Post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) can have a profound effect on the nervous system. Our nervous system is comprised of not just our brains but our spinal cord and a network of nerves as well. The brain sends messages through our spinal cord and nerves to control how our body functions. In turn, our nerves and spinal cord send messages back to the brain to alert it to any problems in our system.
For example, we feel pain because a pain receptor in our skin sends a message to our nerve fibers. The message is then passed from the nerves to the spinal cord, to the brain stem, and then to our brain, where the message is processed. It’s how we grow, learn, and keep ourselves safe.
When someone develops PTSD, it interrupts how the body normally functions and can cause not only mental anguish but physical problems as well. To understand how it can affect our nervous systems, we must first understand how PTSD develops in the first place.
What Causes PTSD?
PTSD is when our body continues to respond to a trauma long after it has passed. Trauma is the result of someone experiencing an event that is frightening or dangerous. War is a common example of a traumatic event that can cause PTSD. Someone may also develop PTSD from things such as natural disasters, acts of violence, serious accidents, and invasive medical procedures. These leave a mental wound in our minds that can shake up our whole worldview.
Ask anyone who has ever had their house broken into. It’s a deep feeling of violation that can make it difficult for someone to feel safe and secure in their own home ever again. This is a form of trauma.
The aftershocks of traumatic events can ripple into varied symptoms. Individuals battling PTSD often grapple with nightmares, disrupted sleep patterns, panic attacks, vivid flashbacks, sudden emotional upheavals, a tendency to avoid certain situations, and a perpetual sense of alertness. These symptoms aren’t merely psychological manifestations; they stem from the nervous system, which undergoes changes due to the trauma. Understanding and recognizing PTSD stigma is essential in ensuring that those afflicted receive the empathy and support they deserve.
How Is Our Nervous System Affected by PTSD?
When we experience upsetting or dangerous events, our bodies go into a fight-or-flight response. It’s how our bodies prepare themselves to either fight for its life or flee from a situation. This is done by flooding the body with hormones like adrenaline that increase your breathing and heart rate to bring extra oxygen into the body. Usually, our body can turn this on and off fairly easily.
However, sometimes this system becomes damaged when experiencing traumatic events. In cases of PTSD, the body cannot turn this response off. This is because, with PTSD, the body has come to expect that it will be in constant danger. To protect itself, it instead leaves this system on. That way, the body is prepared to fight or flee at any time, even in times when it’s not needed.
In most cases, a person ends up having their nervous system “trained” through repeated trauma. However, trauma doesn’t have to be repeated to do this. Even a one-time trauma can affect the nervous system. This is especially true if a person cannot stop thinking about or being reminded of their particular trauma.
When someone’s nervous system is used to being in this state, they become hyper-focused. Some sounds, scents, sights, and actions can trigger a person’s nervous system to react to escape the perceived “danger.” This constant state of stress and hyper-focus is the basis behind nightmares, which is a common symptom of PTSD.
The brain processes our fears and worries while we sleep, and when the brain can only focus on our trauma, it causes nightmares. All this sometimes makes it so that a person with PTSD gets little to no rest, which can cause someone to become irritable and avoidant.
People may also experience constant physical systems due to their over-reactive nervous system, such as sweating, high heart rate, tremors, and feeling on edge.
Can an Over-Reactive Nervous System Heal?
Yes, a person with PTSD can have their nervous system recover through the use of treatment. Treatments vary from person to person, but all involve some sort of psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. There are other types of therapy a person can also use to help then retrain their brain and nervous system. Sometimes a person may even need medication, which also works to help the body calm down. Usually, a person needs a mix of therapy and medication to give them the best chance to recover from their PTSD.
Part of the treatment is helping a person process the trauma that they experienced. If this is not addressed, the nervous system will still think its in constant danger and react accordingly. A person must confront what has happened to them, learn healthy coping skills, and use them to recognize when they are not in danger. These skills work by helping you recognize when your fight or flight response is not needed. It takes repeated actions like this to retrain your nervous system to function correctly.
Some people may use special therapy, such as neurofeedback therapy, to help them retrain their brains. This type of therapy allows someone to view their brain waves so they can see their use of coping skills in real-time. It takes practice, but eventually, people learn how to calm themselves down on their own.
Medications, for the most part, treat the symptoms of an over-reactive nervous system so the person can focus and rest. Rest is an important part of healing. Being able to have good quality sleep can make a big difference in how well a person can cope with their PTSD.
If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, it’s important to get help right away so the healing can begin. Call your local mental healthcare facility to learn how.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that affects many people in our society. PTSD can carry many stigmas, preventing some people from seeking help. It’s important to know that people with PTSD can achieve recovery and live a normal and satisfying life. Here at Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, our treatment plans are specifically tailored to you to give you the tools you need to succeed. Everyone is deserving of help and compassionate care, and that includes you and those you care about. If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, call (949) 647-4090 to speak with one of our mental healthcare professionals. Get the help you deserve today.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.