A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Breaking down PTSD: The brain’s response to trauma

PTSD illustration

“Our brain wants to protect us, so if we see something that could harm us or others, the brain pays a lot of attention to that.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder commonly associated with military veterans returning from battle. But, any person who has experienced a traumatic event can suffer from PTSD. After enduring more than a year of a pandemic, nearly every American has encountered challenges if not profound trauma.

The cause of post-traumatic stress

“For PTSD to occur, you have to experience a traumatic event or an event that significantly threatens the well-being of somebody you care about,” said Dr. Joseph Chojnacki, a Marshfield Clinic psychologist. “Post-traumatic stress is an emotional reaction to that event.”

Professionals like police officers, firefighters or emergency medical technicians are more vulnerable to PTSD because of their exposure to traumatic events. People who grow up in households where domestic abuse takes place also are prone to experiencing PTSD. Even cancer survivors can suffer from PTSD.

The components of PTSD

PTSD is comprised of five basic components:

  1. Exposure to an event or series of events that puts you or someone else in danger.
  2. The affected person reacts to a stimulus, often a noise or sight, which reminds them of the initial event.
  3. People with PTSD try to avoid this stimulus.
  4. People with PTSD have recurrent, intrusive memories, dreams or flashbacks of the event.
  5. Anxiety, depression, irritability and anger are usually accompanying symptoms.

“Sometimes people think about PTSD as an illness, and it’s actually more the human condition than not,” Chojnacki said. “Our brain wants to protect us, so if we see something that could harm us or others, the brain pays a lot of attention to that.”

Violent or traumatizing events, Chojnacki said, have a way of staying fresh in the brain.

“If I almost get hit by a car, I startle and step back. It’s a built-in reaction. That event can wire a fear into my brain at a very basic level of survival, and then that becomes an association,” Chojnacki said. Going forward, a speeding car or heavy traffic could stimulate an anxiety reaction.

“If a veteran witnesses a traumatic explosion during war, when they come home, an event like the Fourth of July could cause an anxiety response,” Chojnacki said.

Medication and counseling can help

People who are experiencing symptoms of PTSD should be evaluated by a mental health professional. If diagnosed, both medication and counseling can help reduce the symptoms.

“In terms of therapy, what we’re trying to do is destigmatize PTSD and understand it better. It’s a normal response for people to have to traumatizing events,” Chojnacki said. “Over time, we’re trying to decrease the power of the stimulus and the response — the stimulus being a perceived threat and the response being the anxiety that comes as a result of the perceived threat.”

Exposing people to the stimulus, in small, controlled doses, can help people have less of a reaction over time. Practices like meditation, deep breathing, exercise or spending time on hobbies or socializing, also can help people reduce anxiety.

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