Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often associated with people who deal with high-stress situations, such as emergency medical technicians, firefighters, police officers or soldiers. But every person has the potential to be struck by this debilitating anxiety disorder. The loss of a family member, severe injury, losing your job or your home – these are just some circumstances that put you at greater risk for PTSD. Even learning about natural disasters or terrorist attacks on the news can put you at greater risk. Between 8-10% of Americans will experience post-traumatic stress disorder at some point during their lifetime; women are 2 times more likely to experience PTSD than men.
Post-traumatic stress is an anxiety disorder that occurs after someone experiences or witnesses a trauma, usually involving injury or death, with the event causing an initial reaction of fear, helplessness or horror. Later on, the person dwells on the scary occurrence to the point where they can’t get it out of their mind, resulting in symptoms of numbness, avoidance and hyperawareness.
“A lot of people with PTSD say, ‘I feel like a shell of a person, numb, distant, cut off and detached, not only from my own emotions, but from the world around me,”’ says Dr. Sue Varma, a psychiatrist and director of the World Trade Center Mental Health Program.
The reason we’re all vulnerable to PTSD is because our brains are hardwired to deal with only so much stress. Think about how your body reacts to a scary scene in a movie, or how you physically react if a speeding car suddenly appears while you’re crossing the street. Whether a threat is perceived or real, your heart starts to race, your breathing speeds up, you start to sweat – all signs that the brain’s flight or fight response has been triggered. When trauma occurs beyond the realm of our coping ability, the body’s intricate response system gets stuck in overdrive, putting you at risk for PTSD.
The Neurobiology of PTSD
The amygdala, the almond-shaped neural structure tied to memory and fear-conditioning, plays a critical role in PTSD, along with other parts of the limbic system, the brain’s control panel for emotion, motivation and behavior. Exposure to a stressful event signals the amygdala to switch on the body’s “fear circuit,” which sends response messages to different parts of the body, including the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands, which release the hormone cortisol in response.
The hippocampus, also part of the limbic system, is responsible for shutting down this pathway once the threat has diminished. In PTSD, this intricate system short circuits and can no longer regulate itself.