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The Science and Psychology of PTSD

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About the author: David Bugg is a recent college graduate who enjoys writing about psychology, mental health, addiction, culture, music, and health and wellness.

 

Traumatic events come in a variety of shades and how they affect people is unique to the individual. Such experiences might be embedded in fearful, helpless, or horrific moments that correlate with near-death experiences, serious injuries, or threats to the physical integrity of themselves or others.

The post-traumatic experience can be unrelenting. It can create nightmares and summon flashbacks of the experience. It can cause the individual to avoid certain places, people, and activities while also increasing one’s anxiety and insomnia.

This overbearing phenomenon wears on the individual. It could encourage one to potentially seek any means to solve this misery, an understandable scenario, given the circumstances.

 

What Brain Processes Relate to PTSD?

Scientists believe that PTSD may occur because of complex occurrences in the brain. One section of the brain, the hypothalamus, releases the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which triggers the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone. These processes stimulate the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoid (cortisol). Cortisol affects the pituitary gland as well as the hypothalamus and another region of the brain, the hippocampus.

CRF is responsible for mediating fear-based behaviors and triggers other neurochemical responses to stress, such as the noradrenergic system. When this system activates, it could produce the hyperalert and vigilant behaviors often seen in PTSD.

 

What Is the Feedback Loop of PTSD?

For the mind and body to integrate events, they must translate such events into some type of language, even a subconscious language.

Neural pathways take thoughts that are related to experiences, send them to the language regions of the brain to be processed, and then send them back to other areas of the brain. However, the brain does not process the event that caused PTSD correctly, so the brain sends those thoughts back. The thoughts bounce back and forth since they and become trapped in the automated nervous system. This creates a feedback loop.

When stuck in this feedback loop, the individual can experience a number of side effects, including:

  • Taut and tense muscles
  • Problems concentrating and reasoning
  • Hypervigilant behavior
  • Re-experiences of past events

Individuals caught in this loop can feel physically and mentally frozen, similar to a deer staring into headlights. Much like a landmine waiting for someone to step on it, certain sights, smells, touches, sounds, or other sensations that bring back memories of the traumatic events can trigger PTSD symptoms.

 

How Do People Treat PTSD?

In some ways, it is understandable why some people turn to substances such as drugs and alcohol to relieve their PTSD, since they are seeking relief from the psychological curse of the disorder. But therapy and properly managed medications such as Zoloft and Prozac are better ways to combat the symptoms of PTSD than self-medicating with illegal drugs or alcohol.

Even though medication and therapy can be effective tools to deal with PTSD, many people, such as police officers and other first responders, never learn proper psychological strategies to cope with the disorder. Many default to self-treatment or avoidance tactics.

Brian A. Chopko, an associate professor of sociology at Kent State University, conducted a study to understand the relationship between mindfulness and PTSD in law enforcement. Chopko suggests that employers help employees recognize the traumatic symptoms of PTSD. He says that mindfulness as well as spiritual and religious practices can help encourage personal growth after trauma.

Conversely, avoidance strategies suppress thoughts, feelings, and emotions of events. This is being in a state of mindlessness, since the individual is not taking action towards acknowledging the fact that the event happened.

So, although it may sound counter-intuitive, mindfully revisiting trauma through exposure therapy can help a person heal. When the individual purposefully re-experiences the traumatic event, the thoughts and emotions that are embedded within the event might begin to subside.

Native Americans healing arts aim to reduce the use of avoidance tactics in coping with traumatic stress. Native American practitioners sometimes interpret dreams and use holistic methods to alter people’s consciousness and help them heal traumatic memories that were stored in the unconscious.

 

How Are Mindfulness and Addiction Treatment Connected to PTSD?

The theory of mindfulness is commonly known as a state of being aware and attentive in the present moment. Mindfulness seeks to increase skillful behavior and acceptance strategies.

Mindfulness and healing sometimes seem to be cases of easier said than done, however. Avoidance tactics often feel the most secure to many, even those without PTSD. To avoid the reoccurring experiences of PTSD, some turn to abusing drugs and alcohol, as substance abuse can both numb the symptoms and distract the suffering individuals.

Drug addiction help can be a solution that can provide strategies and holistic therapies. Such assistance can teach those struggling with addiction how to prevent avoidance behaviors and achieve self-empowerment.

PTSD is a phenomenon that is still being researched today. There are methods that can be taught to help people address and treat this illness.

Substance abuse and other avoidance tactics can be means to postponing the effects of PTSD, but they are not solutions. Therapeutic treatments, counseling, and proper medication are better tools to assist those who suffer and teach them proper strategies to overcome PTSD. Such tools can help them actively confront the condition, not passively avoid it.

 

About the author: David Bugg is a recent college graduate who enjoys writing about psychology, mental health, addiction, culture, music, and health and wellness.

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