How Does Complex PTSD Affect the Brain?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that a traumatic event or experience can cause. While many people are familiar with PTSD, fewer people know about complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

C-PTSD is a type of PTSD that develops in response to prolonged or repeated trauma. It is typically associated with long-term abuse and neglect, but it can also result from other kinds of situations, such as captivity, domestic violence, and human trafficking. Understanding how C-PTSD affects the brain is an important step to understanding this condition better. Transformations at Mending Fences has done a great job covering this topic on their blog. Read the blog post if you want to learn how childhood trauma can lead to PTSD

What Triggers C-PTSD?

Both external and internal factors can trigger c-PTSD. External factors are events that happen outside of the individual (e.g., an instance of physical violence). Internal factors are situations within the individual (e.g., intense feelings related to a recent dialogue).

Although external triggers can often cause us to feel fear or distress at the moment, internal triggers often cause us to experience similar feelings over a longer period of time due to unresolved issues stemming from past traumas. That said, it is important to remember that triggers may look different for everyone based on their unique experiences with trauma.

Neurological Changes in the Brain

One of the primary ways that CPTSD affects the brain is through neurological changes. These changes include increased activity in certain brain areas and decreased activity in others. These changes are believed to cause symptoms such as heightened arousal, difficulty concentrating, intrusive thoughts, and mood swings.

Altered Neurotransmitter Levels

Neurotransmitters are chemicals released by nerve cells in the brain that allow messages to be sent between different parts of the body. People with CPTSD often have altered levels of these neurotransmitters due to prolonged trauma exposure.

For example, people with CPTSD may have lower levels of serotonin—a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness—which can lead to depression or anxiety disorders. Other neurotransmitters affected by CPTSD include dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

This increased activation is thought to be caused by changes in certain neurotransmitters, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, which can interfere with normal functioning in those areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. As a result, people may feel overwhelmed by these intense emotions even when faced with seemingly innocuous triggers related to their trauma.

Structural Changes in the Brain

CPTSD can also lead to structural changes in the brain itself. Studies show that people with CPTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus—a part of the limbic system involved in forming memories—than those without it. This decrease in size may be due to chronic stress hormones released during traumatic events that damage this brain area over time.

Structural changes like this can lead to problems with memory formation and other cognitive functions and increased risk for psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

In addition, scientists have found that people with C-PTSD also tend to have increased activity in certain parts of the brain when they experience triggers related to their trauma – often resulting in feelings of fear or anxiety.

Communication Disruptions Between Different Brain Regions

Finally, researchers suggest that there may be an association between C-PTSD and disruptions in the communication between different regions of the brain, which can lead to symptoms like difficulties regulating emotions or intrusive memories related to past traumas. This disruption may be caused by chronic stress, which has been linked to long-term abuse or neglect – two common causes of C-PTDS – and other forms of prolonged trauma, such as captivity or human trafficking.

Treating Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is a serious mental health condition caused by prolonged exposure to trauma that can affect many aspects of life including psychological functioning and physical health. It alters neurotransmitter levels in the brain, which can lead to depression or anxiety disorders and structural changes, which can cause memory problems or increase the risk for psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

With proper diagnosis and treatment, however, people living with complex PTSD can learn coping skills and strategies for managing their condition so they can live healthy and fulfilling lives again.

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