The Resilient Brain

Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

PTSD: Healing and Recovery Part 1

Everyone thinks they understand PTSD, but what is it really?

You can’t turn on the television or read a newspaper or blog without hearing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).Yet most people have no idea of what it is, or that you can truly recover from it. Some writers say you never, ever heal and that there is always a hurt and reminder from severe trauma. However, there are many people, myself included, who believe that when getting the proper treatment, you can heal and recover from PTSD

If you have PTSD, you know that even the slightest sound or movement can trigger a wider array of symptoms from slight dissociation of current time and place (not being present), to total dissociation, where you are reliving the traumatic event again, such as the death of a spouse.

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Do you have any of these PTSD symptoms?

  • Anxiety (including panic attacks)
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Flash backs
  • Intense Fear
  • Helplessness
  • Recurrent and intrusive recollections
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Diminished interest in activities
  • Feeling of detachment
  • Restricted range of emotions
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Significant distress or impairment in social & occupational
  • Avoidance/Denial
  • Sense of foreshortened future (e.g. does not expect to have a career, marriage, children or a normal life span)
  • Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (not present before the trauma)
  • Physiological arousal
    • Physical symptoms as shakiness
    • Restlessness
    • Fatigue
    • Heart Palpitation
    • Breathing difficulty
    • Stomach and bowel disturbances

With PTSD, you may wonder what has caused your body to react this way. The reason is that in the middle of you there is a sensor called the amygdala. It detects if there is danger to your life.  Once this sensor gets activated, it sends a signal down to your adrenal glands that are on the top of your kidneys.  When the adrenal glands get the message the glands send out a chemical called adrenaline that then activates your “fight/flight” response in your Limbic system, which controls your Autonomic Nervous System. This is the system that controls your heart rate, breathing, bowels, your bladder, pupils open and closing, gastric juice, and saliva in your mouth. When your Limbic system is activated you feel a sense of dread. All you know is that your life feels in danger and you want to fight or flee. During this experience, often your ability to rationally think things through has been hijacked. All you know is that you feel an intense sense of activation, be it rage, anger, or just to escape from the situation.

If you have ever felt this way, was it from something out of the ordinary for you, such as the death of your spouse or family member; being in an auto accident; being assaulted or raped, warfare, or witnessing a Hurricane or Tornado tearing through your backyard? If you have, you know you have experienced a trauma in your life.

But what makes it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? As mentioned, you have the reactive middle brain, called the Limbic System. However, your brain is divided into two hemispheres. One side is the logical linear side, while the other side is experiential, nonlinear. For example, if you are a dancer, the linear side would be the precise choreography and knowing the steps to the routine, while the nonlinear side is how you express those steps and movements. The nonlinear hemisphere allows you to feel the music and interpret with emotions.

If the traumatic event was registered as an experience, it can get locked in that area of the brain and become disconnected from the logical, reasoning part of the brain. Conversely, if the event is locked into the reasoning hemisphere, it can become disconnected to the experiential hemisphere. 

 

Meanwhile, the frontal lobe of your brain, which is located behind your forehead, is the only part of your brain that makes response, executive, rational decisions. In Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), rational reasoning is hijacked. Therefore, when there is something that resembles the original trauma, it triggers the amygdala and the fight/flight takes over as if the original event is reoccurring again.  

I had one patient who had been in warfare sitting in my office. Suddenly when a local news helicopter flew overhead, he was immediately reliving being in combat. This also happened with a patient that had been sexually abused. I was speaking with her and moved my hand in a specific direction and suddenly she was reliving being raped again. Similarly, you might experience or relive the loss of a spouse by picking up a piece of clothing or going into the coffee shop you use to visit. 

 

For a better idea of PTSD vs. healthy grieving, see the chart.

 

If you have PTSD, you live each day on edge, and are highly reactive to even the slightest reminder of the traumatic event. In Part 2, I will be presenting conventional, complementary, and alternative methods and treatments that can help you heal and recover. There is a Way!

 

Diane Roberts Stoler, Ed.D., is a Neuropsychologist, Board Certified Health Psychologist, Board Certified Sports Psychologist, and Trauma Therapist with over 35 years experience.

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