PTSD: Branded in the Brain

PTSD and the Brain

Imagine that you’re in your car, humming along to your favorite tune on the radio while waiting for the traffic signal to change. Suddenly, you see a horrific car accident that leaves some people dead and several others injured. Immediately, your heart starts racing, your breathing gets rapid and shallow, and you feel anxious. These are all typical signs of the human body’s stress response system, also known as the fight-or-flight response.

In most people, after witnessing a traumatic event, your system would eventually return to a normal state of relaxation. In some individuals, however, those feelings of fear, anxiety, and horror linger and develop into posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

That’s what happened to Miles.

After witnessing a traumatic event, feelings of fear, anxiety, and horror may linger and develop into posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Click To Tweet

PTSD CAUSES AND SYMPTOMS

After the accident, Miles developed PTSD, a condition that will affect an estimated 1 in 11 people during their lifetime. This condition arises in some individuals who experience trauma or witness a traumatic event. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are common causes of the condition, as are military combat, natural disasters, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks. For some people, the threat of death, serious injury, or emotional harm—or even a perceived threat—can set the stage for PTSD.

People with PTSD tend to recall traumatic events long afterward with flashbacks, uncontrollable thoughts, or nightmares. They often avoid places, people, and things associated with the trauma. It is common to experience anxiety, depression, fearfulness, emotional numbness, anger, and insomnia. Individuals suffering from PTSD are also likely to be easily startled, hypervigilant, or jumpy. This can interfere with relationships, cause problems in your career, and lead to unhealthy coping behaviors such as substance abuse. In some cases, it can ruin your life.

Like Miles, people who have PTSD may continually re-experience the trauma as if the past were still alive in the present. Miles, for example, had nightmares about the accident every night. In addition, whenever he saw a car similar to the one that caused the accident, it triggered the same horrible feelings he had experienced in that moment.

WHEN THE STRESS RESPONSE GETS STUCK

As humans, we all need to feel safe. When we experience traumas, however, we lose that foundational feeling of safety. The fight-or-flight response that is activated by protective circuitry that strives to keep us safe no longer functions optimally. It gets stuck in overdrive and refuses to calm down.

Miles’ danger detector, his stress response alarm system, was on constant fight-or-flight high alert. He felt like he was under threat at all times. Like Miles, many traumatized individuals have fight-or-flight reactions that continue long after the danger has passed. The feeling of danger never abates. It is why the emotional traumas in PTSD are “branded in the brain.”

PTSD AND THE BRAIN

Brain SPECT imaging studies reveal that people with PTSD who have suffered emotional trauma or physical abuse tend to have too much activity in certain areas of the brain. The regions where overactivity is seen on SPECT scans include the following:

  • Deep limbic area (the brain’s emotional center): Overactivity in this region is associated with depression.
  • Basal ganglia (the brain’s anxiety center): Too much activity here is linked with increased anxiousness.
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus (the brain’s gear shifter): Heightened activity in this area is associated with getting stuck on thoughts and behaviors.

On SPECT, the overactivity takes the shape of a diamond pattern. This pattern tends to keep the brain on overdrive, increasing anxiousness, irritability, fearfulness, and interfering with sleep. Seeing the diamond pattern on SPECT scans is a clue that past emotional trauma may need to be addressed.

PTSD on SPECT – Before and After Treatment

before
after
Active View
BEFORE Treatment
Active View
AFTER Treatment

 

In a healthy “active” SPECT scan, blue represents average blood flow and red (or white) represents increasingly higher levels of blood flow. In the scan on the left, there is high activity in the deep limbic area, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate gyrus, which is a classic finding in cases of PTSD. The scan on the right shows that overactivity has been calmed.

TREATING PTSD

The scan on the right shows that if you have PTSD, there is hope for soothing an overactive brain. There are many treatment options that can provide relief. Psychotherapy is a common component of a treatment plan and can be very helpful. Other therapies that can be beneficial include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), and other trauma-focused therapies. For some people, antidepressant medications may be recommended as part of a treatment plan.

Understanding your brain and any co-existing conditions, such as substance abuse, depression, or past head injuries is key to getting the most effective treatment plan. SPECT can be a powerful tool in this regard. Not only does functional brain imaging help identify co-occurring disorders and target treatments to your brain, but it also provides other important benefits. For example, SPECT helps:

  • Demonstrate that symptoms and behaviors are not imaginary, thereby reducing emotional pain and stigma.
  • Families gain a better understanding of what is actually going on in the brain of their loved ones, which increases forgiveness.
  • Encourage compliance with treatment plans, which improves outcomes.

PTSD and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

16 Comments »

  1. Amazingly vivid description of PTSD. I have a girlfriend who was sexually abused by her father from ages 5 to 11. She was never seriously hurt physically by this abuse, but I believe she had something branded in her brain, but is it still fear or what is it?

