I am writing a response to a question. What is the relation to Brain Trauma and PTSD?
Any concussion or head injury can affect the brain in ways that can’t always be explained on MRI and CT scans. Research institutes are performing advanced scans that can follow the brain function by looking at how the brain is using glucose. See the first video on the home page.
The video talks about pain, but remember pain is not just physical, it is emotional too. The body sees any stress as a threat. One of the worst forms of stress is PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is now increasingly being recognized as far more complex than the narrow definition that is being used in medical circles. Not all people with PTSD are soldiers or victims of assault.
A person doesn’t even have to be physically assaulted to develop PTSD. If a person experiences the threat of harm, it harms the brain. The reptile part of the brain – our survival brain – Limbic System – responds in certain ways, depending on your childhood experiences and childhood trauma. If a person thinks they are under threat, the limbic system lights up and this causes serious changes in your body.
The worse the trauma, the more damage you get. The trauma is worse in the case of inescapable shock. The trauma is worse if you are trapped in a car after an accident; or trapped under an object that has fallen on you; or trapped in home where your parents hit you; or trapped in a home where you are threatened with violence, or where you are being physically abused. Your Limbic system will be affected more than, for example, if you have a car accident that you are able to walk away from.
Once you experience severe trauma, your body keeps the score (Bessel van der Kolk). Initially it will switch on certain pathways to protect you – heart rate up, BP up, GUT shut down, changes that send glucose streaming into your blood stream, and changes that release an anti-diuretic hormone to retain fluid.
If the stress doesn’t go away, more things start to go wrong. More hormones get involved, hormones like cortisol go up and those like serotonin and dopamine go down. You feel miserable, your brain can’t focus because the left side “shuts down” and your gut gets affected. It even effects telomeres – these are sections on your genes that are supposed to help your genes repair.
The bigger the trauma, the more damage. We now know that severe trauma will switch on a certain gene we all have. If this gene is activated, our body starts to produce inflammatory proteins. Inflammation is responsible for many diseases. Inflamed arteries lead to heart disease, stroke and chronic pain. Diabetes and dementia is more common. You can imagine if the left side of the brain is “turned down” for long periods, it can over a long period of time lead to dementia symptoms and eventually dementia. The left side of the brain is responsible for processing memory.
This is a very simplified explanation. Each person is different. The more challenging your childhood, the more likely you are to have responses that become unhealthy for your body. Some children grow up in difficult homes and develop feelings that they have let their parents down – they have feelings of worthlessness, shame and even guilt. When exposed to trauma later in life, they often respond with a freeze response. This is a response the person has no control over. It is pre-wired in the brain by past events.
A freeze response is similar to the response animals have in the face of grave danger – pretend to be dead – very effective for survival. Unfortunately people who have this response often feel shame and guilt after they have been attacked, thinking they should have fought back or fled. Most people don’t realize the flight, fright, freeze response is hard-wired into the reptile part of our brain (Limbic system) and we have no control over that. When that area of the brain lights up, the thinking, planning, organizing part of the brain (Left side of the brain) shuts down. So we have no control.
Days, weeks, months go by and we adapt. We go about our lives. We distract ourselves. We work through our traumas intellectually and spiritually. All too often our body keeps the score. Even though we push thoughts and memories away, the memories are stuck as recent memories in our brains without us knowing about it. This can result in changes in your body that cannot be explained by medical science as we know it today.
I believe that many symptoms can be linked to traumas. I have found many of my patients with rheumatoid arthritis have had a significant trauma a few years prior to the onset of their disease. I have patients who have irritable bowel or swallowing problems that cannot be explained by the numerous tests done.
Once we realize that every function in our body is governed by nerves, we can understand why our bodies can seem to fail us. Our nerves are affected by hormones in the blood and hormones that are in the nerve fibres. These hormones are affected by our Limbic System. Because our frontal cortex (our thinking brain) is blind to what is going on in the limbic system, we can’t detect the problem.
I hope this helps. I share many of my own problems openly – I have an a.c.e. score of 6 and have suffered trauma working in South Africa in the time of civil unrest – and working in Canada as a doctor. I believe there should be no shame around issues of mental health. I openly share that I am very lucky to have an excellent counselor who is helping me with EMDR trauma therapy.