At least a few times a month I have a client come in and describe a situation in which they had a very strong, intense, quick reaction over which it seemed they had no control. The reason for this has to do with how our brains are formed and how we process information. I want to talk about how the brain is formed because it is relevant to PTSD and how the symptoms of PTSD manifest.
The brain is formed from the back to the front, or bottom to top depending on which way you want to think about it. Our ancient animal brain, or reptilian brain- the parts of our brain that we have in common with most other animals- is located in the brain stem just above where the spinal cord enters the skull. The reptilian brain is in charge of basic survival including eating, sleeping, and breathing. This is the part of the brain that is online and working when an infant is born.
Above the reptilian brain we find the rest of the brain stem and the hypothalamus. Together these structures dictate our energy levels and regulate the heart, lungs, endocrine, and immune systems. Again our basic systems that keep us alive.
Just above the the brain stem and reptilian brain is the limbic system. The limbic system houses our emotions. It helps us recognize danger, tells us what is desirable or scary, and indicates what is needed or not needed for survival. It also helps us navigate our social environments. Our limbic system is shaped based on our experiences, along with our genetics and temperament.
Together the reptilian brain and the limbic system comprise the “emotional brain.” The job of the emotional brain is to look out for our well-being. It monitors and communicates by releasing hormones and other messengers that yield visceral sensations. These visceral sensations get our attention and possibly change our course.
The emotional brain takes in a lot of information and assesses this information broadly. This means that it may jump to react based on generalizations versus taking in the details of a situation. The emotional brain starts us on our biological instincts to escape. These reactions are automatic and start without our conscious awareness. Sometimes we do not catch up and realize what is going on until after the threat is over.
The top layer of the brain is the neocortex. This layer of the brain starts to develop rapidly around the age of 2 when the child starts to develop language. The neocortex houses our frontal lobes which allow us to integrate and give meaning to information.
The more intense the visceral/sensory messages from the emotional brain, the more difficult for the rational brain to override it.
As we take in information from our environment it first registers in the thalamus which is located in the limbic system (emotional brain). Messages about what is happening are then sent in two directions, down to the amygdala and up to the frontal lobe.
The path down to the amygdala is much faster than the path up to the frontal lobe. The job of the amygdala is to tell us if incoming information is relevant to our survival. It does this extremely fast and automatically with the help of the hippocampus which is in charge of memory and relates the new information to past experiences. This explains how we get triggered by stimuli that are similar to stimuli we have encountered before even if the current stimuli is not dangerous.
Since the amygdala processes information much faster than the frontal lobe it could set into action a stress response and cause us to be on the move before we are even aware of what is happening.
To sum it up, information comes in, it gets skimmed over by the emotional brain, then it is sent both down to the amygdala, and up to the neocortex… our brain wants us to survive, so the route down to the amygdala is much faster (remember our amygdala assesses for danger), if the amygdala senses danger it puts in motion a survival response. This explains the experience of reacting so quickly and intensely that you do not feel you have control over your actions.
Think of walking along a trail and seeing something move out of the corner of your eye, you jump and start to move in the opposite direction before realizing it was just the wind blowing a twig. This is an example of how the message got down to the amygdala faster than it got to the neocortex where you could have determined that it was a twig versus a snake or crocodile.
Having experienced trauma makes misinterpreting a situation even more likely. It can lead to, put simply, a wacky alarm system (more on this later), that can cause a person to explode or shutdown to seemingly neutral comments, movements, or facial expressions.
If the incoming information is not too threatening, and the message is able to get to the frontal lobe before our amygdala sets in motion the stress response, then our frontal lobes can help us recognize the twig versus the faux snake.
The executive functioning of the frontal lobe helps us observe the situation and predict what will occur based on what action we choose to take. As long as our frontal lobes are functioning properly we can most likely control our reactions.
In PTSD, however, the relationship between the amygdala and frontal lobes changes- putting the amygdala on much higher alert- making it more difficult to control emotions and impulses. In a sense, PTSD disrupts the balance and ability to assess incoming information and causes the person to stay in a heightened state of detection to threat without the ability to properly assess what is going on.
To be able to manage stress properly it depends on having a balance between the amygdala and frontal lobes. Having this balance can be achieved by either a top down or bottom up approach. Top down meaning using your frontal lobes to pay attention and improve your ability to monitor your body’s sensations via mindfulness and yoga. Bottom up involves resetting the autonomic nervous system through breath, movement, and touch (soothing activities). Again think of soothing an infant. Rocking, swaying, being held, and being able to calm and slow down our breathing will help bring the overactive amygdala into more balance.
To sum it up and make this easier to digest. Think about how we are all animals. Our sole purpose on this earth is to survive, and multiply. These are strong biological drives. Our brains are wired to help us survive. This is the reason we may jump to react even if the situation is not dangerous, but reminds us of something dangerous we may (or may not of) encountered before. The path to reacting is much quicker than the path to assessing the situation logically, especially in PTSD. In PTSD the path to reaction is primed and ready to fire. In order to help calm down the kindling that is ready to ignite, we need to work on bringing our systems into a calmer more mindful state. With much care and compassion… Until next time. - Dr. B
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