How PTSD Affects the Brain and How Mindfulness Can Help You Gain Back Control
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When some people are exposed to a traumatic event, they are able to bounce back from it with relative ease. Other people, however, have a more complex response to traumatic events. They can suffer for months or years with debilitating depression and anxiety. They may also experience flashbacks and nightmares so vivid that reality becomes distorted.
Interestingly, and unfortunately, trauma can change the physical landscape of the brain. Research has found that PTSD sufferers tend to have an overactive amygdala and an underactive hypocampus. The amygdala is like the brain’s smoke alarm. It is the part of the brain that is in control the fight/flight/freeze response, and it has been shown to be in overdrive mode in trauma sufferers. This accounts for the tendencies for trauma sufferers to be easily startled, anxious, or irritable. In contrast, the hippocampus--the part of the brain that controls memories-- can shrink and lead to partial or imperfect memory storage. This is why many people who experience a traumatic event have a difficult time describing exactly what happened.
The hippocampus’s shrinkage may play a role in why flashbacks occur, according to some studies. In my work with people who suffer with PTSD, one of the most frightening symptoms they describe is the vivid flashbacks that put them back into the heart of the traumatic event. Flashbacks can be one of the more difficult symptoms to control due to their ability to distort reality. As a result, many people may feel that they will never get over PTSD because the flashbacks make them feel helpless!
Mindfulness is one tool that can greatly help trauma survivors avoid, and pull themselves out of, flashbacks. Mindfulness, at its core, is simply being aware of yourself and the present moment. Because flashbacks can cause PTSD sufferers to feel displaced, being grounded in the here-and-now can help trauma survivors to better regulate their emotions, challenge their thoughts, and feel better quicker.
Mindfulness is an exercise that should be practiced firstly when the trauma survivor is feeling safe. It should be practiced regularly to build confidence and mastery so that when a flashback occurs, survivors feel equipped to ground themselves. Here are some simple mindfulness tools that can be used to gain awareness of the present moment.
- Grounding exercise
Sit on the floor and feel your connection to the ground. Look around. Find all the physical indicators that you are safe and say them out loud. Hearing your external voice can connect you to the present moment rather than what is going on in your head. Tell yourself out loud that you are safe and that the traumatic event is not occurring right now. Provide yourself evidence using the facts around you.
- Use your five senses
Use your five senses to connect you to the present moment. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Use extreme sensations
Extreme sensations can connect you back to the present moment. Remember to be cautious and do not do anything that could cause you physical harm. For example, take a very hot shower. Hold ice cubes in your hands. Eat spicy foods.
- Focus on your breath
Your breath is always part of you and can connect you with your body. Use the 4-7-8 breathing method. Take a deep breath to the count of four, hold for the count of seven, and exhale for the count of eight out your mouth as if you were blowing up a balloon. Complete four cycles. This breathing method regulates the central nervous system and can bring you back to the present moment.
- Body scan and progressive muscle relaxation
Check in with each part of your body from the toes to the head. Notice any tension you may have in your body. As you move through each body part, tense the muscles for five seconds and release. Become aware of the physical sensation of the tension leaving your body.
- Observe and describe
Observe your thoughts and feelings as if you were watching the clouds pass. Don’t try to change or judge your thoughts or feelings but simply notice that they come and go. Thoughts and feelings don’t last forever. They will pass.
Though mindfulness can be an excellent tool for reducing the symptoms of PTSD and trauma, consulting with a doctor and/or a mental health professional is always recommended. These tools are intended to help reduce symptoms of PTSD but are not recommended to replace the advice of health professionals who are familiar with your unique circumstances.
This blog ws written by Amanda Frazier. Amanda is the founder and writer behind www.thelightowl.com, a wellness blog focusing on mental health, personal growth, and healthy living. She works full-time as a Licensed Professional Counselor.