How PTSD Changes Your Brain (And How You Can Fight It)
September 10, 2021
Millions of people around the globe suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder every year. Suffering from severe anxiety, insomnia, difficulties with trust, and constant stress is incredibly difficult, and some may not know where to turn.
Fortunately, nobody has to deal with PTSD on their own. There are effective treatment options available, including a newer form of therapy known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which could help you become free from the trauma in your past.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: What Is It?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that one develops as a result of their personally traumatic experiences. Most PTSD cases are caused solely by environmental factors, but there is genetic predisposition, with 30% of PTSD cases appearing to be explained by genetics alone.
Traumatic experiences in both childhood and adulthood can cause PTSD. This includes any form of abuse — physical, verbal, sexual, domestic, etc. — as well as life-threatening emergencies, significant losses, and much more. These events actually impact the structure of your brain, which is why their effects can be so enduring.
Those who suffer from PTSD are overactive in some areas of the brain and underactive in others. The parts of their brain that analyze their surroundings, anticipate danger, and create the fight-or-flight response are overused. The parts that are more involved in relaxation and enjoying the moment are underused.
The over-triggered fight-or-flight response is the biggest problem for most people with PTSD. This intense anxiety and hyper-awareness can cause serious panic attacks. Though someone may be completely safe at the time of one of these attacks, they can still feel like their life is in danger. PTSD makes it more difficult for one to utilize coping mechanisms or self-soothe.
Panic attacks are often accompanied by flashbacks to a traumatic moment. For example, many veterans struggle with their PTSD on the Fourth of July because the sound of fireworks may trigger them to a flashback of bombs and gunfire threatening their lives. Flashbacks can also happen in one’s dreams — many people with PTSD suffer from intense nightmares.
Additionally, because the trauma that causes PTSD can extend beyond emergency response trauma into other situations where your sense of safety or self-worth is endangered — for example, abuse during childhood or in a romantic relationship — insecurity in these areas can continue after that traumatic situation has ended.
As a result, those with PTSD may have difficulty pursuing positive goals, feeling worthy of their accomplishments, and bonding securely with other people. This includes friendships, romantic relationships, and familial relationships. These symptoms are often underrepresented when portraying PTSD, as emergency response trauma is more commonly depicted in media.
People with PTSD also often struggle with navigating conflict and stress, even when it does not apply to their original triggers. Any upsetting or physically/emotionally taxing situation can trigger a fight-or-flight response, causing the affected person to react with rage, run away, or shut down.
PTSD is a difficult mental illness to cope with and leaves many feeling hopeless and frightened. Though more research is needed, several studies have found a greatly increased risk of death from suicide amongst people with PTSD. Those who get mental health treatment from a psychologist or psychiatrist have more success learning to cope with, and even defeat, PTSD.
What Can I Do About My PTSD?
If you have PTSD, you may feel tempted to try and shove all of the negative memories and feelings away. After all, shoving all of your trauma into a box and hiding it in the back of your mind forever sounds like it must be better than enduring the struggles of flashbacks and constant stress.
Some even use substances, like alcohol or other drugs, to suppress that stress and escape their difficult thoughts and feelings. They may also develop abnormal sexual behaviors (having lots and lots of it or avoiding it entirely) or eating habits, or throw themselves into other responsibilities such as work.
As common as these coping mechanisms are, they aren’t healthy. Your health and self-esteem will become damaged in new ways. You could develop an eating disorder, a substance abuse disorder, an unhealthy relationship with intimacy, or new difficulties forming meaningful relationships.
In addition to being unhealthy, these coping mechanisms also aren’t really effective, even if they feel like they work at first. Any short-term effectiveness you may see will be overridden in the long term, and your trauma will return — sometimes worse than before.
So avoidance doesn’t work — but what will?
Mental health struggles are the same as physical health struggles — often, they need real medical attention before they get better. In the case of PTSD, this often means therapy.
In therapy, a trained mental health professional can teach you to face your traumatic memories and triggers in a safe and gradual way. You’ll learn how to manage the anxiety and stress of day-to-day life, and you’ll learn coping mechanisms that are effective, healthy, and beneficial.
In addition to these cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, your therapist may choose to utilize family therapy, somatic therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Antidepressant medications can also increase the effectiveness of therapy.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
While these therapy techniques are beneficial for many people with PTSD, some with treatment-resistant PTSD may have more trouble seeing improvement. If you have tried therapy for your PTSD without success, you may need to seek additional help.
Luckily, there have been incredible recent developments in the field of neuromodulation that could help people with PTSD. A form of neuromodulation called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS, has been found to effectively treat PTSD.
TMS works by using an electromagnetic pulse to reactivate dormant areas of the brain, shifting your brain structure and chemistry back to the healthy and stable patterns of a brain without PTSD. It can even impact neurotransmitter levels in the brain, which could provide long-term remission from PTSD.
TMS is considered very safe and effective against a variety of neurological conditions and mental health struggles, including depression and anxiety. The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs has endorsed the use of TMS therapy for veterans who have not found relief from antidepressants and therapy.
PTSD is a frightening mental disorder. It can make you feel stuck in the very worst moments of your past, whether it is because of intense flashbacks, sensitive triggers, or deep-rooted fears and behaviors developed to cope with trauma.
Trying to fight PTSD on your own is rarely effective, and could lead to even worse mental and physical health outcomes. Instead, don’t be afraid to reach out to your doctor about getting real medical help. Even if therapy and antidepressants have not worked in the past, TMS could still be an incredible potential option for you.