What is PTSD?

A brief explanation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

By Andrew Hurley, LPC


One way to think of PTSD is as a malfunction in memory.  Under normal circumstances, one part of our minds takes lots of still photographs of our experience, while another part takes the snapshots and puts them together in a movie reel.  The experiences are put together, sequenced, and irrelevant details are put to the side. 

When a person faces a serious enough threat, their mind switches to a survival functioning mode (“fight or flight”).  Brain activity increases in the lower brain (above the brain stem), which releases adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals which get the body ready for action.  Because the lower part becomes so active, the part of the brain that forms a movie reel gets switched off.  We are still taking snapshots, but they are not being assimilated into a movie reel.  The specific part of the brain that puts experience into words is inactive. 

ptsd1The disruption in memory processing results in fragmented memory that is not organized in a coherent narrative.  Crime victims and witnesses often have very different memories of events, not because they are lying, but because memory processing was disrupted by the high threat they were facing.  Remembering perfectly is less important than surviving. 

Another consequence can be that because memories are not organized and ‘shelved’, memories can get touched on and feel as if they are happening in the present.  An object, situation, emotion, or any related stimuli, can cause images and reactions that fit during the traumatic experience, but are not accurate to present reality.  Someone who nearly died in a car crash may struggle to get into a car in the driveway.  Although they know the car isn’t even running, the fear can be too intense for them to get in.  Another example could be someone who was sexually abused as a child who recoils from sex as an adult.

This is a simplified and not complete explanation.  My hope is that understanding that PTSD is a result of brain functioning, not a lack of courage or strength, might make it easier for sufferers to seek help.  PTSD can be effectively treated.  If the experience that is connected to a fear response can be made sense of while the person is in a relatively calm, secure emotional state, the information can be placed in a coherent narrative and will lose its charge.  The past cannot be changed, but the impact it has on the present can be dramatically reduced. 

If you would like more information on PTSD, check out Psych Central.


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