The Nature of PTSD
Traumatic memory has a different nature than other memories – even memories that might have been horrific and scary. The traumatic memories are stored and processed differently. And instead of fading in time. they most often become more complicated, and more easily triggered.
Traumatic memories involve the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala. This sector of the brain is sometimes called the Reptile brain. We share it with lizards! But in humans, this “learned danger mechanism” can get more tangled than it can in creatures who don’t form narratives and have language. The sophisticated part of our brains can throw in more associations, providing a wider array of trip wires to trigger us. It is one of the places where what is usually an asset becomes a liability.
You see, the amygdala is responsible for learning what is dangerous. If an experience feels sufficiently threatening, or causes harm and or pain, the amygdala stores this information to try and keep your organism safe from it the next time. So if it encounters a similar stimulation, it prepares you for meeting or avoiding danger. Even if the current stimulation is not in itself dangerous. An example is a veteran I worked with who had extreme panic driving under overpasses – because that is where snipers fired from in Iraq. A pile of debris by the road would set off memories of IEDs (improvised explosive devises – roadside bombs responsible for so many deaths and injuries).
It is important to note that younger children are dependent on older people for their survival. And so loss of attention, neglect and even an insecure emotional bond can be experienced as life-threatening. Sometime parents filled with love, and the highest intentions for their child, can receive bad advice and not pick up a crying infant – to the child’s detriment. The infant feels in distress, and comfort is not coming. They can feel the panic of abandonment. And many parents can suffer, too, longing to pick up their babies, but cut off from their own instincts by external “experts.”
Traumatic memories, even when arising from incidents in adulthood, are fragmented. They are often implicit rather than explicit – one feels the fear arising but has no story or coherent picture come with it. These memories tend to be very vivid in the senses and or the body experience – but the clear sound might not be linked with a visual, a vivid color or object might not have a remembered context. However, in a full flashback, the brain can produce an experience that is so highly detailed, it feels as if it is happening in the moment.
One particularly insidious aspect of traumatic memory is that it can sweep current, non-threatening triggers into its domain. So if someone who was involved with gunfire in the past hears a car backfire, they may be triggered to dive for cover. During that state of arousal, the amygdala sends out chemicals to the body to arouse it to high alert. The body again feels in danger. And as simple as that, the bus-stop shelter has become another trigger, and you might not be able to board a bus. It just doesn’t feel safe.
A loving gesture from your partner might be too close to a movement from an assailant in the past, and the partner might be seen as dangerous.
And each stimulation of the amygdala around a trigger makes the likelihood of an experience triggering an emergency response that much more likely. It is like a path becoming a road, becoming a super-highway – the brain links increasing lead there. That is why, rather than fading, traumatic memory becomes stronger and more pervasive with time. This is a cause of suffering for many, because they feel that they should “get over it” and blame themselves, or are blamed for lack of will.
Will cannot be invoked. The higher order of the brain, the part of the frontal lobes that can plan, imagine the future, see the big picture, meditate, spell, do math, and most importantly, process and evaluate information, shuts down when the amygdala is stimulated. The body has decided that reason is too slow a process. It shuts down the frontal lobes. It needs the resources elsewhere. It needs to get lots of blood to the big muscles for fighting and running. The heart is told to pump fast to fill this need. The body needs lots of oxygen available, so the breath comes in fast. And if indeed you need a sudden burst of strength or speed to survive the next few minutes, this system is your best friend in the world.
But complicated humans, with our long infancy and our need for others, can see things that do not need this level of strength or speed as dangerous, and so evoke this danger response, the Sympathetic Nervous System, to some degree many times a day.
There is another aspect to this Sympathetic response that is important to know about. It is not just fight or flight. It is also freeze or faint. The organism uses strength if it can, and speed away if not. But if neither of these are options (and they aren’t for many modern adults trapped in situations that feel threatening on subtle levels) then freezing is the next option.
This frozenness can persist long after the event. When you organism recognizes anything that it deems like the original trauma, it will go into the Sympathetic Nervous system again. So the freezing may happen over and over.
In the wild, an animal might freeze when caught or cornered by a predator. Since many predators have a pounce response to the flight or movement of prey, this may cause the predator to lose track of the whereabouts of the cornered animal. It may even cause them to lose interest, and wander away. Then the prey animal might be able to jump up and sprint back to the safety of the herd.
But if the animal is in the jaws of the predator, fainting is the best option. This will take one out of the realm of pain. It will also slow down all the physiological processes – so that if something distracts the one about to eat you, you will not have bled out and so have lost your chance at escape.
