PTSD and the Brain

Any type of trauma, from a terrorist attack and combat accidents to a car accident, a natural disaster, child abuse, rape, assault and domestic violence brings about certain changes in the body and the brain. Each and every part of the body records memories and every trauma-related, embedded neuropathway has the potentiality to reactivate repeatedly.

Sometimes, the changes these imprints cause are transitory, transient moods and little glitches of disruptive dreams that subside in several weeks or months. In other cases, however, the alterations evolve into readily apparent symptoms that impede function and manifest themselves in ways that interfere with jobs, friendships and relationships, at times developing into a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

One of the hardest aspects for survivors of trauma is understanding the alterations that have taken place and accurately perceiving what they mean, how they affect their lives and what can be done to deal with them. Any effective recovery process will start with normalizing post-trauma or PTSD symptoms by studying how trauma affects your brain.

Parts of the brain

Generally speaking, the brain consists of three parts – the brain stem, the midbrain and the cortex. The brain stem is the most primitive part, which reptiles also have (which is why it is sometimes called the reptilian brain). This is the innermost part of the brain and controls our autonomic body processes and survival instincts. The midbrain (or mammalian brain) is the middle part, which incorporates the limbic syste and is responsible for our emotions. It also helps convey sensory relays.

Finally, the cortex or forebrain, which only human beings have of all mammals, is the most highly evolved part. It is responsible for cognitive processing, memory, decision-making, inhibitory functions and learning among other mental tasks. This is the part to have developed the latest evolutionarily.

When you have a traumatic experience or flashback, the reptilian brain takes over. It primes your body into fight-or-flight mode, shutting down all cognitive processes. This is survival mode. The sympathetic nervous system elevates release of stress hormones like cortisol and prepares the body to flee, fight, or freeze during this time. In a normal everyday situation, the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming side of our nervous system)will put the body back into “normal” mode after the perceived or actual danger or risk has passed. This process reduces the amount of stress hormones released and lets the brain go back to its normal control structure (from cortex to brain stem).

Approximtely one in every five trauma survivors go on to develop PTSD symptoms, an unadulterated experience of anxiety connected to the past trauma. The shift from reactive, fight-or-flight to responsive, normal mode does not reliably occur. The brain stem, primed to perceive danger and supported by dysfunctional brain structures, keeps the survivor in a permanently reactive state.

A traumatised mind

PTSD symptoms fall into a number of clear-cut categories, including distressing intrusive thoughts, avoidance of triggers, mood swings and hypervigilance.

Distressing intrusive thoughts are mostly brought about by unwanted memories of the trauma. The victim begins to avoid all sensory and emotional trauma-related elements. Mood alterations range from blame to shame and persistent negative thoughts. Finally, hypervigilance is a term used to describe a trait of people who are constantly “on the lookout”. This is an exaggerated startle response. It’s no wonder you are experiencing this as you keep reliving the traumatic experience and the triggers are highly present in your external environment. You keep expecting the traumatic event to reoccur. It’s always there, waiting. It’s a horrible feeling.

The things trauma victims experience can cause great confusion to them. They simply can’t fathom how and why they have suddenly lost complete control of their own brains and bodies.

Symptoms of PTSD:

Below are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD. Some of these also characterize flashbacks, while others can cue one:

  • Unexpected rage or tears
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Memory loss
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Emotional numbness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Nightmares

These sensations and occurrences can significantly disruptyour life provided they’re frequent enough. The victim needs time and help to recover. Everyone’s path to healing is unique. A number of chemical and biological imbalances can manifest themselves after a trauma, and their effects are especially aggravated by a series of major brain dysfunctions or “deregulations”.

Hippocampus dysfunction

An increase in the stress hormone glucocorticoid kills cells in the hippocampus, making it underactive and less effective in forming the synaptic connections needed for memory consolidation. This interruption keeps both the brain and body stimulated in fight or flight mode as neither one nor the other grasps that the threat is in the past and no longer a factor.

Amygdala dysfunction

The amygdala is an almond-shaped organ embedded in the limbic system that is responsible for survival-related danger identification and giving memories an emotional tinge. After living through a trauma, the victim’s amygdala is trapped in an active, highly alert loop, during which it searches for and findsdanger everywhere.

Deregulated stress hormone release

The constant elevation of stress hormones causes physical deregulation. The sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight or flight mode,is always activated. This can cause sensations of physical and mental exhaustion.

In the words of a survivor

“I can’t ever remember what sets them (my flashbacks) off. Unconscious evaluative processing is up to millions of pieces per second, while conscious evaluative processing is less than 100. My reptilian brain finds danger in a matter of nanoseconds. It does this even if something bears a very slight resemblance to the original trauma. It shuts down the cortex, which also includes our speech center, which is why we are speechless when this happens to us. Now we have a domino effect of hormonal and chemical reactions in store. As the body releases adrenaline, the blood rushes to the trunk for immediate action, leaving the periphery cold and numb (feet and hands). Cortisol skyrockets, as do epinephrine and norepinephrine. Nothing happens, and the body crashes.”

