affected and is responding to your trauma. The affected areas of your brain— the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus— all involve functions relating to memory, cohesive thinking and decision making, as well as the feelings and actions associated with fear. Understanding how these parts of your brain function can also aid in figuring out which therapies can help you work through PTSD.
American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). What is PTSD? Home │ psychiatry.org. Retrieved March 7, 2021, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd
Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: Effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 445-461. https://doi.org/10.31887/dcns.2006.8.4/jbremner
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. (2019, May 7). How PTSD affects the brain. BrainLine. Retrieved March 7, 2021, from https://www.brainline.org/article/how-ptsd-affects-brain