Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) & Emotional Trauma

Unlike traditional psychiatry, which rarely looks at the brain, Amen Clinics uses brain imaging technology to help distinguish the symptoms of PTSD and Emotional Trauma from other conditions, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI).

What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Many people are exposed to trauma during their lives, whether they experience it themselves, personally witness it happen to someone else, or discover that a loved one had a traumatic event. Afterwards, it is normal for anyone to have several distressing symptoms in the days and weeks that follow, which in most cases, subside naturally over time. However, when symptoms persist and interfere with academic, occupational, relational, and social functioning it may be a sign of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a potentially debilitating condition that can significantly disrupt a person’s life. PTSD can affect anyone—even young children. Being abused, physical and sexual assault, military combat, and motor vehicle accidents are common causes of PTSD. This condition is also seen in first responders—firefighters, police, and EMTs—who are routinely on the front lines attending to emergencies, severe or fatal injuries, and crisis situations. The repeated exposure to traumatic circumstances and critical incidence stress have been shown to significantly impact mental health and can be devastating to the personal and professional lives of first responders. It is important to understand that PTSD is not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness, rather it develops as a response to traumatic events. However, if it is left untreated, PTSD can cause a wide array of serious symptoms and even lead to suicide.

Who is Affected by PTSD?

Approximately 3.5% of U.S. adults suffer from PTSD, and an estimated 1 in 11 will be diagnosed with the condition at some point during their lifetime. It is believed to affect a higher proportion of veterans—between 11 and 15%—especially those who served in combat areas. However, for Vietnam vets, the lifetime rate of PTSD is closer to 30%, which is similar to the rate seen in first responders. Recently published research has also found that a notable number of health care professionals working in hospitals during the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic developed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

PTSD can affect males and females, however, females are 2-3 times more likely than males to develop the condition. In addition, girls tend to suffer trauma at a younger age when it has a greater impact on brain development.

What Causes PTSD?

Our brains are wired to alarm us about the presence and threat of danger or death, so having a biological, physiological, or psychological response to a traumatic event is normal. In general, directly experiencing or personally witnessing any frightening, dangerous, or life-threatening situation—or even the perception that a situation is life-threatening—can trigger PTSD symptoms. Learning that something traumatic happened to a loved one can also lead to PTSD.

Common causes of PTSD include:

  • Military combat
  • Childhood abuse and other traumatic experiences
  • Rape and other sexual assault
  • Repeated exposure to violence
  • Being stalked
  • Seeing someone get seriously hurt or killed
  • Being held at gunpoint or against your will
  • The sudden death of a parent or other caregiver during one’s childhood
  • Physical assault
  • Automobile accidents
  • A sudden life-threatening medical event (i.e. anaphylaxis or awakening during major surgery)
  • Surviving a natural disaster, such as a severe hurricane, tornado, fire, or earthquake
  • Living in a war zone
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Mass shootings

It is common for PTSD to co-occur with other conditions, including:

Why Choose Amen Clinics for Treating PTSD?

Most psychiatrists never look at the brain and make their diagnostic assessment based only on a patient’s reported symptoms, which is why many people are misdiagnosed or prescribed the wrong treatment. SPECT scans are very helpful in determining whether a patient has PTSD or another disorder. A research study conducted at Amen Clinics evaluated the brain blood flow patterns in TBI and PTSD—two conditions that have many overlapping symptoms. The study found that brain SPECT imaging was able to differentiate the two conditions with 89% accuracy. This research was recognized by Discover Magazine as #19 of the top 100 science stories of 2015. At Amen Clinics, a comprehensive evaluation that includes brain SPECT imaging paves the way for people with PTSD to get an accurate diagnosis and more effective treatment that leads to faster healing.

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PTSD Brains Work Differently

People who are suffering with PTSD often have overactivity in multiple areas of the brain. On SPECT scans, abnormally high activity is commonly seen in the deep limbic area, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate gyrus. In addition to being a very useful tool for determining a correct diagnosis, brain SPECT imaging helps those with PTSD in other ways too, including:

  • The scans show that PTSD symptoms and behaviors are caused by biological processes in the brain, NOT by personal failure, thereby reducing the shame and stigma associated with having a mental health condition.
  • After seeing the brain scans, families have a better understanding that their loved one is not at fault for having PTSD symptoms. This promotes compassion and forgiveness and encourages families to become more involved in the healing process.
  • Brain scans help provide important information that leads to a personalized and more effective treatment plan.
  • Follow-up SPECT scans can show if treatment is working or if it needs to be adjusted to improve the healing process.


Healthy Brain Scan

PTSD Brain Scan

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates activity (blood flow) in the brain. Basically, it shows three things: healthy activity, too little activity, or too much activity. In a healthy “active” scan, blue represents average blood flow and red and white represent increasingly higher levels of blood flow. In the healthy scan on the left, the most active area is the cerebellum, located in the back/bottom part of the brain, and this is normal to see. The PTSD scan on the right reveals high activity in the deep limbic area, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate gyrus in a “diamond pattern,” which is a classic finding in cases of PTSD.

Ready to learn more? Speak to a care coordinator today!

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Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A person may develop symptoms of PTSD shortly after a traumatic event, or it can take days, weeks, or months for them to emerge. In other cases, symptoms may not develop until years later when triggered by a new trauma. When this happens, it can be difficult for someone to connect their distressing symptoms with a trauma they experienced years before.

The symptoms of PTSD can range from mild to severe, and include:

  • Intense recollections, such as flashbacks and nightmares
  • Inability to recall certain aspects of what happened
  • Avoidance of people, places, or things that are reminders of the trauma
  • A refusal to talk about the event
  • Inability to discuss one’s feelings about what happened
  • Distressing memories
  • Dissociation or feeling removed from one’s mind or body
  • Inability to stop thinking about the incident
  • Increased or excessive anxiety
  • Heightened fearfulness
  • Always being on guard or being easily startled
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame about the traumatic event
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyed
  • Anger and irritability
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Social isolation


“With A Better Brain Comes A Better Life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


PTSD Testimonials

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