What’s going on in our brains when we have posttraumatic stress symptoms, or PTSD?

Remember that very old commercial from the 1980’s? Partnership for a drug free America?

I have a new take on that old meme.

The vivid sensory memory of traumatic events, called trauma memory, fries your brain whenever activated. This is how it works, neuropsychologically speaking.

How PTSD Works: Neuropsychologically Speaking

  • Side bar #1: I’m about to get technical here about an experience you may have had, or your loved one has had, that was horrible. If it wasn’t horrible, it wouldn’t be trauma, and it wouldn’t have caused trauma memory or PTSD to develop. The part of trauma exposure that is deeply personal has to be discussed separately. However, if you come to understand this neuropsychological piece of what is happening, you will have an important tool for PTSD recovery.

Every day, we experience the world around us. We can’t stop this from happening, no matter where we are on the neurodivergent continuum. We take in the world through our senses. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. Our senses comfort us, and alarm us. They are tools for happiness, as well as survival. Whether we have PTSD or not.

  • Side bar #2: Tactile sensations are what we feel on our skin and in our tissues, our muscles and other organs of our bodies. The heat of the desert, or the dampness of humidity. The feel of a bumpy ride. The way our stomach churns. The injuries we sustain. The physicality of shock, horror, fatigue, tiredness, humor, laughter, joy. The way we feel in our bodies, in any given moment.

Because we are all human, our brains essentially work in the same way. Each sense has its own managing center in our brains, called a cortex. Sight in the back of the brain. Hearing in the middle of the brain. Smell and taste in the front, lower brain. Tactile sensations in a band across the top of the brain. Neurons connect each cortex to its organ, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and body. Neurons relay the messages from our sensory cortexes to our amygdala. Based on this data, our amygdala decides if we are in danger, or not in danger. It all happens in an instant.

During that alarming, life threatening, and/or horrifying event, our senses activated dramatically. Our amygdala signaled that this should happen so we had the best chance to survive. So on that day, during that moment in time, we were more sensory alive than when we were not fighting for our lives. Another signal goes out to the rest of our brain to take action. Fight, flight, or freeze. Adrenalin and other neurochemicals charge up. Our hearts beat faster. Blood pumps vigorously. We feel tingling, tactile sensations. We feel stronger. Our bodies get moving to protect us, thanks to the added juice. The Polyvagal Theory discusses this process as an activation of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation, social connection, and fear response.

Muscle memory is the most available resource when we are in trouble. Muscle memory is what develops when we’re trained to fight in the face of danger. Some call this the primal brain, or the lower brain because we share this survival mechanism with other species. This is unfortunate because that makes it sound like we are less intelligent during danger. It’s actually a different kind of intelligence. We are smart enough to get the hell out of danger.

If we don’t have the benefit of muscle memory, what do we do? We try to problem solve, but this gets a little tricky during a trauma event. You see, at the same time that our amygdala sounded the alarm and our primal brain got activated, our amygdala deactivated the parts of our brains that create new solutions. Time and again, I have heard people talk about how they were confused and didn’t know what else to do but run or bargain or give in. I’m telling you here that this is how our brains work. In the moment of danger, you had to, and did, take some sort of action to survive. Fight, flight, or freeze.

Now, you have to learn a little about SPECT scans, so you know trauma memory is not just an idea or concept, but is actually caused by brain patterns that can be mapped through neuroimaging. SPECT scans are brain scan devices that measure activity in the brain. During risky or dangerous activity, we can see the primal brain firing up red hot, while higher brain functions go dark, or offline. The complexity of higher brain functioning is part of what makes humans different from other species. In our higher brains, we have the capacity to think about things, not just react to our senses. Thoughtful, relational, gentle behavior generates in the parts of our brains that go offline during danger. All this goes offline in favor of survival.

When danger passes and we are safe again, our full brain comes back online, ready to do its job of making sense of our world. Uploaded senses should move out of the amygdala so that our higher brain can put what happened into the context of our whole lives. A significant part of contextualizing our lived experiences is the creation of long term memory. The value of long term memory formation is that our uploaded senses begin to fade. Over time, we have stronger memory for emotionally charged events, both positive ones, like getting married, and negative ones, like getting divorced. We pull up those memories in conversations and in our own mulling over of our lives. We don’t have to get stuck in those moments, thanks to the formation of long term memory. We are able to also put those memories away, so we can move on from our past and live in our current lives.

Trauma memory is categorically different from long term memory. For reasons we don’t really know, sensory data from the moment of trauma did not move, neuropsychologically speaking, to the rest of the brain. This encapsulation of traumatic events happens at least one third of the time. It happens more when we’ve had prior traumatic experiences, or when we are surprised by what happened. It happens less when we are prepared for what could happen, but even that is not a guaranteed protection. Except for these factors, research is not clear what makes one person develop trauma memory while another person doesn’t. Trauma memory can develop in anyone’s brain.

Trauma memory is the cruel joke after surviving trauma. As if surviving horror isn’t enough for one life, this neuropsychological injury happens next. The uploaded sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of trauma events can get stuck in the amygdala, creating a bubble that knows no time. When something around us looks like, sounds like, smells like, tastes like, or feels like what happened at the time of danger, that trauma memory gets activated and pushes the sensory rich memory of what happened into our brains like it is happening NOW. This is PTSD. Our brains cannot easily tell the difference between the senses pouring out of trauma memory, and our current reality. Furthermore, our sensory cortexes don’t take kindly to the intrusion of senses pouring into our brains out of trauma memory.

Trauma memory produces nightmares and vividly intrusive memories during the day. Trauma memory is at the core of the pattern of symptoms we now call PTSD.


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