It’s the first day of school for many people today so I thought it was a good time for a science lesson! Are you excited? No?
How about neurobiology? For a few minutes we can all become medical students (without the crazy hours and insane pressure). Does that tickle your fancy a bit more?
There is this little almond-shaped part of your brain called the amygdala. Understanding the amygdala helps explain why people with PTSD think the way we do. I think that’s important.
Here it is. The small pink area.
From the minute you are born, the amygdala starts keeping you safe. It asks “Am I safe?” constantly. All day and all night long. It keeps you alive.
When it asks “Am I safe?”, your thinking brain (the frontal cortex) will do its job and answer “From what I see, taste, smell, feel/touch and hear, you are safe.” The amygdala relaxes. A moment later the amygdala asks again. “Am I safe?”. The thinking brain will once again respond with “From what I see, hear, smell feel/touch and taste, you are safe.” This goes on without your knowing it constantly. Every once in a while the amygdala will say “Am I safe?” and if you are walking in a dark alley and think someone might be behind you, it will say “No! From what I see, hear, smell, taste and feel, you are not safe!” With this reliable information, your amygdala sends information to a different part of your brain to get out of there fast. It is the flight or fight response and having it is incredibly important. This fast reaction behavior is found in the back of your brain and is sometimes called the “reptilian” brain. This part of your brain doesn’t think. It just reacts. It just gets you out of that dangerous situation without even asking questions. Without some fear, we’d all live very short lives. Walking too close to an edge, a hot stove, that dark alley, a close call in the car… none of that would bother you and keeping yourself safe would be impossible. That is the good work the amygdala does for you every moment of your life. Thank you to that little pink almond in our brains.”
That amygdala is humming along doing it’s job and life is good then BOOM! Something horrible happens. To cause PTSD, it needs to be a situation where the threat of death or serious injury of yourself or someone you love is present. There is almost always an element of hopelessness and there is an inability to escape. That amygdala says “Am I safe?” and the thinking brain says “From what I see, hear, smell and feel? NO!!! You are not safe!” The amygdala sends that fight or flight response but you can’t get away. You can’t stop the situation from happening. Once again, the amygdala says “Am I safe?” and it is told again and again “NO!!!”. It is in these moments that the brain can develop PTSD. The reptilian brain doing all the work now. You are in danger and you can’t get out of it. The amygdala and the reptilian brain are caught in this horrible moment and they can’t get you out of it. The thinking brain is rarely consulted and all the information is left unprocessed. It hardly ever makes any sense.
After this event (or events) happens, the amygdala continues to ask “Am I safe?” but the PTSD brain now says “From what I see, hear, taste, smell and feel? I’m not sure.” With this information, the amygdala sends the information for fight or flight and this happens all day and all night long. Suddenly the person with PTSD never feels totally safe. We are in a thought loop where the “fear switch” is now half on indefinitely. It’s hard to feel that you are in danger every moment of every day even when you “know” that you aren’t. There is no person, event or place that ever feels totally safe from then on.
Due to this “fear switch” being half way on all the time, the reptilian brain stays more active than it should and suddenly our reactions are so fast that the information never has enough time to get to the thinking part of our brain. React now. Think later. It’s not a choice people with PTSD make. It is how our brains are wired.
The good news is? You know I can’t end a blog on a negative note right?
The good news… with help, time, support and knowledge of how the PTSD brain works, we can slowly start to rewire our brains back to how they behaved before PTSD. It is not easy and it is not quick but even just understanding why you feel the way that you do is a start. You are not crazy, weak or refusing to think good thoughts. Your amygdala is telling your brain that you aren’t safe. The only way you can feel is unsafe. Try to let yourself off the hook for not feeling any other way.