    Comment by Jon McGill — January 8, 2017 @ 12:21 PM

  2. Im in SHOCK at your comment about your g/f was sexually abused by her Dad from 5 to 11 and you stated she was “never” hurt physically by the abuse but something branded etc.I must say absolutely at 5 yrs old w/out a doubt she was hurt in fact im sure she was more than hurt ,What an un educated and careless statement to make.

    Comment by P.L — December 9, 2017 @ 4:52 PM

  3. My son had an incident happen to him when he was not even two and a half and it resulted in a tbi. I was the one who responded to the incident and still have ptsd, four years later. I will never be the same after what happened to my son and try my best to move forward with the wonderful boy he is today. However, I have a constant fear and relive he incident that occurred and hope some day it will be a distant memory.

    Comment by Cat — December 9, 2017 @ 4:54 PM

  4. SO what is the treatment?
    EMDR?

    Comment by Suze — December 10, 2017 @ 12:55 PM

  5. He said, “never seriously hurt physically by this abuse.” He didn’t say never hurt. You should re-read his statement. I think your comment was inappropriate. He is reaching out for help to understand her emotional trauma. geez.

    Comment by Debra A. Lepore — December 12, 2017 @ 5:50 PM

  6. I am also interested in the treatment for PTSD. How is it treated? Does this treatment also apply to Bipolar and other such issues? There are many different brain function disorder’s, some which are mild but affects lives.

    Comment by Sandra Pray — December 15, 2017 @ 6:01 AM

  7. I have PTSD and work as a psych nurse. My job re traumatizes me. I have anxiety and insomnia. Should I “give up” and find a more peaceful type of employment? My body has started to suffet, as I hsve developed high Blood pressure.

    Comment by Mary Lou Miles — December 15, 2017 @ 8:20 AM

  8. I agree with Debra. Please try a little kindness.
    the sexual abuse may not have involved physically penetrating her or causing her any other physical injury, but sometimes the perps make the child do ‘things’ for them. However, the destroying of her innocense, the feelings of shame and the mental trauma is enough abuse to cause the lady mental issues all her life. she should have counselling by a good mental health therapist and/or psychiatrist.
    I applaud the person who is reaching out to her!

    Comment by Judy B — December 15, 2017 @ 3:19 PM

  9. I used EMDR for trauma and it helped a lot. Look for a therapist who deals in trauma
    And EMDR

    Comment by Susan Von Tobel — December 16, 2017 @ 10:36 AM

  10. EMDR is. Very effective treatment for PTSD that unhooks the ongoing danger-danger response to memories and retires them to the past instead of reliving them in the present.

    Comment by Cathryn harris — December 16, 2017 @ 1:25 PM

  11. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy

    Comment by Tracy — December 19, 2017 @ 2:17 PM

  12. Thank you for a great article.

    Comment by Timothy Lee — June 20, 2022 @ 6:24 AM

  13. I have several incidents that feed my PTSD. I will never be the person I was before any of them and they ALL still deeply affect me however, I’ve never found any help anywhere. You just can’t understand until it happens to you. OR you prefer to pretend. Everyone prefers to stay in their own lane and just assume you’re ok. I am. I’m ok. No thanks to all of them.

    Comment by M Bates — June 20, 2022 @ 8:03 AM

  14. Since i was a child i can not go on any highways i am now 60 and have tired everything and still can not go on any highways at alll its upsetting cause i have lost out on so much not to mention my children when they were younger. Its upetting when i have community care take me somewhere and have to stay away from the yellow line and and close to the white if no white line then close to what they can. Dr has tried so many different meds but due to my system i can not take any help i would appreciate it thank you

    Comment by Sherry — June 20, 2022 @ 9:02 AM

  15. They really glossed over how to treat PTSD in this article. Showing that events ‘aren’t real’ isn’t helpful at all IME. PTSD is extremely hard to get rid of, they’re not being fully honest.

    Comment by Annette — June 20, 2022 @ 4:00 PM

  16. As a trauma therapist I use brainspotting everyday to heal trauma. As Dr. Amen’s spect scans show, traumatic stress changes the subcortical regions of the brain. As long as these brain regions remain actived, an individual with PTSD will experience symptoms. Brainspotting, like EMDR, is a somatic-based therapy that accesses these brain regions to release the trauma. The best news – these therapies bring symptom relief and healing fast. I spent 8 years in talk therapy to heal my own trauma. Brainspotting is a complete game-changer. The overwhelming majority of our centers’ clients heal in less than six months. If you are suffering, please find a certified clinician.

    Comment by Nicolette Bautista — June 20, 2022 @ 4:35 PM

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