Figure 1: Image from National Institute of Mental Health
This blog is being presented in three parts. The first introduced you to Alex and the diagnosis of PTSD. Today’s blog reviews some of the research into the mechanisms of the brain that result in formation of PTSD and introduces a unique state-of-the-art treatment based on that research. The third part will demonstrate how and why this treatment works. Throughout these postings I have highlighted certain words with links to additional information if you want to read more.
Author of The Magic of NLP Demystified
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Part 2: The Anatomy of PTSD
While there have been numerous attempts to explain how traumatic experiences result in the clusters of symptoms of PTSD, one model in particular defines the mechanisms of the brain involved. Writing in the journal Traumatology, Richard M. Gray and Richard F. Liotta reviewed the research behind the temporal dynamics model of emotional memory processing. This research shows that during extremely traumatic events, certain parts of the brain responsible for creating memories become highly active while other parts almost shut down. It is this sequence of turning on and shutting down regions of the brain that results in the memories associated with PTSD. These memories differ from normal memories in several significant ways.
Writing for the Human Givens Institute Keith and Nicola Guy describe the parts of the brain involved. “The amygdala‘s role is to alert us to danger and stimulate the body’s ‘fight or fight’ reaction. Normally, all initial sensations associated with a threatening experience are passed to the amygdala and formed into a sensory memory, which in turn is passed on to the hippocampus and from there to the neocortex where it is translated into a verbal or narrative memory and stored.” This would become a “normal” memory.
They go on to say, “When an event appears life-threatening, however, there can be sudden information overload and the sensory memories stay trapped in the amygdala instead of being passed on to, and made sense of by, the neocortex. While trapped in the amygdala, the trauma memory has no identifiable meaning. It cannot be described, only re-experienced in some sensory form, such as panic attacks or flashbacks.”
Alex has completed several exercises using visualization with his NLP therapist. During the last exercise, he pictured in his mind a fun day at the beach when he was younger.
Then the therapist asks Alex to remember one of the events he had experienced while in Iraq, and he starts feeling very anxious. The image of his buddies getting blown up immediately pops into his head.
“Alex,” says the therapist, “I want you to pay attention to me. I want you to understand that you are here with me and that your are safe. We are going to continue to create more images in your mind, like the one you pictured a few minutes ago when you were having a good time.” He gently squeezes Alex’s shoulder when he said this, and Alex realizes he had done the same thing when he was remembering that experience the first time. He finds himself relaxing as he remembers again that day at the beach.
While normal memories engage the same regions of the brain, there is a flow of continuity that is missing from PTSD memories. Research has shown that traumatic memories tend to be more resilient than normal memories that usually decline over time. In addition, they have more vivid detail and much higher emotional responses than normal memories. These traumatic memories are sometimes called flashbulb memories because of the way they capture “snapshots” of the event in great vivid detail.
The other aspect of these extremely negative memories is that they are called to mind by many more internal and external cues than normal memories, resulting in a higher incidence of recall. It is these images with their associated acute emotions that cause the flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, irritability, emotional shut-down and other symptoms of PTSD.
As soon as Alex is relaxed, the therapist continues. “Now we are going to go through more of these exercises where you picture events on that “movie screen” of your mind. While we will focus on some of the events you experienced while on combat duty, you don’t need to worry about getting anxious or upset, because you can always come back to this calm memory, OK?”
Tomorrow’s blog will continue to explore the mechanisms of the brain that are impacted during PTSD treatment using state-of-the-art NLP V/KD techniques.