How do you identify yourself? Is it the clothes you wear? Your hobbies? The way that you think or behave? How do you think you would feel if you started to notice this person that you had come to know slowly start to disappear as someone who is unfamiliar and unpleasant emerges beneath your skin? Those who experience trauma and develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are unfortunate victims of losing their sense of self. What is it about trauma that changes our behaviors and interests? Is there anything we can do to hold on to who we are?
What is PTSD
To understand why trauma changes you, you have to understand the disorder that causes these changes. Several symptoms characterize PTSD:
- Re-experiencing symptoms- obsessive recollections, nightmares, or flashbacks
Traumatized patients can also suffer from a hybrid of PTSD, depressive disorder, or another anxiety disorder.
Not everyone develops PTSD when they experience trauma; some people are more susceptible than others. Studies have shown that only 10-30% of the people who experience trauma may develop the disorder, with exceptions to war which is 20-30% and rape which is 50% and degrades to 5% over time. This is important to remember when you experience the same event but have a different psychological outcome from someone else. There are risk factors that can play a key role in the changes that PTSD causes in the brain.
Risk Factors of PTSD
If someone has experienced a traumatic event in their life, they are more likely to develop PTSD after another event opposed to someone who is experiencing trauma for the first time. Studies have found that if you experience the following symptoms during or right after a trauma, you may be more likely to develop PTSD:
- Elevated heart rate
- Severe intrusive thoughts
- Exaggerated startle response
Researchers are starting to discover that traumatic events aren’t the only thing that can cause symptoms associated with PTSD. Because we are in a time in history where we can see every negative thing that happens anywhere in the world, we are being bombarded with constant negativity that can cause a small chemical reaction in your brain similar to what happens during trauma. Studies have shown that when you see someone who is suffering a traumatic event, your brain hurts for them and can bring on symptoms of PTSD. The stressogenic lifestyle of our century seems to have led to an increase in certain psychiatric disorders.
PTSD in the Family
Studies have also shown that if someone experiences trauma, their children are more susceptible to developing anxiety disorders like PTSD. While studying Holocaust survivors and their children, researchers discovered that their children were more likely to have PTSD symptoms and report more distress during traumatic events. Researchers believe that in addition to being exposed to traumatic stories, the children may also have biological vulnerabilities that can bring on symptoms. While studying primates, they noticed the same behavior between parents and offspring. Researchers believe that passing down this anxiety could be an instinct to protect our children thus protecting our species.
PTSD and Your Behavior
According to ICD 10, if the psychological difficulties last for years after you survive a traumatic event, you can form negative behavioral changes like difficulties in social and personal functioning that can lead to personality changes. The gradual personality changes have also been seen with feelings like:
- Social Inequality
- Work-related Dysfunction
- Social Withdrawal
- Paranoia Toward the Environment
- Prone to Interpersonal Conflicts
- Low Tolerance for Frustrating Situations
If these cognitive difficulties go untreated, they can result in permanent negative behavioral changes. But how can feelings and emotions change the way that our brains work?
PTSD and the Brain
The Growing Brain and PTSD
Our environment has a significant impact on the postnatal cortical development, which is when the brain is developing from the third week of gestation into adulthood. This means that everything that happens to us, where we live, what we eat, how we are spoken to, what happens to us, all plays a role in how our brains develop. This time in our lives is when we are the most malleable as well as the most susceptible to mental health disorders. The orbitofrontal cortex, which is what is in command of alternating emotional processes, may require variety and balance between different external simulations both negative and positive for structural and biochemical development to be adequate.
Environmental Stress and PTSD
Scientists have discovered that the prefrontal neurotransmitter system is sensitive to environmental stress, causing exposure to extreme circumstances to lead to structural abnormalities in the frontal lobe which is closely related to the limbic system. The limbic system is a system in your body that is focused mainly on self and species preservation. The limbic system responds to emotional stimuli and sets the level of arousal while also helping to reinforce behaviors. Scientists have conceptualized this system as the “feeling and reacting” brain.
