In my last post I described some of the traumatic events Odysseus encountered on his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan Wars that, while it wasn't mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey, no doubt left him with a good case of PTSD. So let's look at what was going on in Odysseus' brain and body when he was shipwrecked, attacked by a sea monster and battling The Cyclops on his voyage.
Physiologically the human brain's reaction to threat hasn't changed in four million years, whether it's a saber-toothed tiger, a Cyclops or a rattlesnake on the trail in front of us. the brain registers an immediate threat in the environment and initiates a series of emergency reactions before we're even conscious of the trigger and activates the alarm system in the body necessary to flee or battle the threat. The old fight or flight response. By the way, this alarm system is present in all mammals as well.
Humans also have this remarkable ability to intuitively sense danger before we're consciously aware of it. Intuition is knowing something without knowing why. The hair on the back of our neck stands up, we have a feeling that something's just not right so we stop and stand silently on a jungle trail. We ignore this warning at our own peril, sometimes with deadly outcomes. Gavin deBecker describes this compellingly in his book The Gift of Fear (on THEFEARMONSTER's Banned Book List).
In my post OUR FRIEND THE AMYGDALA I described the mechanics of this system and will go over it again here. When our senses, sight, hearing, smell, touch identify a potential threat, a bear, an incoming vehicle in our lane, the smell of smoke in the middle of the night, a message is sent to the amygdala in the brain. The amygdala is the alarm center, first line of defense that releases cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that kick the body into defense mode.
Heart rate increases, pumping more blood and oxygen to the muscles, respiration increases maximizing oxygen intake. It's a remarkably efficient system whose sole function is the defense and survival of the organism.
However in the case of PTSD the amygdala doesn't always get it right. It forms and stores memory associated with emotional events, collecting and storing as much sensory input such as sight, sound, smell, as it can from the traumatic event. And it has a remarkable memory and can store data for a lifetime. So some time down the road, maybe years later, triggers may occur that kick the amygdala into action. It's always going to error on the side of caution, better safe than sorry even though there may actually be no real threat.
A bank teller who was held up at gunpoint by a robber wearing a backwards baseball cap may re-experience the trauma years later encountering a young man wearing his ball cap backwards in the mall. The amygdala doesn't differentiate between real threat and something as benign as a baseball cap when survival may be at stake.
It's the job of the pre-frontal cortex to objectively assess the possibility of threat and then send the signal to shut down all activated defense systems but information from the senses reaches and is processed by the neocortex milliseconds later so conscious, rational thought always lags behind the alarm reaction.
So PTSD has been with us throughout millennia and will likely be around for a long time in the future. Next time I'll talk about some strategies for combatting PTSD and hopefully lessen its impact. See ya then.
Next Time: PTSD--BATTLING BACK