Physiological Manifestations of PTSD
How and why some people suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops when one becomes "stuck" in the typical recovery process after a traumatic event. A trauma is an emotional shock; one that sets in motion a physiological reaction in which one's flight-flight-freeze response is activated. This is an automatic bodily response in which we experience a surge of adrenaline and cortisol (the primary stress hormone), and our body's resources are fueled toward doing what is necessary to survive that moment. Increased heart rate, increased blood flow to our extremities, increased blood pressure, inhibited digestive activity, and altered neural activity. Following this event, many will experience the symptoms consistent with PTSD such as nightmares, intrusive memories, hypervigilance, etc; however, these often remit with time and exposure to one's normal routine. In those who develop PTSD, the symptoms remain and are often maintained by avoidance.
During the traumatic event, the brain stores memories more vividly and aspects of that event can become paired with the fear, horror, or shame that the person experienced during the traumatic event. When faced with certain triggering reminders (a person, place, smell, object, television scene), the person's fight or flight system becomes activated again and the body may react as though the trauma is happening again. This "chemical dump" of sorts through the release of adrenaline and cortisol is both mentally and physically exhausting. Chronic activation of the fight or flight activation system can negatively impact multiple physiological systems and can lead to a myriad of health issues such as heart disease, digestive diseases (IBD/IBS), obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders.
Stress is not good for our health in general, and the intense, chronic nature of stress experienced in individuals with PTSD is particularly problematic. Our bodies are simply not built to sustain such a high level of stress repeatedly. Those with severe PTSD may experience a fight or flight reaction several times per day, even when they are not in actual danger. Having severe PTSD is often like having a highly sensitive home security system that alarms when a tree scrapes the window, or rain hits the skylight. The good news is that evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy can help individuals struggling with PTSD to recover. Reach out to a mental health professional to get started.