In my last post, I shared on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. I tried as I could to explain what it was and reasons it happens. Please find it here.
Today, I’d go further to explain the effect of traumatic stress on the brain that results in those severe symptoms in PTSD patients.
When people learn of PTSD, it can be surprising to them that someone could possibly still be haunted by an experience long gone, especially when it seemed the physical effect of such trauma has left the victim.
Well, it isn’t the sufferers’ fault that they go through such experiences. It is how the brain works after the traumatic situation that made the issue seem that way.
Since I am not a neurologist, I am no expert on how the brain functions. However, I will try my best to break this down as much as I can so anyone can understand how trauma affects the brain.
The Hippocampus, the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex, and the Amygdala are part of the neural circuity of the brain that regulates stress. These play the most important role in what happens to victims of PTSD.
The Hippocampus is a small organ located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe and forms an important part of the limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain region that regulates emotions. The Hippocampus is associated with long term memory in particular; it helps us distinguish between past and present memories.
PTSD leads to a reduced hippocampus volume, making it difficult to differentiate between past and present experiences correctly, or to interpret environmental context the right way. This is the reason sufferers of PTSD may experience some kind of extreme stress responses around similar environment where the trauma had occurred, or around anything similar to the actual event that serves as a remainder.
The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex, vmPFC, is a part of the prefrontal cortex in the mammalian brain located at the frontal lobe at the bottom of the cerebral hemispheres. It is useful in the processing of risks, fear and plays an important role in the inhibition of emotional responses.
This part of the brain regulates negative emotions such as fear that occurs when confronted with some specific stimuli.
Patients who have PTSD usually show a decrease in the volume and functionality of the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Reason, PTSD sufferers tend to exhibit fear, anxiety, and extreme stress responses even when faced with stimuli not connected to their past traumatic experiences.
What you need to know here is that the trauma that was experienced by the victim had caused a severe lasting changes in this region of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotional responses triggered by the amygdala. As a result, it can no longer function as it should.
The Amygdala is the third component among these limbic brain regions that is affected by the trauma.
The amygdala is the almond-shaped part of the brain, hence its Greek word for almond. It is the part of the brain responsible for the emotions, survival instincts and memory. It controls the autonomous responses associated with fear, arousal and emotional stimulation. It is essential for decoding threatening emotions in particular.
But, because of the trauma, PTSD patients experience an increased activity in the amygdala in response to stimuli that are somehow connected to their traumatic experiences. This hyperactivity makes the region too active and sensitive to fear even with just any stimuli other than the initial stimuli that caused the trauma. This is what happens with the anxiety, stress and panic attacks PTSD patients experience when they are shown images, or stories similar to their own cases.
This means the trauma had increased the hyperactivity of the amygdala so much that the victims may still experience some anxieties, and fear even when confronted with stimuli not associated with their exact traumatic situation. This may explain why PTSD victims suffer a lot from fear and panic attacks.
In summary, the hippocampus’ work is to facilitate the appropriate responses to environmental stimuli. This ensures that the amygdala does not go into a stress mode unnecessarily since the amygdala is responsible for fear responses. While the Ventromedial Prefrontal cortex regulates emotional responses by controlling the functions of the amygdala.
But, when the brain has been affected by trauma, these natural functions of both the hippocampus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex on the amygdala is affected and causes them to lose their ability to control its activities. Thus leading to the hyperactivity of the amygdala. It is this hyperactivity of the amygdala that is related to the severe symptoms of PTSD.
These brain changes can also lead to the increased chances of the person developing psychotic and mood disorders as well, besides the traumatic symptoms.
Conversely, if both the volume activities of the hippocampus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are increased, they would have more chances at regulating the hyperactive amygdala. This would then reduce its hyperactivity, and reduce the fear and panic attacks associated with its high activity.
Fortunately, this is currently possible with some drugs and other behavioural therapies for patients of PTSD.
If you, or someone you know currently suffer from any of these symptoms described, please see a psychiatrist immediately.
To your successfully evolving life.