My Dad was a Purple Heart decorated army combat veteran of WWII. He never spoke of the war or his friend he kept in touch with who was the only other survivor of his company. The only evidence of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was whenever any of us in the household of three women raised their voice in conflict, he retreated to the back porch where he might stay for hours, long after the issue was over. I didn’t know about PTSD back then, but we speculated that his behavior was related to his experiences in the war.
PTSD has likely been around as long as people have been experiencing stress and trauma. One doesn’t necessarily have to be in a war in order to suffer from it. PTSD is primarily caused by human reactions to a negative event outside the realm of ordinary life experiences. Domestic and criminal violence, physical or emotional abuse, natural disasters, transportation accidents, significant illnesses, even a life-threatening scare or witnessing a traumatic event can all be triggers for PTSD. PTSD may also result from long-term exposure to trauma, such as that experienced by rescue workers, doctors, and nurses.
What happens to the brain in PTSD?
Basically the brain gets stuck to a certain degree re-living the event. As part of the brain’s neuroplastic behavior (learning and adapting to situations) it has learned that life is traumatic and it is staying hyper-vigilent to be alert for it happening again. Recent research at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune suggest that PTSD causes actual physiological changes in the brain. The brain has rewired itself in an attempt to cope with the traumatic event.
PTSD is not just the classic flash-backs. PTSD symptoms can range in severity from mild to severe, depending on a person’s personality and genetic make-up and the severity of the event. Symptoms may include: insomnia, easy startling, difficulty concentrating, irritability, nightmares, avoidance of exposure to anything that might trigger memories of the trauma, feelings of disconnection from other people (including loved ones), lack of sense of meaning in life, feeling numb, and attempts to self-medicate to feel better can lead to an increased risk of substance abuse.
What can be done?
I love this quote from Jacqueline N. Martin, M.S. “A diagnosis of PTSD does not indicate personal weakness or mental illness. It is a perfectly natural and normal reaction to one or more abnormal events. Just like a perfectly healthy bone will break if placed under enough stress, a perfectly healthy person placed under sufficient stress can develop PTSD.”
Returning to resiliency by training the brain to “un-do” the traumatic stress wiring is possible with neurofeedback, a type of biofeedback. A Quantitative Electroencephalogram (QEEG), or brain map, can show characteristic patterns of brain electrical activity typically associated with PTSD symptoms. We can then target those areas for training. Research supports the use of neurofeedback to balance and calm down the over activation in the central nervous system.
The results can be astounding. One example: a veteran who had been a medic in Vietnam was still experiencing flashbacks, insomnia, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and irritability. After neurofeedback training he became more functional, could hold down a job, began sleeping better, had far fewer flashbacks, and could maintain sobriety. The turning point came when he had a dream of himself as a whole, healthy person walking through a field in Vietnam. The changes in his brain activity were documented using SPECT imaging and are available on our website.
We work with veterans as well as other individuals who feel PTSD has impacted their lives. For a list of providers who have agreed to provide training to one veteran per year at no cost, check Homecoming 4 veterans. Neurofeedback is compatible with other treatments such as psychotherapy and medication.