Understanding PTSD Part 2

Posttraumatic stress disorder is the friend, the confidant, that still small voice that lived in the darkest parts of the human psyche (Ivri, 2021).

The Brain:

It is important to understand the role the brain has in posttraumatic stress disorder. The brain oversees and manages human cognition such as thoughts, emotion regulation, behaviors and physiological functions such as hunger, thirst, breathing and blinking. The brain sends signals throughout the body via neurons and the nervous system, which dissipates information throughout the body (i.e., the brain gives commands—signaling the heart to pump, the lungs to inhale and exhale, and the eyes to blink).

Likewise, the brain manages and maintains the conscious and unconscious thoughts and physiological functions. It is also responsible for managing thoughts, beliefs, and actions. The brain receives information and pairs it with existing information to create associations (i.e., wings + feather + chirp = Bird). The information gets stored in short-term or long-term storage banks for later retrieval.

Lastly, the brain ensures species’ survival. The brain preserves the self, no matter the cost. Although this sounds truly remarkable and heroic (we should thank our brains for wanting what is best for us) it is also primarily responsible for negative and false beliefs about self, others and the world and is the underlying cause for self-destructive behavior.

One simple example is the breakup from an intimate partner. Intimate relationships are powerful because they release positive neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Dopamine is a reinforcement neurotransmitter—it is the same neurotransmitter responsible for drug addiction. Drugs such as methamphetamine cause a chemical induced secretion of dopamine, causing a sudden spike followed by a steep decline—this is the euphoric effect of drugs that are not regulated causing individuals to go through withdrawals and seek additional drug induced highs. Back to my example, when individuals are engaged in intimacy, neurons secrete the feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine. In long-term relationships, dopamine secretion stabilizes. When an intimate relationship becomes irretrievably broken, and the event was traumatic—the breakup was extremely painful; the brain then associates breakup with pain (there is no distinction between relationship pain with physical pain).

Self-Preservation: The emotional pain resulting from the breakup can manifest in physical pain (pain in the chest, nausea, anxiety). The strong experiential emotions result in strong neurological connections that results in solidified survival responses. As Dr. Joe Dispenza said, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Therefore, to avoid future pain, the brain will create stories, scenarios, and implement self-preservation survival programs to ensure the person never experiences another break up like that again. Through both conscious and unconscious efforts—a person will develop avoidant behaviors and/or sabotage future relationships. A survival-induced response (self-preservation) is the underlying causation for all-or-nothing statements to protect self such as “all people are bad,” “all women are manipulative,” “All men are assholes.” Although it is the brain trying to protect itself and ‘keep you safe from another potential break up’ it is also preventing a person from finding another partner outside the constructs of negative potential.

Negative vs positive potentials:

Negative potentials are the doom and gloom possibilities we create because of trauma. Because of a traumatic experience from the past, our future potentials survival-based—the negative potentials (what ifs, would be-could be doom and gloom future) in a future that wasn’t experienced yet. “No one will ever love me,” “No one is trustworthy,” “No one is good,” and “The world is against me.” In contrast, positive potentials are the ideal possibilities where everything in the future is perfect, beautiful, bright—and life is full of meaning and purpose. These ideals existed in each of us before traumatic experiences took place. When two people get together and commit to one another, their ideals (getting married, having children, having the house with the white picket fence and the dog) are positive potentials. “I love this person and believe we will have a beautiful life together.” Not only is posttraumatic stress a survival mechanism, it is the tension between two potentials—it is a dysregulated physiological state on steroids. This dysregulation creates imbalances in thoughts, beliefs and emotions leads to self-destructive behavioral tendencies.

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