Traumatic events can actually alter the structure and function of people’s brains resulting in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When remembering the trauma, often in vivid flashbacks, or reacting to everyday stressors in life, the brain of a person with PTSD actually functions differently, but it can reset itself.
What Trauma Looks Like In The Brain
When you experience trauma, your brain’s fear center, the amygdala, sounds the alarm, and your body instinctively responds almost immediately with a sequence of hormonal and physiological changes. Your brain isn’t busy preparing you to think about what’s going on. It’s getting you ready to run or do battle and ceases all non-essential body and mind processes. Your sympathetic nervous system floods the body with stress hormones and according to fMRI studies, parts of the brain shut down.
Ideally, when the immediate threat subsides, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and calms and restores the body. This process would reduce stress hormones and allow the brain to resume the top-down structure of control. However, some trauma survivors’ brains never fully shift from reactive back to responsive mode. Instead, their brains stay on alert, primed for threat with dysregulated activity.
Neuroanatomical studies have identified changes in brain structures of those with PTSD which can lead to depression, substance abuse, personality and other mental disorders, and health problems.
- Overstimulated amygdala: The amygdala is responsible for survival-related threat identification, plus tagging memories with emotion. After trauma the amygdala can get caught in a highly alert loop in which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.
- Underactive hippocampus: Research has shown that people with PTSD have smaller hippocampi. Because the hippocampus is crucial to storing and retrieving memories and distinguishing between past and present memories, people with PTSD can lose the ability to discriminate between past and present, resulting in flashbacks that seem real.
- Ventromedial prefrontal cortex shrinkage – Due to this brain region shrinking, the ability to regulate emotions is reduced in people with PTSD. The smaller size results in fear, anxiety, and extreme stress responses when the brain is triggered – even by things not connected to the original trauma.
- Ineffective variability: With PTSD, the hormones get out of whack and interfere with a body’s ability to regulate itself, and the sympathetic nervous system stays highly activated. For example, tests show cortisol levels to be lower than normal in some studies of patients with PTSD, however, corticotropin-releasing factor in cerebrospinal fluid is increased. This state leads to fatigue of the body and many of its systems, especially the adrenal.
Healing The Brain After Trauma
The good news is that the changes in the brain can be reversed. The amygdala can learn to relax again; the hippocampus can resume proper memory consolidation, and the nervous system can heal to flow between the reactive and restorative modes again.
Medications, hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, neurofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and other brain-related modalities — even virtual reality, ketamine, and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy) — have proven helpful in treating PTSD. The bottom line is that the mind has to reframe and release the trauma so that the brain can reset itself.
Recovery is a gradual process accomplished over time with successful methods of treatment being as varied as individual trauma survivors. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but evidence suggests that when people commit to a process of exploring and testing treatment options they can, reduce the effects of trauma and even eliminate symptoms of PTSD. Studies show therapies to be most effective when applied during the disorder’s critical first few months.
Somatic experiencing has proven successful for treating trauma, resetting the brain and body, and recovering health. Somatic experiencing is a holistic therapy that studies the relationship between the mind and body regarding the psychological past. The goal of somatic therapy is to recognize and release physical tension that may remain in the body after trauma.
The counseling sessions typically involve the patient tracking his or her experience of sensations throughout the body. A somatic psychology session may include awareness of bodily sensations, dance, breathing techniques, voice work, physical exercise, movement, or healing touch.
In his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Dr. Peter Levine introduced somatic therapy in 1997. He tells of his observations of how animals in the wild dealt with and recovered from life-threatening situations. Levine explains that animals are routinely threatened in the wild, but are rarely left traumatized, because unlike humans, they naturally complete the cycle of shedding the residue of stress. Levine suggests that humans have the natural capacity to do this too, but often don’t allow it because we don’t know how or doing so would be viewed as socially inappropriate. Emotions can be unblocked and trauma healed through awareness and physically shedding the energy of the traumatic event.
He teaches a Method of Somatic Experiencing Therapy for healing from trauma as follows:
- Create a sense of security. – A person must feel secure to be able to stay present with the trauma related sensations within the body.
- Gently explore the sensations. – A person learns to tolerate the sensations while staying present.
- Become aware of the process of “pendulation”. – This is what Levine calls the fluid rhythm of expansion and contraction of sensations. When a person acknowledges this fluctuation, it doesn’t feel so threatening as they move through the process of resetting the nervous system.
- Practice “titration”. – Experience the smallest arousal of the nervous system possible while exploring the sensations and keep decreasing. Levine advises a person to “touch the edges” of the response to create increased stability, resilience, and tolerance resulting in a reorganization of the nervous system.
- Insert corrective experiences. – Replace the old ways of responding – panic and helpless “freeze” mode – with positive and empowering reactions. A person with PTSD still need the fear response but needs to turn it down.
- Discharge the residual energy from aroused states physically. – This frees energy for higher level brain functions and life preservation when really needed.
- Restore dynamic equilibrium and relaxed alertness. – This is restoring the nervous system back to a state of calm and allowing it to self-regulate again.
- Teach the mind and body to be present in the here and now. – Connect with the physical environment and reestablishing the capacity for social engagement and interaction.