Managing Traumatic Stress and Combat PTSD Through The R-E-C-O-V-E-R Approach*
MIND-BODY CONNECTION IN PTSD:
WHAT "TRIGGERS" A HABITUAL TRAUMATIC RESPONSE
What "triggers" a habitual response: When the brain and body respond to a traumatic situation, the long-term memory center in the brain's limbic system, called the hippocampus, remembers hundreds or even thousands of tiny details about the event and stores these detailed memories, below the person's conscious awareness. The brain may come to associate these details with a "life or death" struggle, and therefore attaches GREAT importance to them. (We call this extreme importance salience). Perhaps it is the smell of diesel fuel, the sound of helicopters, the metallic taste in the mouth that comes from burning flesh, the aroma of cigarette smoke or alcohol on another person, or the sight of a pile of trash by the side of the road (a hiding place for IEDs). It may just be the subtle smell and direction the wind was blowing that day. Whatever they may be, the brain will remember these details, as it is reacting to them. Eventually, the person may re-encounter a salient detail, but in a completely different setting. For example, he may smell diesel fuel while filling up the family car at a convenience store; he may hear a air-evacuation helicopter near the community hospital; a relative may smoke or drink and smell faintly of alcohol and cigarettes; the kids may leave a pile of toys in the house. When this happens, the brain will readily recognize the similarity of the details. The problem is that it often will not recognize the differences between the two settings: in other words, the brain doesn't distinguish that a "pile" of junk in a combat zone has a VERY different meaning than a mere "pile" of toys in the living room. The result is that when the PTSD sufferer re-encounters the salient detail in a non-threatening context, he or she is likely to react to it with the same response pattern which the brain used in the threatening context, when life or death was actually on the line. This process, in which the brain responds automatically, instantaneously and unconsciously to a particular detail as if it were threatening, even when it is encountered in a non-threatening situation, is called TRIGGERING. Because "triggering" happens unconsciously, neither the PTSD sufferer nor his/her family members is usually aware that it is occurring. All that they are aware of is the external behavior of the person, which seems very inappropriate. When viewed through the internal "logic" of the brain, however, such behavior feels natural and "right", as if one's survival depended upon it.
Remember to read all our articles on this subject. This website contains a series of articles about the mind-body connection in PTSD. More will appear weekly. This may be the first article you read, but it may have been preceded by other articles containing information you need to know. So please be sure to READ THEM ALL . They will change your understanding of PTSD and hopefully benefit you greatly. Once you have read all articles on this topic, you will have "gotten" the basics of PTSD.
IN CONCLUSION: You now know the following "basics" about PTSD:
1. PTSD is rooted in the real, biological, stress response which all humans have
2. These stress responses are geared to help you cope with extremely dangerous, terrifying or gruesome situations that you can't escape or control, and in which you are seriously endangered. In other words, they save your life.
3. These reactions occur in tiny fractions of a section… so rapidly that an individual cannot consciously control them.
4. Once the brain learns that a pattern of response is effective, it will imprint that response, and use it repeatedly.
5. An imprinted response may be used unconsciously, again and again, even in a non-threatening situation in which it isn't appropriate. The individual is not usually aware that this is occurring.
6. The imprinted response may be "triggered" or activated when a person re-encounters a stimulus that is associated with the trauma, even if the secondary encounter occurs in a situation in which no danger is actually present.
This blog page will become a site for many more articles, which will break down the subject of the mind-brain-body connection into small, manageable parts that can be easily understood. Continue to check back to find new articles which will expand your understanding of this area.
For more information about the biological and psychological connection in PTSD, be sure to read Chapter 3 of "I Always Sit With My Back To The Wall" or download the audio version from this website.
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