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DOD Photograph

The notion, which you may hear from people who are out-of-date, is that those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are weak and flawed.  That notion is nonsense.  Scientific research has begun to reveal the physical genesis of the short- and long-term emotional responses to trauma.  It is now well understood by the psychiatric community that being repeatedly traumatized creates strong emotions that can ultimately lead to symptoms of PTSD.

Life-threatening situations cause a physical response in humans.  Our survival instinct will involuntarily cause us to experience an overwhelming need to defend ourselves or run.  This survival mechanism is referred to as the fight-or-flight response.  An inherent part of this response is an unconscious learning process to help recognize as dangerous similar situations that might be encountered in the future.

Confronted with trauma, the brain records every detail about the event sights, smells, sounds, body sensations, even our thoughts and the strong emotions we experience at the time.  Veterans often describe a heightened sense of awarness or of being alive during their combat experiences.  These feelings are indelibly etched into our unconscious memories, and our bodies are conditioned to respond in a certain way to similar events in the future.

DOD Photograph

Triggered by something that consciously or unconsciously reminds us of a traumatic event, our bodies instinctively prepare to either fight or flee the situation.  To have this response is a very stressful physical and strong emotional experience.  What’s more, it’s a response that others around you may not understand: each of you hears the loud backfire of a car; with a startle you, the veteran, respond to it as if it is a gunshot; your friend hears it as just a noise from a car and unlike you he can smoothly forget about it.

Fear for one’s life is perhaps the most fundamental emotion.  Research has begun to explain just how important fear is in shaping our emotions. The oldest part of our brain, the amygdala (ah-MIG-da-la), is a primitive emotional computer.  Almost unchanged since humans began to walk upright, the amygdala is predisposed to detect and respond to predators and other kinds of dangers that threaten our survival or territory.  It governs both our physical and emotional response to innate and learned fears.  More important, it has the power to override rational thought.

Sights, smells, sounds, and other sensory information present at the time of trauma are often forever unconsciously remembered by the amygdala as danger signals.  That is why sights, smells, or sounds similar to those of combat can trigger a physical and emotional response in the PTSD sufferer years after the trauma experienced in combat.  This unconscious response can overwhelm the conscious mind that is telling you there is no real danger.  For the mildly afflicted, the response might be an intrusive memory of the initial trauma.  For others, the response may range from ducking for cover to becoming enraged or overly aggressive.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

© The PTSD Help Network, 2013