Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Making a Difference Today

  • Published1 Jan 2011
  • Reviewed1 Jan 2011
  • Author Aalok Mehta
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, and anger are all common and normal reactions to a stressful experience, such as witnessing a murder, experiencing a mugging or attack, or spending time on a battlefield.

The body normally reacts to stress by releasing chemicals that provide extra strength and energy. In PTSD, however, this stress response goes awry, affecting the brain and other parts of the body.

But for some people, those feelings don’t go away for months or even years, crippling their ability to function normally. These people are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

*Between 6.8 and 7.8 percent of people are estimated to experience PTSD at least once during their lives.
*PTSD takes time to diagnose. Officially, someone must suffer symptoms for at least one month to have PTSD.
*Women are twice as likely to suffer as men. Emotionally trying life events, such as divorce, also seem to increase risk.

With support from the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies around the world, however, brain researchers are gaining insights into the root causes of PTSD and developing more powerful methods for combating it.

People with PTSD keep re-experiencing a traumatic event and suffer from sleep problems, hypervigilance, emotional numbing, and other symptoms that make it difficult for them to lead normal lives. The symptoms can start soon after an event or surface many months afterward. In some cases, PTSD can last for many years and cause fundamental changes in personality.

In the past, many cases of PTSD were treated as purely psychological problems, with people often told to "tough it out," but neuroscientists now know that PTSD is a serious brain condition. Researchers have observed, for instance, that some people with PTSD can show markers indicating a problem with "fear extinction," the normal process in which the brain learns to adjust reactions to a repeated stressful event. PTSD sufferers also can show suppression of cortisol, a stress hormone; reductions in the size of their hippocampus, a brain region important for memory; and other distinct brain changes. These findings are leading to better understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of PTSD.

New Treatment Options

Brain researchers have demonstrated that several treatments already useful for depression, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions are reasonably effective in treating some people with PTSD. For instance, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other modern antidepressants have proven helpful in some cases of PTSD, although many people show no change.

Psychotherapy also is useful in treating PTSD and is routinely used to treat veterans suffering from the condition. Among the recommended types of therapy are exposure therapy (which relies on exposing a person to their stressful trigger in a safe environment), cognitive therapy (which focuses on learning ways to identify and change negative behaviors), and stress inoculation training (which focuses on better ways to handle future stressful encounters), although other psychotherapies are often considered. Psychologists are increasingly turning to basic brain science findings to enhance these therapies and improve their effectiveness.