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What PTSD Does To Your Brain

Written by: Wendy Aporta, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Wendy Aporta

Life is never easy, but it can be even harder if you have ever experienced trauma. Whether it was a car accident or a natural disaster, by witnessing something horrific, or by abuse or neglect, most of us are not emotionally equipped to process and manage that trauma on our own. If our coping mechanisms stop working effectively, we feel anxious, depressed, angry, or unable to deal with day-to-day life altogether. Recognizing and addressing this uncomfortable state of mind and body can be difficult, but not impossible. Here, we will dig into one example of emotional trauma, called post-traumatic stress disorder. This article will cover how it affects our brains, and what we can do to free our minds and release those inner demons.

Visual representation of a mental health disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: What you need to know


PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after exposure to a traumatic event, such as war, assault, an accident, or a natural disaster. It can cause a broad variety of symptoms, including but not limited to flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and avoidance of situations that remind us of whatever trauma we experienced. The “disorder” part is not a negative label. It literally means, by definition, confusion or an irregularity, so the term PTSD refers to our minds being in a state of confusion following something traumatic.


You might have heard some misconceptions about PTSD, such as only soldiers who have been to war experience it. The truth is that anyone, regardless of age, gender, or occupation is susceptible to PTSD. Or maybe someone told you PTSD happens right after experiencing trauma. That is not true, either. PTSD can develop at any time, even ten years later, after exposure to any traumatic event, including natural disasters, accidents, violent crimes, or sexual assault. Here is the worst one: PTSD is a sign of weakness. This is far from the truth. PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. It is not a sign of weakness or anything to be ashamed of or stigmatized. It is caused by changes in the brain following some sort of trauma, not a lack of strength.


PTSD can affect the brain in significant ways that we continue to discover. What is clear is that it is caused by the brain, not by something we are doing or not doing. Research has shown that individuals experiencing PTSD have physical differences in the structure and function of certain brain regions, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.


The amygdala is the part of the brain that is most primal. It is in charge of alerting us of threats and it processes fear and emotions. In people experiencing PTSD, the amygdala is often overactive, which is commonly referred to as a “fight or flight” state. This state makes us easy to startle and hard to control our emotions. It can also make coping with everyday stressors challenging and can eventually lead to anxiety and depression.


The hippocampus is the “smart” part of the brain that controls memory and learning. PTSD can make the hippocampus smaller, believe it or not. A smaller hippocampus does not work as well as a larger one, and it can cause problems with concentration as well as learning or remembering new information. Not being able to learn or remember as well as we should make it hard to succeed at school or work, which can leave us feeling isolated and frustrated.


The prefrontal cortex in the brain is like a project manager. It helps with decision-making and planning. If you are experiencing PTSD, you may have a less active prefrontal cortex. If that “project manager” is not doing its job effectively, we may have difficulty controlling impulsive behaviors and regulating our emotions, which can lead to problems with relationships, substance abuse, and other negative consequences.


In addition to these structural changes of the brain, PTSD can also lead to changes in how the parts of the brain communicate with each other. For example, if you are experiencing PTSD, you might have trouble connecting the emotional and sensory aspects of a memory to each other. This disconnect interrupts our ability to process and integrate traumatic memories, which can lead to distressing flashbacks and nightmares that keep us from relaxing or sleeping.


Treatment for PTSD


The good news is that the brain is highly adaptable, and these changes are not permanent. If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, there is hope. You can experience significant improvement in symptoms and brain function with the right treatment and medication.


We can shirk those untruths about PTSD. We want to get well and feel better, so it is important to reduce stigma and encourage people, including yourself, to seek help. If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD, please know that you are not alone. We are in this together. There is help available, and you can recover.


Many different types of therapy can be effective for PTSD. You can work with a professional therapist to identify the types of treatment modalities that will work best for you, including antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications that can help reduce symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia.


Conclusion


If you are struggling with PTSD, it is important to seek professional help from someone who is experienced in the treatment of trauma. There are many effective treatment modalities available that can help you manage symptoms and improve your quality of life.


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Wendy Aporta Brainz Magazine
 

Wendy Aporta, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Wendy Aporta is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in military and first responder individuals, families, and couples. She is proficient with clients experiencing PTSD and DID. For her, helping those with traumatic experience is not just a job, it is a vocation. Her most frequent modalities are Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). However, she is experienced in other modalities, including CBT, IFS, and SFBT, and utilizes whatever is best for her client's needs. She is a perpetual student of trauma, constantly staying abreast of the latest research and treatments to provide the best possible outcomes for her clients.

 

Research Used in the Production of this Article:

  • Etkin, A, et al. (2007) Functional neuroimaging of anxiety: a meta-analysis of emotional processing in PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobia. American Journal of Psychiatry. 164(10):1476-88. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17898336/

  • Bremner JD, et al. (1995). MRI-based measurement of hippocampal volume in patients with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry. 152(12):993-999. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7793467/

  • Marchese, S, et al. (2022). Altered gene expression and PTSD symptom dimensions in World Trade Center responders. Molecular Psychiatry. Apr, 27(4),2225-2246. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35177824/

  • Lanius R.A., et al. (2002). Neural correlates of traumatic memories in posttraumatic stress disorder: a functional MRI investigation. American Journal of Psychiatry. 159(10),1820-1823. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11691703/

Please note that these are just a few examples of research references on what PTSD does to your brain. There are many other studies that have been conducted on this topic.


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