Your frontal lobes make up two-thirds of your brain, but many of the mechanisms are still unknown to scientists. What we do know is that the frontal lobes control or influence:
- Motor Function
- Executive Function
- Social and Moral Reasoning
These abnormalities can cause an inability to be empathetic, pathological narcissism, or other deep-seated personality deficits. Researchers believe that this may be why PTSD can be misdiagnosed as a personality disorder because of the fundamental behavioral changes that are centered around their own happiness and comfort above all else.
How Does Stress Cause Damage to the Brain?
Why is it that extreme emotions cause damage to these areas of the brain that cause personality and behavioral changes? The answer is in the chemicals that are released when you experience stress like cortisol.
Cortisol is released when you are stressed out or experience something that causes fear which is what kicks your brain and body into gear to run away or fight for survival. However, they also can change your stem cells into cells that inhibit neural connection to the prefrontal cortex. While this may be able to improve learning and memory, it lays down the foundation for anxiety disorders by decreasing the number of cells that mature into neurons.
Cortisol is also supposed to be helping to regulate the immune system. When it is unable to provide this function, your body can start to experience inflammatory effects. This not only makes you more vulnerable to the common cold, but this also can cause parts of your brain to degrade leading to abnormalities.
Brain damage is serious, but you can help prevent it through treatment. The most effective way to cure yourself of PTSD is to seek therapy, participate in empowering activities, and maintain healthful, supportive, and safe relationships.
Treatment Options for PTSD
Trauma-focused therapies have been some of the most successful methods for people who have PTSD. One of the most popular being exposure therapy. Exposure therapy helps patients process their fear and anxiety by facing their memories in a safe space while learning and practicing healthy coping mechanisms.
EMDR, which is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, uses your eye movements guided by a therapist to help process traumatic memories and they help you reframe these memories while also changing your negative reactions to them.
A new therapy for PTSD, anxiety, and depression has been emerging and shown to be very successful both in the therapist's office and in controlled studies. It is called Accelerated Resolution Therapy, also known as ART. Patients who undergo this therapy may have a significant reduction in symptoms in less than ten sessions. You can watch a short TedTalk by therapist Yolanda Harper here who has not only seen this therapy be successful in her patients but in herself as well.
Therapy has been very successful in helping people who suffer from PTSD, but medication can also be prescribed depending on how severe it is. When your emotions are out of control, it can be difficult to learn how to hone them. But by turning down the negative static in your brain, you can learn to think in a new and healthier way. One medication you should bring up with your doctor is CBD oil.
CBD for PTSD
Cannabidiol (CBD) has shown in studies to be very effective in helping with anxiety disorders like PTSD. One of the main ways it helps to relieve this feeling of fear and anxiety is by reducing the overactivity of the amygdala that is present in an anxious brain. By reducing the activity of the amygdala, it causes your brain not to send out so many fear signals making your anxiety less overwhelming. Research also suggests that CBD oil has neuroprotective and neurodegenerative properties, helping to protect the brain from damage and encourage healing.
Medication alone won't cure your PTSD or the changes in your behavior. Seeking a therapist is imperative for anxiety disorders just like seeing a physical therapist would be needed for someone who needs to recover from a physical injury. It is clear that PTSD causes your brain to think in an unhealthy way, and having someone help you learn how to change that process will help you defeat that dirty monster trying to bring you down.
Talk to your Doctor
If you are already on medications, you need to ask your doctor if the enzyme P-450 metabolizes it. If it is, CBD may interfere with this medication, keeping the body from metabolizing it. Even if you aren’t taking medication, you should let your doctor know about anything you put into your body whether it is a prescription from a doctor, an over-the-counter-pill, or a natural oil like hemp oil. They can help you monitor the way your body reacts as well as help you monitor your symptoms to make sure that you are taking the most efficient and healthiest route.
Have you recently found yourself after PTSD tried to take you away? We would love to hear how you took your life back!