One of the greatest qualities of human beings is our ability to adapt. This requires us to learn quickly and change our responses, especially if it’s a matter of survival.
Our brains are excellent at recognizing patterns. We also have an incredible capacity to retain information. However, much of the information we store is not in the form of facts or discrete pieces of information that could be recorded with a written language.
When a person encounters a dangerous situation, the brain takes notice! It stores many details that are occurring at the same time as the perceived danger. Some of these details might not have anything to do with the actual threat. For instance, a victim of physical assault may associate fear with a song that happened to be playing on a nearby radio just before being injured. Or the scent of cologne that a perpetrator was wearing might trigger distress for a victim months or years later.
The brain also is very good at rehearsing and preparing for future challenges. It’s quite natural to replay (in your mind) events like a conversation while imagining how things might have unfolded if you had phrased something differently (or perhaps not said anything at all). We do this especially when the stakes are very high, such as when narrowly escaping injury or death — the brain really invests a lot of energy to make sure you are prepared in case such a situation ever happens again.
So it isn’t surprising that people who have experienced a life-threatening event re-experience the trauma. And it’s not shocking that a victim would avoid the things that remind him or her of the ordeal. Some of the experiences a person with PTSD might not be able to stop reliving also include the internal events, like the body’s fight-or-flight responses. This is why some PTSD survivors experience a persistent hypervigilance. Their brains have “learned” and can’t stop “remembering” the feelings of being on “high alert.”
It’s also common for a PTSD survivor to experience a sense of emotional numbness. This isn’t unexpected. If most of the emotions experienced by a person are severely distressing, the brain can overgeneralize and “adapt” by shutting out emotions. It is another example of pattern recognition and adaptation.
In most cases, the rapid ability to adapt is a trait that has served humans well. It has allowed us to thrive in many diverse parts of this planet and to overcome many of our biological limitations. But when the brain’s response and adaptation lead to dysfunction — when the affected person cannot carry on routine daily activities due to the resulting symptoms — we call it a “disorder” or an illness.
PTSD treatable. There is help that can provide relief. Although medication is often a small part of the solution, there is no that can “cure” PTSD. Every case is different, but recovery from PTSD generally requires the “unlearning” of the “high alert” patterns that resulted from the trauma. Talk therapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other non-pharmacologic treatments are critical to this process. With support, time and a lot of hard work, the brain can re-adapt and recover.
Dr. Roderick O’Brien, M.D., is the Medical Director of Community Reach Center in Adams County, where he practices Psychiatry. He is a retired Air Force Neurologist. Community Reach Center is a non-profit, mental-health center with five outpatient offices. For more information, visit www.CommunityReachCenter.org or call 303-853-3500.