If the animal is eaten, it will not be in the same pain that it would be in ordinary consciousness. Indigenous hunters often describe an animal “giving its spirit up” as a gift to the hunter. They may be witnessing a disembodiment of the animal’s consciousness.
In humans this is called Dissociation — a detachment of the sense of reality from the body. It can be as mild as a sense of unreality, as in “This can’t really be happening.” It can be experienced as out of body travel, in which the one experiencing trauma witnesses the event from outside of their body, or travels away altogether until it is over.
The combination of dissociation and fragmentation can result in a separation of the person from their experience. The result might be that they continue to associate with the perpetrator as if nothing happened. Only when flashes of intruding memory and reactive behavior continually erupt may they begin to realize what has happened.
At it’s extreme, it becomes Dissociative Personality Disorder, known to lay people as Multiple Personality. This usually occurs as a defense when overwhelming and repetitive trauma occurs at a young age. (This shielding from horror by walling off into being another person entirely is only available to highly intelligent people.)
Many people who have been assaulted or victimized blame themselves for not fighting back. There are good chances that your body was wise – it might have gotten you killed. * And they don’t realize that being numb, freezing in the situation, not being able to think are all aspects of the Sympathetic nervous system.
Indeed, if someone is able to do something towards their own survival, the sense of efficacy, and the use of all those chemicals such as adrenaline, helps insulate the person from the likelihood of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the kind of intrusive memories that I have been writing about.
The people who don’t know what to do (remember the frontal lobes have shut down) or who freeze or faint don’t get to use the strength of their chemical stew. They don’t get to feel a temporary extraordinary power. They don’t burn up the mix in their blood, or experience their own efficacy – even if their body did choose the best path for them. And their tribe of humans doesn’t always know how to reassure their body that they are once more back in safety.
The degree of fright is utterly subjective. What would trigger someone into trauma might merely be a challenging experience to another. Much depends on outside factors such as:
- how resourced or not the person feels
- how effective in the moment of the trauma
- how deep their foundation of trust in the world
- how much the event related to past unresolved experiences
- how sensitive and permeable a person feels
In contrast to the Sympathetic Nervous System is the Parasympathetic System. This is the system that allows imagination, overview, planning, processing, understanding. In the Parasympathetic tissue repair, hence healing, is possible. Digestion. Meditation. Sexual desire. Deep, slow breath. Rest. Sleep.
None of these are deemed important when our organism feels in danger – which rush hour traffic or the boss can bring on. And this is why so many of us are challenged in these areas – our body doesn’t feel safe enough to allow us to relax that much. Even without PTSD, the inability to enter our Parasympathetic Nervous System is a plague of modern society.
Another aspect of PTSD memories, perhaps the reason for their vivid yet fragmentary nature, is that they are not highly accessible to the rest of the brain. Francis Shapiro calls these “undigested memories.” Regular memories can be looked at from many angles. They can be talked about, written about, seen with a new perspective. PTSD memories are only experienced, again and again, in chaos. A sound, a color, and sensation, not linked into a cohesive understandable memory.
Common symptoms include a sense of self-blame and personal defectiveness, memory and concentration problem, self- medication for anxiety and/or depression, irritability, paranoia, jumpiness, isolation, and the hyper arousal of emotions. Clinically, PTSD is not diagnosed until six months after the triggering event, or cessation of events. People with more resilience in the moment may have recovered from the event by then. People with PTSD might just be starting to feel it.
A final note: our culture, especially when it is striving to be “scientific” ** loves to demarcate. It likes to pretend that there are absolute lines between this and that. And so if no immanent object fear of death or grievous injury was present, they might not diagnose PTSD – though there is some improvement in the DSM V. Please know that these symptoms are on a continuum, and not in little boxes. You may have triggers that shut down your higher reasoning so suddenly that you appear like a different person – and not have flashbacks. You may just be visited by incomprehensible responses to something that you know is innocuous – even if it is a vague uneasiness rather than pure terror.
This article may be shared (please, it is to help people) but only with credit to Katja Biesanz and a live link to this blog. Thank you. Katja Biesanz©2015 – all rights reserved.
- Homicide is the fourth leading cause of death for women ages 20-24, and the vast majority of these are by an intimate person, not a stranger. And it is the process of leaving and immediately after that is the very most dangerous time for battered women.
** I am in favor of the scientific method when it studies things that are quantifiable and discoverable by this method. I oppose “scientism” that denies the existence of qualities and phenomena that are hitherto unprovable by such methods. Science should be curious – wondering what something is and how to ask the great questions about it. Classification is most useful – I couldn’t work with herb without it – but attempts to classify can sometimes reduce rather expand our understanding.