PTSD and the Brain

PTSD and the Brain | Dr. Ali Ghahary

PTSD, also known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is one of the most common types of anxiety disorders that individuals are diagnosed with. According to a 2016 study, Canada was found to have one of the highest diagnosis rates of PTSD, and as many as 9.2% of Canadians will suffer from the debilitating disorder in their lifetime; while countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States had some of the lowest rates.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder typically develops after an individual has personally experienced or been witness to a traumatic event. Those dedicated to helping the public, such as firefighters, paramedics, police officers, physicians, nurses, and even journalists, are among some of the most affected by PTSD as they are typically some of the first on scene (or on standby) when responding to major events, such as natural disasters, mass shootings, and so on. It’s also not uncommon for those who have served in the military to return from combat with PTSD. Additionally, you can also develop PTSD as a result of the death of a loved one, from having been in a car accident, job loss, divorce, or due to sexual or physical assault as well as emotional abuse. There is a long list of potential triggers.

When you experience trauma, your body goes into what’s known as the “fight or flight” response. When this happens, stress hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine get released and give you a burst of energy, causing your heart to beat faster while your brain puts short-term memories on pause, and your body either prepares you to flee the situation, freeze, or fight back. This fight or flight response is considered to be a normal built-in stress response whenever the brain or body perceives something to be a harmful attack. However, with PTSD, that response is often elevated. The brain remains on high alert and a person may feel as though they are in a constant state of fear.

Normal information processing and PTSD malfunctions in the brain.
Normal information processing and PTSD malfunctions in the brain.

An individual with PTSD will exhibited a variety of different symptoms. These include having irrational fears, feelings of helplessness, feelings of devastation, feeling numb, and avoidance of social contact. Individuals will also commonly experience flashbacks from the traumatic event. The body can also respond to PTSD in other physical ways. An individual may develop depression, have anxiety, panic attacks, be irritable or angry, have difficulty concentrating, feel overwhelmed, feel vulnerable, as well as have trouble sleeping. If PTSD is left untreated, it can also have long-term effects. The symptoms may worsen, and individuals may also develop self-destructive behaviour, including drug and alcohol addiction, as well as have suicidal thoughts and turn to self-harm. It can also lead to increased blood pressure levels, chronic pain, and personality changes.

While there is no specific cure for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it can be successfully managed and treated with different types of therapy. In many cases, physicians like Dr. Ghahary will often recommend a combination of medication (such as an anti-depressant) and trauma-focused psychotherapies such as PE (Prolonged Exposure), CBT or CPT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Cognitive Processing Therapy), as well as EMDR therapy (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.) During PE therapy, you are encouraged to speak about your trauma and taught how to gain control of your negative feelings surrounding the trauma that you experienced. During CBT or CPT therapy, you are taught different ways to reframe your thoughts; while EMDR therapy involves calling the trauma to mind through a sound or back-and-forth movement, and helps you to make better sense of the trauma and process it in a healthy way.

For more information on PTSD, different coping strategies, and other resources, visit the PTSD Association of Canada website at www.ptsdassociation.com.