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May 17, 2011

There’s a lot to understand about post-trauma recovery. If you’re struggling with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you’re juggling many psychological and even physical symptoms while you learn to 1) grieve and let go of your former self, 2) function in a world that no longer feels safe, 3) renegotiate your relationship to who you are, other people and the universe at large.

You have to do all of this at the same time that you have to cope with how trauma changes your brain. Don’t worry – you can handle this process. Beginning to navigate the post-trauma maze starts with understanding basic things. Recognizing the science behind your experience will help you accept where you are and what you notice about yourself, plus give you clues about what needs to be done. It’s precisely these biological changes that can lead to the development of PTSD.

Did you know that the experience of trauma can actually cause neurological changes in the structure of your brain? For weeks or even years you may have been thinking you’re crazy, but there are often scientific reasons for much of your behavior, including increased, diminished and killed brain regions, functions and neurons. Consider the following:
  • Can’t find the words to express your thoughts? That’s because the prefrontal lobe (responsible for language) can be adversely affected by trauma, which gets in the way of linguistic function.
  • Can’t regulate your emotions? How could you when the amygdala (responsible for emotional regulation) is in such overdrive that in some PTSD survivors it actually enlarges.
  • Having problem with short-term memory loss? Of course you are: studies show that in some PTSD survivors the hippocampus (responsible for memory and experience assimilation) actually shrinks in volume.
  •  Always feeling frightened no matter what you do? Understandable when your medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for regulating emotion and fear responses) doesn't regulate itself or function properly after trauma.
Knowing that there’s a biology to trauma let’s you understand in a scientific sense why you can't 'just get over it.' Recognizing that trauma’s effects have been concretely documented by evidence-based data should let you know that PTSD is not a condition completely within your control; you'll have to learn how to regain mental power. That helps, doesn't it? The more we know and understand the more we can figure out how to heal.

The good news is the brain is designed to be plastic. That is, it is hardwired to rewire. Recent advances in scientific research all support the idea of ‘neuroplasticity’: "The brain’s ability to reorganize by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment." (Medicine.net)

What does all of this mean for you? It means that despite any neurological changes that PTSD may have brought about in your brain, it is, in fact, possible to reverse them. The brain wants to evolve. The question is determining how you will help it do that.

Recently, I interviewed Dr. Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Mental Health Patient Care Center Director at the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center. I asked her to explain what happens in the brain during trauma. She outlined it by saying that during a trauma the individual responds to a threat through the following processes:
  • the brain gives signals of trauma
  • the brain's main function is to get through the event
  • the brain helps us survive by activating biologic reactions involved in helping us mount the fight/flight response
  • the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenalin (your heart racing and the acceleration of your breathing signifies the release of adrenalin, which readies you to move)
  • the brain lowers the chemicals released to help us with regular functions (parasympathetic nervous systems energy is diverted to help you cope with surviving)
  • hormones are released to reign in stress response to stop long term damage to your body.
After trauma, Yehuda notes, not all brains reset themselves but they always try to recalibrate. "When things happen to us we don’t go back to the way we were," she explains. "After trauma, the brain’s job is to remember what happened and develop survival skills for the future. The brain integrates the lesson of trauma; it re-calibrates to do better next time."

So, what hope do we have of recovery? Yehuda answered: "The good news is, if your brain can change in response to one environment that is trauma it can change in response to treatment, too. Our brains are capable of change."

It’s very easy to become overwhelmed, despondent and hopeless when dealing with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Learning about the possibility to recover, however, will help you have hope, belief and above all, the motivation to seek the right help to get you on the path to becoming your next self.

For further exploration of how the brain can change, check out these resources: Michele Rosenthal is a trauma survivor, PTSD coach and the founder of www.healmyptsd.com. Her radio show, ‘Your Life After Trauma’ may be heard weekly on-air and streaming online.
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