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

Updated: May 3, 2023

by Zoryna O’Donnell, MBA, MSc, FinstLM

JULY 8, 2018


“Time is a great healer” – how many times have you heard this reassuring phrase meaning that any painful and difficult situation won’t seem as bad as time passes?


In most cases, that’s exactly what will happen. As the years pass, painful memories fade, and we end up wondering why it all felt so overwhelming at the time.


However, for some people, the passage of time can have the opposite effect. The pain and trauma grow, get worse, and can even develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Why is that? What’s going on?


It may have to do with how the memories of the events get stored.


Research has shown that during traumatic events, the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, contributes to the formation of denser-than-normal memories and the perception of time slowing down. This causes the memories to be imprinted in greater detail in our memory, emotions, consciousness, and subconscious.


A Traumatic Memory is Stored Differently

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 and the hippocampus. This makes traumatic memories multidimensional, more destructive, and more difficult to process and resolve.


Furthermore, due to a phenomenon called traumatic memory distortion, people tend to remember experiencing even more trauma than they actually did. As the result, their over-remembered trauma can “grow” and, with time, they may experience increasing severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.


Getting back to the “time heals all wounds” saying – the findings of the World Mental Health Surveys show that, in reality, only a minority of PTSD cases go into remission within months after onset. Unfortunately, the majority of PTSD sufferers experience symptoms for many years.


The Devastating Impact of PTSD

Whether the trauma causing PTSD was a one-time 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 can end up with a variety of symptoms that affect their mental and physical health and their ability to function in everyday life.


According to research, 60 percent of men and 51 percent of women experience at least one potentially traumatic event in their lifetime. However, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is significantly higher in women than in men. Some 84 percent of those suffering from PTSD may also exhibit various co-occurring diseases or disorders. Feelings of shame, despair, or hopeless; employment and relationships problems; and violence are common.


The economic and social impact of PTSD is enormous. Repercussions are felt not only by those who experience the condition but also by their families, co-workers, employers, and society as a whole.


Traditional PTSD Treatments

Traditional methods of treatment for PTSD include a variety of psychotherapies, such as Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), and medication.


For people who prefer non-medication options, cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) are usually recommended by health professionals as evidence-based treatments for PTSD. Unfortunately, it is well documented that nonresponse and dropout rates in these treatments can be as high as 50 percent. Incidentally, all of the clients I’ve seen 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 and recovery 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 neuron and a new pathway in the brain that regulates the return of traumatic memories and fear. This discovery, along with new information about the size and connectivity of amygdala (brain region linked to fear, stress and anxiety) in both adults and children, indicates that traumatic experiences actually rewire and physically change the brain.


It may also offer some explanation for 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 the arousal system in the deeper parts of the brain, specifically, the limbic system. In such cases, the limbic system becomes stuck in the “fight or flight” response mode.


Treating PTSD by Calming the Limbic System

An alternative approach to treatment based on holistic mind-body view is 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 describes many empowering self-regulatory healing practices. These therapeutic options primarily focus on calming the limbic system.


Your limbic system is an ancient collection of brain structures located deep within the brain. The limbic system is the emotional part of your brain that processes the sense of smell, stores highly charged emotional memories, and affects all sleep and appetite cycles, moods, sexuality, and bonding. Van der Kolk’s suggested practises complement traditional methods of treatment for trauma-related disorders and help people regain control of their bodies by rewiring their brains – so that they can rebuild their lives.


Key activities he suggests that have been proven to have a calming effect on the 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 has been shown to significantly improve well-being and quality of life in people with PTSD, particularly those who are non-responsive to traditional treatment methods. Practising these behaviours regularly from two to eight months can help them become ingrained 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.”


Conclusion

Well, it looks like time can be a great healer after all. It depends on how you use it.

We can choose to spend at least some of it engaging in behaviours that help heal our bodies and brains from the negative impact of trauma.

Getting there together...


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