Is PTSD Irreversible?
The conventional wisdom surrounding the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is based upon the presumption that those with PTSD have irreversible neurological changes. However new research suggests otherwise and could have far-reaching consequences for the treatment of PTSD.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is the emotional and physiological response to a terrible occurrence. This event could be experiencing combat, rape, a natural disaster, or some kind of an assault.
The reflexive reaction when we are faced with danger is to go into fight-or-flight mode. This increases the release of cortisol and adrenaline enabling the individual to act quicker, either to fight or to flee.
Trauma inhibits this natural response. Instead of fighting or fleeing, we freeze. This experience of this freeze is a profound sense of paralysis and helplessness which disables the victim and prevents anything from being done to gain relief from the situation.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a condition that may evolve after the experience of trauma. Although there are a plethora of symptoms, the most common are:
- Experiencing the event again as if it is occurring at the moment
- Attempting to avoid any reminder of the event
- Feelings of emotional numbness such as the inability to cry
- Vulnerability to hyper-arousal from seemingly innocuous events
Neuroplasticity’s Central Role
The neurological implications of PTSD can be best understood once neuroplasticity, a new and exciting concept in neuroscience, is explained. Until recently the consensus among scientists was that the development of the brain mirrored physical development- that once the brain became mature, it was no longer capable of growth or development.
But recent brain research has exposed the fallacy of this belief. In fact, the brain is constantly changing. New experiences affect the circuitry in our brain. So, brain mapping done at various intervals of life will show new and changing neural pathways. This brain flexibility is known as neuroplasticity.
When one experiences trauma, neuroplasticity causes changes in the brain for it to cope and adapt to a particular situation. However, this adaptation, while serving the brain well in the moment as a defense against further trauma, will adversely impact the brain long term.
The Neurology of PTSD
Neuro-imaging shows that the three areas of the brain that are impacted by trauma are:
- The prefrontal cortex (PFC)
The amygdala located in the brain’s limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) alerts the brain when danger is present, triggering the fight-or-flight response. However, when trauma is experienced, the amygdala remains hyper-vigilant to other stimuli that are not threatening. This causes a fight-or-flight response to be activated even when the person is safe.
The result is that PTSD can cause the victim to get caught in a vicious cycle where it seems that danger is practically everywhere due to the activated amygdala, when in fact there is none.
This hyperactive amygdala continually interacts with the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is critical to memory function. Brain scans have shown that those suffering from PTSD have a reduced hippocampus suggesting that trauma may cause impaired memory.
Also, the hippocampus organizes memories thereby giving those memories context. PTSD by impairing hippocampus function fragments memory. This fragmentation results in a loss of context, impaired capacity to distinguish the past from the present, and the reduced ability to integrate memories with factual knowledge and feelings.
Hippocampus damage seems to be responsible for the flashbacks and intrusive memories that are so familiar to those who suffer from PTSD. But it doesn’t end there. Those painful memories stimulate the amygdala which ensures that the amygdala remains hyperactive.
The final region of the brain impacted by trauma is the prefrontal cortex or PFC. The PFC regulates emotions, impulses, behaviors, and fear responses. Research shows that PTSD reduces activity in the PFC. Consequently, there is an impaired ability to arrest the flashes of memory emanating from the hippocampus, and the inability to inform the amygdala that the danger is not real but imaginary.
And The Neurology of Mindfulness
Studies have shown significant data to support mindfulness as a way to relieve PTSD. However, it is only recently that research has addressed the neurological changes that occur in the brain during the mindfulness process.
Mindfulness can reverse the patterns of brain deregulation and memory fragmentation by increasing PFC and hippocampus activity aside from calming down the amygdala.
Brain scans show that mindfulness meditation increases gray matter in the hippocampus while decreasing gray matter in the amygdala. Moreover, neuroimaging studies show an association of mindfulness meditation with increased activation of the PFC.
Neurology and brain research aside, clinical studies have shown over and again that mindfulness helps liberate those suffering from PTSD from the painful and vicious cycle of negative thinking, often a hallmark of trauma.
Cutting edge neuroplasticity research gives renewed hope to those suffering from PTSD through the powerful medium of mindfulness.