Your brain on PTSD

December 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Stanley Park snowfall

Thought arises and falls within mind alone yet the majority of humanity believe their thoughts are actual things that exist in the real world.  Parents argue and their child, thinking they argue about her, becomes tense and agitated.  A teenager catches another glancing his way then spends the rest of the evening thinking a relationship has begun when no words have been exchanged.  Another goes through life thinking others will become angry if she is assertive.  A victim of violence or soldier suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder thinks he is still living the traumatic events of a war ended long ago.   Such examples as these illustrate how our thoughts are taken to be real with few in humanity ever waking from the dream thoughts have cast.

Buddhist meditation is designed to awaken us from the illusory thought world we have superimposed over the one perceived through the senses.  It is this illusory world that is destroyed when we waken to reality, not the perceptual one.  Meditation does this by first developing our ability to concentrate, much as an aspiring athlete begins by developing his or her muscle strength.  More refined techniques of detachment and mindfulness follow but success is dependent upon a mind strengthened through concentration.

Meditation techniques vary but I wish to share one specifically related to PTSD and the brain that I have found useful but first, a cautionary statement.  Anyone suffering PTSD should seek professional help.  If already in therapy, before trying any suggestions given here or elsewhere run them by your therapist.  Your therapist is the best judge of both the potential efficacy and danger of any technique, and any warning of theirs should be heeded.

The technique suggested here is actually quite simple.  It follows naturally from the assertion that what a thought represents is essentially an illusion but takes into account the role of the brain in sustaining this illusion.  It is suggested that whatever PTSD symptom arises, it be held within the awareness with the assertion it is merely a reflex activity of the brain.  It is just the brain shouting out warnings and alarms, becoming agitated when no threat is present.  Do not stress or try to force this realization, just hold the agitation in your awareness and exert your will in a gentle but firm acknowledgment that it is just “your brain on PTSD”.

Much research has been done on the role of the brain in PTSD.  The hippocampus and the amygdala are two parts of the limbic system often associated with it.  The hippocampus is said to store memory of time and space, ordering our memories and placing them in perspective as part of past events. Under traumatic threat, however, it is said the hippocampus becomes suppressed and it’s believed its function of placing memory into the past is also suppressed.  Traumatic events of the past are relived as events of the present.

The amygdalae is identified with the formation of emotional memories, especially fear-related ones, and is believed to store highly charged emotional memories, such as terror and horror. It is said that the amygdalae become very active when there is a traumatic threat allowing these emotions of terror to flood into awareness.  In some, however, the amygdalae fails to return too normal after the threat is past and PTSD develops.  The role of the brain in PTSD is becoming increasingly clearer but equally clear is the brain’s ability to alter it’s own neural pathways through a process known as neuroplasticity.

Simply put, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire and heal itself.  It is a change in the neural pathways and synapses of the brain that come as a result of changes in behavior, the environment or as a result of injury. Because of the evidence of neuroplasticity the formerly held position that the brain is an unchanging static organ has been replaced with one of a brain that is dynamic and changes throughout life.

It is difficult to ignore the brain when it’s sounding alarms of danger but the ability to rewire neural pathways shows we need not be at the mercy of a brain on PTSD.  We are able to reprogram our brain and the meditative technique outlined here is a step in that direction.

When hyper vigilant or having a flashback hold these in your awareness while asserting that they are just neurons firing in the brain.  After a bad dream or frightening thought look at these with the knowledge they are just neural activity.  When feeling the need to avoid a situation or feeling emotionally numb, simply be aware of these and assert they are just PTSD brain activity; that there is no threat.  You can even thank your brain for the alert, if you wish, because the brain is just trying to keep you safe.

As you hold these and other PTSD symptoms in your awareness and identify them as just neural activity, you begin to separate from the symptoms.  You begin to see that the brain is operating in the wrong context for the life you now lead.  You begin to waken to reality.

Over time the ability to recognize the PTSD brain will increase and your mind will become calmer.  This will not come immediately and there will be times when all you’ll want to do is escape the pain.  But I have found that persisting in this technique does bring definitive results.

Just thoughts. Not true, not real, but false and empty.  Not self, just the brain on PTSD.


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