When it comes to Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury a lot happens to one’s nervous system. Through my own therapy I have learned a lot of the cause and effect of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). PTSD, CPTSD, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) have a lot in common due to them both deriving from brain trauma. In fact, scientific research focusing on the correlation between PTSD and various brain aspects are conducted often. Researchers hope to discover new ways to treat PTSD and TBI. For instance, here are some brain trauma facts surrounding the nervous system.
(C)PTSD Brain Trauma & Nervous System Facts
Karen Pritchard, MA, LPC, references the Triune Brain Model as she explains the different sections of the brain and their functionality. Pritchard specializes in trauma therapy and describes what happens to the nervous system after brain trauma occurs. The brain has three main parts: Reptilian Brain (brain stem), Limbic System (mid-brain), and the cerebral cortex. The brain stem moderates our basic functions and automatic systems. The mid-brain is the home for emotions and storing memories. Lastly, the cerebral cortex governs our reasoning abilities, abstract thought, and more.
Each section of the brain works together to process information and trigger a response from other areas of our brain and physical bodies. The autonomic nervous system is designed to remember what causes us harm. Therefore acting as our own internal security guard. When activated it prepares us for victorious defense. During a threatening situation we typically seek safety and defense. There are three responses when facing a threatening situation. The first is seek out protection and comfort from a friend or family member. Another response system is the “fight or flight”, (sympathetic response) where it feels though you have one foot on the brake and the other on the gas petal at the same time. And lastly, there’s the parasympathetic response where you could engage in freezing, playing dead, numbing, and or dissociation.
What Happens when Brain Trauma Occurs
During a traumatic event you naturally respond using one of the three systems. When your body senses danger your mid-brain locks out the cortex because it takes over for survival. First of all, the cortex secretes a calming chemical but is unable to when the mid-brain dominates the brain’s function. After you don’t feel threatened any more the cortex comes back online to sooth your anxiety and adrenalin. For a person with CPTSD, PTSD, or TBI, the brain works differently.
At first, when a person with CPTSD, PTSD, or TBI senses danger, their brain and body reacts just like someone who does not suffer from brain trauma. Then their mid-brain get’s stuck on controlling the situation. Typically, the cortex does not get to engage for the soothing to take place. Instead, the person is a prisoner to these “instinctive emotional responses”. They are unable to calm and re-regulate their body and mind in the same way a person without these disorders.
After a dangerous situation passes your body will attempt to discharge the energy and return to a normal functioning state of being. Subsequently this doesn’t always happen the way it should. This makes it seem like we are out of control. Holding this trauma energy in our bodies is toxic. It leads to conditioning our systems to shut down in unhealthy ways. Those who suffer from brain trauma have an even higher probability they hold onto this energy.
Prisoners to Response Systems
The symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD are tied to one being stuck in the trauma response system. In addition, they can experience responses from all three systems. Perhaps you have seen your loved one go through multiple symptoms.
Sympathetic, (Fight or Flight) also described as hyper-arousal
- Panic Attacks
- Jittery or “on edge”
- Emotional Reactivity
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- intrusive images, thoughts, and sensations
- Increased heart rate
- Shallow, rapid breathing
- Rapid thoughts
- Frozen immobility
Parasympathetic, also described as hypo-arousal
- Lack of emotion or sensation
- Light headed
- Slowed or difficult physical movement
- Difficulty thinking or speaking
- Feeling withdrawn
- Spacing out
- Extremely low energy or sleepiness
- Slowed heart rate and breathing
- Shame and/or guilt
Brain Trauma Informed Therapist
The good news is that in a safe and supported space with a therapist who specializes in brain trauma, it is possible to retrain the brain and body to respond correctly. As a result, your loved one can learn how to move this trauma energy out of their bodies. Especially in regarding stuck defense response and energy discharge; even years after the original traumatic event.
This can bring significant relief and peace, as well as restore joy in one’s life. Most importantly we can become allies with our nervous systems, as opposed to it disrupting us. In conclusion, your loved one can have a choice around their nervous system response, and learn to work with it in a way that allows them victorious defense where they weren’t able to have in the past. Complex Post Traumatic Stress disorder and PTSD can be managed where you can enjoy recovery.
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