Monday, August 22, 2011

Repetitive trauma rewires human brain
Vivid memories, hormones protect us from threats
Stress for Success
August 23, 2011

Those who’ve experienced repetitive trauma have probably experienced the re-wiring of their brains for survival purposes. This re-wiring can also cause great distress through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD - symptoms like nightmares, panic attacks, depression, etc.

But why are some people more vulnerable to developing these symptoms than others who’ve gone through the same experiences, like war time trauma?

Here’s an abbreviated explanation, adapted from Pamela Wolf’s book, “Finding Balance after the War Zone,” minus the scientific terminology, to gain a better understanding of how the brain functions to protect you from threat.

The brain structures that regulate our stress reactions include the:
· Primitive “Reptilian Brain” stem;
· More recent limbic system or “Mammalian Brain”, especially the amygdala;
· Highest and most recently developed cerebral cortex;

The most powerful player is the amygdala, whose purpose is to protect us like a guard dog responding to threat. It stores unconscious emotional “flashbulb memories” and reacts to incoming stimuli by recalling memories that might be related. So a gunshot and a car backfiring can be perceived to be the same. When the amygdala receives signals that remind it of past threats, even if very different from previous threats, it recalls those memories as if they were happening now, releasing powerful hormones:
· Sympathetic nervous system’s (SNS) adrenaline, norepinephrine, etc., which are meant for vigorous exercise like the physical fight/flight in response to threat;
· Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) hormones like cortisol, oxytocin, etc.;

An important job of the brain is to create resiliency for bouncing back after stress by balancing the SNS and PSN chemical systems.

Our astonishing brains have also developed more sophisticated structures to help the primitive amygdala understand what’s really happening, to decide whether or not to release stress hormones, and when to stop by:
· Providing conscious, detailed memories of what happened in the past to put into perspective what’s happening now.
· Helping reason with the amygdala by working with other brain regions when the amygdala overreacts.
· Assessing the threat, weighing the options and consequences and coming up with a plan to calm the amygdala.

All of these are meant to facilitate handling present day stress, slow down reaction time to stress to allow for better problem-solving, and to self-soothe.

A problem for some PTSD sufferers however, is these higher brain regions that balance the reactive amygdala are developed during one’s brain growth-spurt in infancy, through loving caregivers who:
· Provide important receptive face-to-face contact;
· Demonstrate an understanding of our needs and feelings;
· Respond to our stress in soothing ways that in turn teach us to self-soothe;
· Validate the world is generally a safe place;

But if your trauma is childhood abuse you were less likely to experience this calming caregiving. According to Wolfe, over-development of the emotional sections of your brain and under-development of the higher brain functions can make you more vulnerable to developing PTSD symptoms. Next week we’ll consider ways to diminish those symptoms.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

PTSD likely the result of an overtaxed brain
Stress for Success
August 16, 2011

Those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, experience many symptoms: flashbacks, nightmares, angry outbursts, depression, unemployment, homelessness, nightmares and panic attacks; all normal reactions to trauma, especially repetitive trauma.

Thanks to the recent explosion in brain research a greater understanding of PTSD is emerging along with promising treatments giving hope to its sufferers, whether military veterans, childhood abuse or violent crime survivors.

To better appreciate PTSD, it’s important to understand how the brain and body handle threats. We’ll look at this from a soldier’s point of view.

Pamela Wolf, author of “Finding Balance after the War Zone,” says a soldier’s neurological stress and survival systems keep him alert to protect him. But these systems were never meant to stay on high alert for weeks or months on end. Humans were designed to handle short-term stress, followed by periods of rest that allow our stress systems to return to balance. This balance of stress and rest protects us from illness, disease development and PTSD.

Heightened alertness for extended periods of time, whether from military redeployments or repetitive childhood abuse, inhibits the higher brain regions from regulating the amygdala, the primitive brain structure responsible for forming and storing memories associated with emotion. It’s the most powerful player in regulating stress reactions and protecting us from threats.

The amygdala is like your survival system’s guard dog. It’s always looking for threats, and when it perceives one it attacks first and asks questions later. When the amygdala is on high alert for months and months, it creates PTSD symptoms in some.

