You can't think your way out of PTSD. Try calming your limbic system instead.

© 2018 Zoryna O’Donnell

“Time is a great healer” - how many times did we hear this reassuring phrase meaning that any painful and difficult situation will seem less bad as time passes?

In most of cases this is exactly what will happen and, a few years down the line, painful memories will fade and we will wonder why did it feel so unbearable at the time.

Yet, for some people, the passage of time seems to have the opposite effect. Results of the  researchundertaken by Stetson, Fiesta and Eagleman in 2007, suggested that during the frightening events, the amygdala contributes to the formation of denser-than-normal memory leading to the perception of time slowing down during such events, which are imprinted in great detail in our memory, emotions, consciousness, and subconsciousness.  

According to neuroscience, the brain stores traumatic memories not just in one place but in multiple locations, both in the thinking areas of prefrontal cortex and in the emotional regions of the amygdala of the hippocampus. This makes traumatic memories multidimentional, destructive and difficult to deal with. Furthermore, due to a traumatic memory distortion phenomenon, people tend to remember experiencing evenmore trauma than they actually did.  As the result, their over-remembered trauma can “grow” and, over time, they may suffer with an increasing severity of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.  In fact, the findings of the World Mental Health Surveys show that only a minority of PTSD cases go into remission within months after onset. The majority of sufferers experience PTSD symptoms for many years.

Whatever had triggered a trauma that kick-started PTSD, whether it was a one-off event such as witnessing or surviving a horrific car crash, or a series of continuing events such as experiencing abuse or taking part in a war, people end up with a variety of symptoms affecting their mental and physical health, and their ability to deal with everyday life.

According to the research published by Javidi and Yodallahie in 2012, 60.7% of men and 51.2% of women would experience at least one potentially traumatic event in their lifetime. However, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is significantly higher in women than men. Some 84% of those suffering from PTSD may also have various co-ocurring diseases or disorders; feeling shame, despair and hopeless; employment and relationships problems; and violence which make life even harder.

The economic and social impact of PTSD is enormous. It is felt not only by those who experience the disorder, but also by their families, co-workers, employers and the wider society.

Traditional methods of treatment for PTSD include a variety of psychotherapies (for example, cognitive-behavioral therapies – CBT such as Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy; and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing - EMDR) and medication (pharmacotherapies).

For people who prefer non-medication options, cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) are usually recommended by health professionals as evidence based treatments for PTSD, yet it is well documented that nonresponse and dropout rates in these treatments can be as high as 50%. Incidentally, all my clients with PTSD had experienced several unsuccessful rounds of counselling and CBT before they considered alternative options such as mindfulness based therapies, cognitive hypnotherapy, time-based therapy andrecovery coaching.

A study published in Nature Neuroscience in February 2018 by researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) in Australia uncovered a new type of bridging neurone and a new pathway in the brain that regulates the return of traumatic memories and fear. This discovery, along with the studies of the size and connectivity of amygdala (brain region linked to fear, stress and anxiety) in adults and children, shows that traumatic experiences actually rewire and physically change the brain. It may also offer some explanation towards the high nonresponse and dropout rates of CBT, and has potential implications for treating trauma-related disorders, including PTSD, by shifting the primary focus of intervention from engaging the “thinking” part of the brain (through talking therapies) to calming arousal system in the deeper parts of the brain (more specifically, the limbic system) which became stuck in the “fight or flight” response mode.

This alternative approach to treatment based on holistic mind-body view has been outlined in the book The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma. Drawing on over 30 years of experience, van der Kolk  described many  empowering self-regulatory healing practices and therapeutic options which compliment the  traditional methods of treatment for trauma-relating disorders, and help sufferers regain control of their bodies and rewire their brains so that they can rebuild their lives.

Amongst the key activities proven to have a calming effect on limbic system and help to reduce the symptoms of PTSD and other trauma-related disorders are:

-      listening to music;

-      playing a musical instrument;

-      meditation;

-      practising mindfulness;

-      practising yoga; and

-      physical exercise.

Spending just 30 to 60 minutes a day on any of these activities can significantly improve wellbeing and quality of life in people with PTSD, particularly those who are nonresponsive to traditional treatment methods. Practising these new behaviours regularly from two months to eight months will turn them into habits, according to a study conducted by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London. Reassuringly, the researchers also established that messing up now and again “did not materially affect the habit formation process.”

Well, it looks like time can be a great healer after all, if we chose to spend at least some of it to heal our bodies and minds from the impact of trauma.

This article was first published on on 08/08/2018

Image credit: VSRao via Pixabay