Getting help

Changes to the brain can seem permanent, but they can and often are reversed. The hippocampus can accurately consolidate the memory, and the amygdala can be programmed to “relax”. The nervous system can recommence its easy transition between reactive and relax modes. The key to healing lies in finding the right approach to reprogram the body and mind.

What are my options?

Options include therapy, hypnosis, and neuro-linguistic programming. These interventions can help teach the mind to release and reframe the grip of trauma. Similarly, approaches including tension release, somatic experiencing, and trauma releasing exercises and other physical techniques can help the body get back to normal.

Victims of trauma are unique and the paths to healing are as varied as there are types of victims and survivors. There is no one-size-fits-all method of what will work, but what I can tell you for sure is that when survivors commit to a process of testing treatment options they can mitigate the effects of trauma and even completely eradicate symptoms of PTSD with time.

Ways to improve brain health and function with PTSD

There are quite a few ways to improve brain health and function if you are suffering from PTSD. Here, we’ll go into two of them in detail.

Somatic therapy

This form of therapy, albeit less known than many of its brethren, has proven quite successful for treating trauma, “rewiring” the brain and recovering health. It is a holistic therapy based on the relationship between the brain and the body regarding the traumatic past event. The aim of somatic therapy is to recognize and relieve physical tension that may be stuck in the body.

During this type of therapeutic session, the patient describes their sensations throughout the body. Therapy elements may include movement, awareness of bodily sensations, voice work, dance, breathing techniques, physical exercise, or healing touch.

Somatic therapy is based on the observations of Dr. Peter Levine of how animals in the wild deal with highly dangerous situations. According to Levine, animals are rarely traumatized by these experiences because they recover from stress naturally. He believed people were able to achieve this too. The reason it doesn’t happen iseither because we don’t know how or it would seem socially inappropriate.Trauma can be healed through awareness and physically eliminating the energy of the traumatic occurrence.

Elements of somatic therapy include creating a sense of security, exploring sensations, discovering corrective experiences and eliminating residual trauma energy among others. Obviously, you need to feel secure to be able to stay focused on the here and now while experiencing traumatic physical sensations. Not only that – the healing process begins with exploringthem. Of course, this isn’t going to happen overnight.

With time, it is possible to begin inserting corrective experiences. You put positive and empowering reactions in place of freeze and panic mode, i.e. the old, ineffective way of responding. This isn’t to say you should eliminate all fear response – this would make you truly inflexible and non-adaptive, to say the least – but it should be reduced. Then, you go about eliminating the energy left over from aroused states. This enables higher level brain functions to use this energy and indicate to you when your life really is in danger.

Restore relaxed alertness and dynamic equilibrium. Bring “new life” to your nervous system, so it can self-regulate again.

Another element is being able to connect with the physical environment and recovering the ability to interact and engage socially.


Most disorders and illnesses make it necessary to go on a diet – in fact, we don’t realize how important what we eat and drink is until we get ill. It’s a fact of life, and applies to the vast majority of people. If you haven’t gone on a diet yet and you’re suffering from PTSD (or any other anxiety disorder for that matter), it’s high time! Why? Because some foods – starches, sugary, and greasy foods – tend to exacerbate the disorder, making you more vulnerable to negative emotions, which can then fuel anxiety attacks and flashbacks.

People regularly go on diets to lose weight or have more energy, but few realize the benefits of going on a diet for the brain, the most important organ in the human body.

Your diet should include a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, nuts and seeds and certain herbs and spices. Glucose is most crucial for a healthy mind because the brain uses glucose as its main source of fuel, more so than any other organ. Complex carbohydrates found in unprocessed, natural foods are the best source. The body breaks them down into glucose,meaningthat a large number of vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts and beans and whole grain products need to be consumed.

Your brain requires a steady, balanced supply of glucose. This is also crucialfor mood and appetite regulation. Without a sufficient amount of glucose, you are more vulnerable to mood swings. However, toomuch glucose can also cause mood swings, so any food that stabilizes blood sugar levels will help.

Eat every few hours (don’t overeat though). Go for unrefined carbs, and balance them with lean protein and fat as they delay glucose absorption. Why is processed food not recommended? The nutrients that were there originally have been broken down in processing, so your body absorbs what is left very quickly, and there tends to be a lot of nasties added to the mix. Your blood sugar levels skyrocket. Alternatively, if you eat whole grain foods, your body has to accomplish the digestion before you can absorb that glucose.

Healthy eating habits can also help reduce inflammation, which has been associated with depression. The brain can become inflamed like any tissue in the body. Foods like red meat have inflammatory qualities. Most people in the western world eat many times more inflammatory omega-6 fatty foods than omega 3, which is the opposite. To strike a balance, start eating more fish, flax seed, apples, sour cherries and berries, and extra-virgin olive oil.

Some good anti-inflammatory spices are curry, ginger, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano, and turmeric. Make sure you consume plenty of probiotics (yogurt) and natural supplements.

The better and more nutritious food you eat, the less frequent and painful the flashbacks will be.

ashley gilmour

Is PTSD or trauma starting to overwhelm you? or have a question or query? Contact Ashley your Gold Coast Psychologist via email or on 07 55743888. We are more than happy to help you!