PTSD is the acronym for post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition triggered by exposure to extreme traumatic situations and resulting in numerous symptoms such as heightened arousal, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, jumpiness, increased heart rate and more.
You’ve probably heard about PTSD on the news or seen it portrayed in films, but what is PTSD really? What actually happens in the brain to trigger it and why does it happen that way?
The Evolution of PTSD
Almost everything that happens in the brain happens for a reason. Over thousands of years of evolution our brains have evolved in order to help us survive at all costs. Unfortunately though, as our lifestyles have changed, some of our evolutionary traits now seem a little ‘out of place’ in the modern world which can lead to a number of issues.
So what is PTSD in the context of evolution? It’s a way to prevent us from getting into dangerous or painful situations again. In other words, it’s our brain’s way of reminding us to avoid those circumstances at all costs. This can still make sense in a modern context: say you were to walk down a dark alley and get mugged, the severe trauma might leave you with a lasting impression of that experience which would then be strong enough to ensure that you never go down a dark alley on your own again. This in turn could then one day save your life if it means that you avoid a future dark alleyway with someone waiting down it.
The problem is that these days we don’t actually tend to need that PTSD because we have enough awareness to know to avoid repeating most of our mistakes. And what’s worse, is that PTSD does tend to go a little ‘overboard’ rather – to the point where you wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats or can’t get to sleep at all.
The Neuroscience of PTSD
To fully be able to answer ‘what is PTSD’ though, we need to look at the changes that occur in the brain. What is actually happening at a neurological level to cause these symptoms?
In any stressful situation, the brain responds by releasing a number of neurotransmitters/hormones that we associate with the ‘fight or flight response’. These are: adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine. Together, they cause us to become more alert and responsive, they contract our muscles and they raise our heart rate and blood pressure. The idea is that if we were facing any kind of imminent danger, we would stand a better chance of fighting or getting away thanks to these changes. At the same time, in these circumstances we are more likely to remember things as dopamine and norepinephrine also stimulate memory. Caffeine has a similar effect in fact and this is why we will often drink strong coffee when revising or working.
In PTSD, these same changes occur but to an exaggerated to degree. A sudden and severe rush of adrenaline, dopamine and norepinephrine is here strong enough to cause deeply ingrained neural patterns and very strong associations that are enough to cause our mind to find its way back to those stressful memories and to cause an even stronger and bigger release of hormones each time it does.
So that’s the scientific answer to ‘what is PTSD’!