The Dysregulated Post-Trauma Brain
The four categories of PTSD symptoms include: intrusive thoughts (unwanted memories); mood alterations (shame, blame, persistent negativity); hypervigilance (exaggerated startle response); and avoidance (of all sensory and emotional trauma-related material). These cause confusing symptoms for survivors who don’t understand how they’ve suddenly become so out of control in their own minds and bodies.
Unexpected rage or tears, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, shaking, memory loss, concentration challenges, insomnia, nightmares and emotional numbing can hijack both an identity and a life. The problem isn’t that the survivor won’t “just get over it” but that she needs time, help and the opportunity to discover her own path to healing in order to do so.
Throughout the brain several chemical and biological imbalances can present after trauma. Their effects are especially exacerbated by three major brain function dysregulations:
Overstimulated amygdala: An almond-shaped mass located deep in the brain, the amygdala is responsible for survival-related threat identification, plus tagging memories with emotion. After trauma the amygdala can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.
Underactive hippocampus: An increase in the stress hormone glucocorticoid kills cells in the hippocampus, which renders it less effective in making synaptic connections necessary for memory consolidation. This interruption keeps both the body and mind stimulated in reactive mode as neither element receives the message that the threat has transformed into the past tense.
Ineffective variability: The constant elevation of stress hormones interferes with the body’s ability to regulate itself. The sympathetic nervous system remains highly activated leading to fatigue of the body and many of its systems, most notably the adrenal.