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How Trauma Affects the Brain
by: Dr. Howard C. Samuels
How Trauma Affects the Brain

Roughly four percent of men and 10 percent of women will experience the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during their lifetime. PTSD is often the result of sexual trauma at a young age but can develop from many other experiences of trauma as well. PTSD is a serious mental health condition that can cause people to have difficulties with the following:

Emotional functioning
• Threat sensitivity
• Self-image
• Threat perception
• Phobias
• Anxiety
• Sleep disturbances

PTSD often has a profound effect on a person’s ability to develop healthy relationships as well as their ability to cope with life’s difficulties without experiencing undue distress. If you suffer from PTSD, you may have ongoing issues with rejection, feelings of failure, and problems concentrating that can affect your work or academic life.

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

According to neuroscience research, PTSD symptoms likely come from brain dysfunctions. The brain impairment is likely due to trauma. You can have PTSD from recent trauma or past trauma. Usually, the type of trauma that causes PTSD involves a threat to your life or someone near you. Sometimes simply witnessing an intense trauma can cause PTSD. For example, witnessing a fatal car accident or a murder. The main symptoms of PSTD include the following:

• Flashbacks
• Nightmares
• Avoiding triggers of the trauma
• Feeling on edge
• Distressing thoughts

In order for this collection of symptoms to be considered PTSD, they need to last for at least two weeks, interfere with your normal function and cause serious ongoing distress.

What Areas of the Brain Cause PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD are thought to be caused by dysfunction in two regions of the brain. One of the brain regions is called the amygdala. This brain region is responsible for detecting threats in your immediate area and activating the flight or fight instinct. It also activates the sympathetic nervous system, which helps you decide how to deal with the threat. The amygdala part of your brain stores memories related to threats and emotions.

The second region of the brain that influences PTSD symptoms is the prefrontal cortex, which is sometimes just called the PFC. This part of your brain regulates the following:

• Attention and awareness
• Response decisions in a situation
• Conscious behavior
• Emotions
• Correcting dysfunctional reactions

When your brain recognizes a threat, the amygdala region triggers the fight or flight response, which releases chemicals like adrenaline, glucose and norepinephrine to pump up your brain and body to respond. If the threat continues, then the amygdala releases cortisol through the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone. At the same time, the PFC assesses the threat and either calms your fight or flight response or amplifies it.

People with PTSD have impaired function in their amygdala and PFC where the two brain regions don’t work quite as they’re supposed to. Basically, the amygdala is hyper-reactive to threats while the PFC is unable to mitigate the threat response.

Results of PTSD Brain Dysfunction

Thanks to an overactive amygdala, the brain releases more norepinephrine when a threat is detected. However, the PFC is not capable of regulating this chemical enough to provide a balanced response. This causes PTSD sufferers to be hypervigilant, hyperaroused and to have difficulties getting to sleep and staying asleep.

The effects of hyperarousal cause PTSD sufferers to be emotionally triggered by events or situations that are similar to their original trauma. For example, hearing a sexual assault survivor describe their experience. Hypervigilance causes you to be constantly on edge for threats. Sleep difficulties can make it hard for you to sleep soundly at night.

How Previous Trauma Triggers Anger and Fear

Previous trauma can cause you to have ongoing problems with anger and fear. This means that you have less control over these two negative emotions. You may react angrily to situations that don’t warrant it. Fear may also cause you to do impulsive things without thinking. The problem with increased anger and fear is that you may have trouble feeling positive emotions as a result.

The lack of positive emotions makes it hard to enjoy interacting with people and experiencing fun activities. The overactive amygdala usually has dysfunctional communication with the insula area of the brain. This area is responsible for emotional awareness and introspection. The result is a marked inability to associate positive meanings to activities and events. Instead, you may feel overwhelmingly negative about many things.

How Does Treatment Affect the Brains of Those with PTSD?

Psychotherapy methods that expose people to trauma triggers can condition the brain to view trauma-related events as less threatening. Along with therapy, prescribed antidepressants can also achieve this. Practicing mindfulness for 10 to 12 weeks can decrease the overactive amygdala and increase the communication between the PFC and the amygdala. Mindfulness therapy appears to encourage the PFC to calm threat response as well as reducing reactivity from the amygdala.

However, some people with PTSD have pronounced difficulty confronting trauma triggers or being mindful. One major symptom of PTSD is avoidance. Many people require more support and therapy before they are ready to face their trauma. Types of therapy commonly used in treating stress disorders include the following:

• Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
• Cognitive processing
• Exposure therapy
• Support groups

You may also be prescribed anti-anxiety medication or alpha blockers during treatment.

Types of Trauma

What kind of trauma causes PTSD? Doctors can’t positively identify why some people end up with PTSD in response to trauma while others do not. In fact, the brain disorder can be caused by a mix of things, including the following:

• Inherited mental health issues such as anxiety and depression
• Inherited behavior and temperament
• Stressful experiences
• Specific instances of trauma
• Your brain’s response to stress

There are some events commonly associated with people who develop brain dysfunctions. These include combat exposure, sexual assault, childhood abuse, physical assault, a serious accident, being threatened with a weapon. However, there are many other events that can cause trauma too. Natural disasters, fire, terrorist attacks, a serious medical diagnosis, kidnapping and robbery can also lead to the development of PTSD.

Are you struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Do you know someone battling mental health problems? Therapy from a qualified therapist in Los Angeles is one of the most effective ways to deal with these issues. Dr. Howard Samuels provides different types of therapy to address a variety of mental health conditions. Contact him today to find out more.

September 14, 2020
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Dr. Howard C. Samuels works directly one on one with his clients who come to him struggling with addiction. Dr. Samuels has extensive experience in treating addiction having directed some of the nations top programs to working with celebrities and appearing on national media to provide expert advice. Don’t miss the chance to work with the leading expert in addiction treatment.