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Both Your Body and Brain Are Different After Trauma. What to Know

While not every traumatic event results in PTSD, it impacts around 12 million people each year.

Two images of a woman overlayed to depict living with PTSD.
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Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that impacts your brain's ability to regulate your fear response after you've experienced trauma. Yes, PTSD is an emotional response to stimuli. But it's more than that. PTSD is just as much a physiological injury as it is a psychological one. The trauma you experience can actually change how both your body and brain work. Let's go through what PTSD is, how it changes someone and what the treatment options are. 

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health disorder characterized by disruptions in how someone perceives threats and how they react to them. When we experience trauma or stress, our autonomic nervous system kicks into gear and our hypothalamus and pituitary gland flood the brain with stress hormones to protect us with the sympathetic nervous system, or fight-or-flight response

For someone without PTSD, our bodies return to homeostasis -- a self-regulating system that our bodies use to return to stability -- after the event and move past it. That's not the case for someone living with PTSD symptoms. Feelings of stress and being on high alert can persist for long periods -- days, months or even years. 

PTSD is born from traumatic experiences, though no one type of trauma will automatically result in PTSD. Common sources include combat, abuse, accidents and experiencing natural disasters. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. Researchers don't know why some people develop PTSD and others do not. However, a previous history of mental illness, a lack of a support system and childhood can increase the chances of developing PTSD

PTSD can seriously affect someone's ability to function, emotional health and relationships. It can be debilitating. Symptoms of PTSD fall into four main categories -- intrusion, avoidance, alterations in cognition and mood and alterations in arousal and reactivity. 

Common categorical symptoms of PTSD:

  • Intrusion: This type of PTSD symptom includes flashbacks, distressing thoughts or memories of the event.
  • Avoidance: With avoidance PTSD symptoms, a person may avoid people, places or settings that remind them of their trauma. They also will avoid talking about the situation and their feelings about it. 
  • Alterations in cognition and mood: This type of PTSD symptom influences someone's ability to remember parts of their trauma. It also includes negative thoughts and feelings about themselves or others; it can mean the inability to have positive feelings. They may feel detached from others. 
  • Alterations in arousal and reactivity: Someone with PTSD may be easily irritable or prone to angry outbursts. They may also engage in self-destructive behavior or seem paranoid because they're overly watchful of their surroundings. They may also have trouble concentrating and are easily startled. 
Man sitting outside with his hood up, looking sad.
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2 ways PTSD changes your brain

Both the central and autonomic nervous systems can be altered by trauma. This means your body's tolerance for stress decreases. But PTSD doesn't just mean you can't handle stress as efficiently as other people. Trauma and PTSD change the structures and functioning of your brain in two ways. 

Brain structures and function

Trauma can change key structures of the brain, which is associated with PTSD. Three of the main changes are the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of the brain in charge of processing emotions like fear and pleasure, assessing threats and activating the nervous system. The prefrontal cortex helps with cognitive functions -- like making decisions on how to react and determining the meaning of stimuli. It also is related to attention, memory and impulse control. Your hippocampus is associated with learning and memory. 

Research on PTSD has found that the amygdala becomes hyperactive while the prefrontal cortex is less active. This translates to your amygdala overreacts to situations, and your prefrontal cortex isn't assessing the threats as they should be. 

Neurochemistry and hormone secretion 

Along with changes in brain structure, there are also changes in the brain's neurochemistry. Trauma affects the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal system, resulting in neuroendocrine dysregulation. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol increase while oxytocin decreases.

There are several other ways that PTSD and the alterations in brain structures can change the brain's neurochemistry. Research varies in which hormones and neurotransmitters are affected at what level. You can think of PTSD and brain chemistry as a spectrum that can vary by person. 

5 ways PTSD changes your body

PTSD isn't all about the brain. Physical changes due to PTSD aren't always easy to recognize. However, there are physical symptoms and changes after someone experiences trauma. 

Immune system

Your immune system changes after you go through trauma. Studies have found that PTSD is related to increased inflammatory markers, which contribute to more inflammation in the body.

Developing research also suggests there is evidence that PTSD is linked to select autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. 

Muscle aches

Pain and muscle aches are among the most common physical symptoms reported by those with PTSD. For some, the traumatic event may have left them with chronic pain. However, muscle aches and body pains are still reported by those who did not experience an injury still report muscle aches and body pains. Some experts suggest this is because of the associated hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD that can leave people on edge and tense. 

Sleep disturbances

Sleep disturbances and PTSD have a multifaceted relationship. There are several reasons someone with PTSD may have a hard time sleeping -- from nightmares to the stress and anxiety your body is put through. However, not sleeping enough can exacerbate fatigue and stress, worsening PTSD symptoms

Gastrointestinal issues

As a result of the increased stress hormones and pro-inflammatory cytokines associated with PTSD, many people who live with PTSD also report gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome. One study found that people with PTSD were 25% more likely to develop a gastrointestinal disorder. 

High blood pressure

PTSD has also been associated with high blood pressure. When our fight-or-flight response is in full swing, our breathing increases, and our blood pressure rises due to the increase in hormones. When this state is prolonged, your blood pressure doesn't return to normal at the rate it should. 

As a result of high blood pressure, research has found that people with PTSD are also at an increased risk of stroke or cardiovascular disease.

Young woman sitting on a couch talking to her psychologist during a consultation.
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What is the treatment for PTSD?

While you can't prevent every traumatic situation or how it impacts you, you can manage the symptoms of PTSD after. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, there are successful interventions for PTSD with cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy. There has also been success found with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy and Stress Inoculation therapy for PTSD.

Medication treatment with SSRIs and SNRIs, in addition to these therapies, can also be beneficial for individuals with PTSD.

Therapies and medication are the first lines of defense against PTSD, especially when symptoms significantly negatively affect their life. You can do additional things in addition to these treatment options to help cope with the daily symptoms of PTSD. 

  • Active coping: According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, active coping is a habit you can form to manage your everyday life with PTSD. With active coping, you accept that the trauma you experienced has impacted your life and you are trying to improve things. 
  • Perform regular nervous system checkups: The idea of nervous system checkups is that you activate your parasympathetic nervous system intentionally to bring a sense of calm to your day. You can do this by listening to your favorite song, taking a walk or doing something creative.
  • Yoga and meditation: Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation can be used as a way to feel grounded in your body. They offer a way to lower your blood pressure and focus on your breathing. Small studies have found that yoga and meditation may help manage PTSD symptoms, though more research is needed. 
  • Talk about triggers: One of the most significant things you can do is talk about what triggers your PTSD with friends and family. This will help your loved ones better understand your PTSD and help you avoid situations that may trigger you.
  • Support groups: Finding a support group for PTSD can help you connect with others with similar experiences and may help your recovery. While they won't help you reduce symptoms, finding meaningful connections can make you feel better in other ways. 

Too long; didn't read?

PTSD is a potentially debilitating mental health condition that develops after serious trauma. Intrusive memories, flashbacks and comorbid conditions like anxiety or depression are common. PTSD can impact someone's ability to adjust or cope in everyday life. However, with treatment and time, symptoms lessen and people recover from PTSD. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.