Imagine that you are in your car, waiting for the traffic signal to change. The next thing you know you are a witness to a horrific car accident that left many people injured and some to lose their life. How would you react? Most likely you would be shocked by this horrific event and traumatized emotionally. This happened to one of our patients, Miles.
How PTSD Affects Your Brain
After the experience, Miles developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition that develops in some individuals who are exposed to or involved in an extremely traumatic event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury. The individual’s response to the traumatic event involves intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Those affected by PTSD continue to re-experience the event long afterward and avoid stimuli associated with the traumatic event. This then causes the unbalancing of the PFC-limbic system relationship and gives rise to a busy brain. Making the individual’s capacity to cope with these traumatic events absolutely overwhelming.
Like Miles, we may have difficulty processing the memories and emotional impact. No wonder. The shock and trauma of such an event are thankfully outside the realm of normal experiences. However, people like Miles who have PTSD continually re-experience the trauma as if the past were still alive in the present. Including having nightmares about the accident every night and triggered re-experiences of the accident whenever he saw a car similar to the one that caused the horrible accident.
We all need to feel safe. When we experience traumas, we lose that background feeling of safety. You’ve no doubt heard a lot about the fight-or-flight response, activated by protective circuitry that strives to keep us safe. Miles’s danger detector, his stress response alarm system, was on constant fight-or-flight high alert.
It’s important to remember in dangerous situations, the thinking brain can be turned off while the primitive limbic areas take over. Like Miles, most traumatized individuals have fight-or-flight reactions that continue long after the danger has passed. It is as if the traumatic past is acutely alive in the present. Their feeling of danger never abates. This is why I say that the emotional traumas in PTSD are “branded in the brain.”