PTSD and Survivors Guilt: The Science behind the Thoughts

April 11, 2019

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly known as PTSD, is a mental disorder that affects more than 3 million people per year. PTSD is known to affect individuals who experience or witness a traumatic event that they later have trouble letting go of or getting over. PTSD is most common in veterans and those returning from a warzone, but it is also present in cases of rape, murder, terrorism, combat, natural disasters and epidemics. It is also found in people recovering from the trauma caused by a family member's suicide. PTSD manifests in many ways including, but not limited to, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and survivor's guilt.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for monitoring a situation and determining whether or not the flight or fight response is necessary. This is also the part of the brain that associates certain places, smells and sounds with “danger.” The hippocampus, located just under the amygdala, is responsible for storing memories. The prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead, is what is responsible for determining someone's rational thoughts and the decisions they make. PTSD occurs when an individual experiences or witnesses an event so traumatic that their brain is unable to process it. This in turn causes damage to the hippocampus and impacts the amygdala’s ability to produce calming thoughts. This means that the nerve circuits connecting the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex no longer function correctly. When a sight, sound or smell triggers the hippocampus to remember the memory, the amygdala is unable to send calming thoughts to pacify the feelings and is unable to assure someone that they are not in danger. This causes someone to experience the symptoms of PTSD.

To be officially diagnosed, PTSD symptoms such as hypervigilance, hostility, irritability, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, self-destructive behavior, social isolation and survivor’s guilt must occur for a month or more. All of these side effects can affect a person’s livelihood and their basic ability to function. This can have impacts on people's abilities to connect with others, build relationships or keep stable jobs.

Survivor’s guilt, also called survivor’s syndrome, is an official derivative of PTSD. It is a feeling of self-guilt when someone survives a traumatic experience while others do not, such as war, fatal car crashes, terrorist attacks and school and mass shootings. Though millions suffer from PTSD and survivor’s guilt, they are possible to recover from. Researchers and doctors are working on ways to eradicate the symptoms of PTSD and to help soothe those who are suffering. With the world making great strides in medical advancements, humanity hopes to see more treatments for PTSD in the near future.

 

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