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The Biology of PTSD[FYI: This is an area that concerns me (Scares the hell out of me) or is close to the top of my list that PTSD has done to me over the last 40 years].
There is a biological component to PTSDMany people feel stigmatized when diagnosed with PTSD feeling as if they should just "get over it". It is important to understand there is a biological component to this disorder. Additionally it is important to be aware of the biological aspect of PTSD because it is becoming increasingly popular to use medicine to help treat the symptoms of PTSD.
The brain changesAn individual suffering with PTSD actually experiences physiological changes. The autonomic and central nervous systems are both affected. Also, the hippocampus decreases in mass and the amygdala is over reactive. Memory is a key component to PTSD. The traumatic event is relived constantly via memory. Both the hippocampus and amygdala are key in human memory. It is believed that the amygdala is the "fear center" of the brain. It should not be surprising that PTSD sufferers have over reactive amygdala. The amygdala helps the brain establish a connection between fear producing situations from the past and because of this conditioning pairs them with a stimulus in the present that may be neutral. This incorrect conditioning helps the individual maintain a constant state of hyper arousal because the brain is telling the person that a "safe" situation is threatening even though the "safe" situation may have nothing to do with the prior trauma.
The hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory. Research suggests that the hippocampus attempts to create expectations in situations that may offer rewards and punishments based on memory and past learning. Due to hippocampal damage in those with PTSD it may be difficult for the brain to learn new expectations for situations following the traumatic event.
PTSD and Stress HormonesThose who have PTSD have abnormal levels of stress hormones. Studies show that individuals with PTSD have lower levels of cortisol than those who do not have PTSD and higher than average levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The above three mentioned hormones are responsible for creating the "flight or fight" response to stress. In turn, this means that the person with PTSD lives in constant "flight or fight" mode. Some of the side effects of long term stress are: hypertension, ulcers, and poorer overall health. Cortisol helps give the body energy while stressed and glucocorticoids help with post stress survival these are hormones that those with PTSD have lower than normally levels. Serotonin is believed to play a role in PTSD however research is inconclusive. It is thought that the lack of inhibitory signals to neurons may not "shut off" the stress responses. Additionally people with PTSD have higher levels of natural opiates after the trauma. These higher levels of opiates may condition the individual to re-experience the trauma in order to attain the opiate response. The neurotransmitter changes exhibited by those with PTSD are those opposite to the changes seen in people with major depression.
Terminology (Taken from Witipedia):
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