The amygdala stores unconscious pieces of memories like pictures, sounds, scents and feelings. When the brain’s relay system, the thalamus, sends the amygdala signals that remind it of past threats, even if these indicators are very different from earlier threats, the amygdala goes on the defense by bringing up those memories as if they were happening now, setting off the chemical fight/flight/freeze response.

Our bodies always strive for balance even with significant stress through allostasis— the process of achieving stability through physiological or behavioral change. It’s similar to extending out your arms leaning from side to side when trying to balance walking on a narrow plank.

The autonomic nervous system, which controls metabolism, heart rate, breathing, etc., strives for balance through its two “arms” that rise and fall in relation to the other:
· Sympathetic nervous system (SNS): speeds up our stress response processes like heart rate, breathing, metabolism, muscle tightening, energy, etc., to fight or flee from our temporary stress;
· Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS): attempts to keep us safe when we are helpless, and quiets down the SNS to return to physical balance;

These natural, automatic stress and survival systems protect us from threat, but when imbalanced from being on high alert too long can also cause great distress.

The return to physiological balance is what we need to do to protect ourselves from the ravages of stress. For suffers of PTSD, there are treatments that can help restore this healthier balance; more on this next week.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Friday, August 12, 2011

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder help available
Stress for Success
August 9, 2011

My heart goes out to those who’ve experienced trauma, especially repetitive trauma, like soldiers after multiple deployments to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The repetitive nature of war stress increases soldiers’ vulnerability to developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.

Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, University of South Carolina associate dean, says more than 35% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have received mental health diagnoses -- the most prevalent being PTSD. The latest military mental health survey found fewer than 46% seek help leaving untreated soldiers more vulnerable to unemployment, domestic abuse, divorce, homelessness and suicide.

According to Pamela Wolf, author of “Finding Balance after the War Zone,” post-deployment stress effects fall along continuums:
• From acute stress symptoms to chronic PTSD;
• From a mild loss of energy to major depression;
• From trouble at work to unemployment;
• From a few problems at home to divorce or domestic violence;
• From blowing off steam to serious problems with the law;
• From a few drinking binges to a fifth-a-day habit;

For those suffering from PTSD, regardless of the source of their trauma whether from war stress, violent crime or childhood abuse, during the days, weeks and months following the traumatic event(s) more serious stress symptoms surface. Reality sets in. They feel more alone, helpless and overwhelmed than before the event(s).

The following symptoms are normal reactions to abnormal events - and there is help. Symptoms last for a few days to several weeks or longer according to the DSM IV (diagnostic guide for clinicians) and include:
· Repeated and stressful dreams, thoughts or images of the stressor event;
· Flashbacks making it feel like the events are happening again;
· Physiological stress reactions, e.g., rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, panic attacks;
· Mental reactions develop to cues that are reminders of the traumatic event;
· Avoidance of anything that triggers these reactions by:
o Avoiding feelings, thoughts or conversations about traumatic experiences;
o Avoiding activities, people or places that remind you of it;
o Having trouble recalling important aspects of it;
o Feeling detached or isolated from others;
o Restricting your ability to love or feel other strong emotions;
· Sufferers experience symptoms of post-trauma hyper-arousal like:
o Insomnia
o Angry outbursts or irritability
o Poor concentration
o Excessive vigilance
o Increased startle response

Wolf says PTSD sufferers’ stress systems respond to intense or unrelenting stress and thereby develop chemical imbalances. It’s common the sufferer instinctively attempts to self-medicate with alcohol, street drugs or misuse of prescription medications. When these drugs leave the person’s system, unconscious, trauma symptoms like stored memories emerge with possibly higher levels of intensity. Hiding or diminishing post-trauma symptoms may be easier than hiding the self-medication.

There is good news, too. PTSD need not be dire. New understanding of what causes it and new treatment options are expanding. Those suffering from PTSD can also be impressively resilient. They’ve accepted they aren’t weak or crazy. They’ve learned how the brain is structured and how it works to understand PTSD’s symptoms, my topic for next week.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at and request she speak to your organization.