Fact 23

PTSD and the Brain

Several years ago, my counselor listened to my story. I was clearly in deep distress.  When I finished the heartbreaking tale, he said, “You have PTSD.” That meant nothing to me. I thought Great. If we know what I have, we can fix it. Nope, not that easy, is it?

So I started learning about PTSD. Right away, I discovered that it “rewires the brain.” I believed that could happen to other people, but not to me—even while PTSD was diligently at work crossing the wires in my brain. Denial is a wonderful thing sometimes.

Anyway, it’s always confused me about what happens to which parts of the brain when. So I looked for easy-to-understand explanations and came up with this order of events:

  1. Before a trauma, your cortex (the top layer of the brain) keeps you out of trouble. Sometimes called “the left brain” or “The Thinking Brain,” the cortex analyzes, organizes, and reminds you of proper behavior. It keeps you civil.
  2. When a trauma hits, your Emotional Brain (which sits under the Thinking Brain) rips control away from the other parts of the brain. Two parts of the Emotional brain play an especially important role in PTSD.
    1. The amygdala activates your fight-or-flight response. It rapidly assesses the threats, skips over reasoning, and forces you to take immediate action.
    2. The hippocampus usually communicates with the amygdala. But in trauma, the amygdala refuses to let go of the power. This part of your brain cuts off communication with other parts that normally store emotional information. But the amygdala holds onto the trauma (to protect you) and doesn’t allow it to be filed away. The trauma is kept alive within you, so you live in a world of constant danger and fear (PTSD).

A few days ago, we discussed how writing your story helps free the trauma from the amygdala. When that occurs, the other parts of the brain can process the trauma, file it away, and put it behind you. That’s when you can begin to recover.

But remember that this is an extremely complicated process. Fixing the wiring in your brain will take time and perseverance. Be kind to yourself while that is happening.

Does this make sense to you? What questions does it raise?