You are the product of your surroundings. From childhood, the experiences you have encountered made you who you are today. But concerted appalling experiences can lead to post-traumatic disorder even in a brief period, if not healed.
Now, take two minutes of your time and think about this.
When you go in front of a crowd, do you remember the mockery of other people from your past? Does news on sexual assault remind you of yours? Do the nightmares keep occurring after the car accident where you lost your dear ones? Does the acrimonious dispute between your parents makes you anxious? I know your heart is getting heavier even reading this, if you can relate.
But, if none of these shakes your soul, congratulations, you are one of those lucky ones who are not controlled by perpetuating gloomy memories. But just to familiarize you with trauma and how intense it can be, I want to drag your attention to a famous fictional character Dr. John Watson from Sherlock. He had problems with walking and having nightmares after the Afghanistan war, which is, in effect, a recurrent reality among veterans. The experiences were so vicious that it affected him not only mentally but physically. And that is the power of a traumatic experience.
Our brain is receptive to painful circumstances that change the activations in the brain. To understand how trauma controls your behavior, first, we need to understand the brain activities.
Brain’s Response to Trauma
There are four major areas of the brain that are affected by trauma: the hippocampus, the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the brain stem.
- Our brain signals the body, under a threatening feeling, to release stress hormones. Of those, one is cortisol that damages the cells of the hippocampus, which integrates memory.
- Another hormone is adrenaline, which goes to the brain’s amygdala, which works to detect emotions like fear.
During a negative experience, the amygdala gets overactive and fires up emotions, whereas the underactive hippocampus gives hazy memory. Studies show that people who suffer from chronic trauma have a smaller hippocampus.
- The prefrontal cortex of our brain helps to think, plan, and solve. But trauma slows down its activities.
At any moment of fear, the amygdala gets strong alongside a weak cortex, which makes us incapable to solve the problem and focus.
- During an acute trauma, the brain stem automatically takes actions that are categorized by “fight, flight, freeze, collapse”, meaning, they fight or get angry as a defense mechanism to trauma. Or feel an urge to run away. But some people cannot move in extreme fear. Sometimes when the heart rate drops, people faint where they tend to feel disassociated with themselves.
These responses are hard-wired and intractable. Sometimes they happen so quickly in unsuitable situations that it creates additional stress, exhaustion leading to a painful cycle.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Doctors did not find any specific evidence behind the causes of PTSD, but it is closely linked to the negative events. It is easier for trauma to mold a child’s mind as their brains are malleable. But PTSD can be diagnosed at any age. Sometimes it takes months or even years to figure out you have it.
In most cases, similar experiences can trigger that memory and affect attitudes. For instance, if someone had been in a fire accident, may find it hard to confront any flame later on. But sometimes it correlates to a person’s view as well. If someone was abused in childhood, he or she may think everyone else will do the same.
Luana Marques, a clinical psychologist said in this regard, “When we think about traumatic events, it’s not just what the event is, it’s really your interpretation and what the event causes for you.”
Even though there are variations in the symptoms of PTSD, there can be four broad categories including intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Some symptoms are:
- Intrusive memories: Distressing memories, flashbacks, nightmares
- Avoidance: Avoiding people, places, activities, and even talking about the traumatic event
- Negative changes in thinking and mood: Negative thoughts about yourself or other people, hopelessness about the future, difficulty maintaining close relationships, unclear memories (difficulty remembering the important aspects of the traumatic events), lack of interests, emotionally numb feeling
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions: Easily frightened, self-destructive behavior or substance abuse, trouble sleeping or concentrating
Although the intensity of PTSD varies on situations and also on individuals, under stressful circumstances, it may increase. Now, if you feel any of these emotions and complications longer than months and if these impact you severely, checking up with a doctor is an apt solution. Not to worry, with time and proper care, it is remediable.