The Science of How Mindfulness Relieves Post Traumatic Stress

An exploration of how traumatic stress affects the brain, and the research suggesting that mindfulness practices may help individuals be more equipped to handle the emotional and physical distress of PTSD.

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Pain, loss and traumatic events are part of the human experience, yet most of us don’t talk about that part of our lives. According to a Health Care Policy report from Harvard Medical School, approximately 60% of North Americans experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Some of these individuals may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition marked by intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. A recent review of the research finds that mindfulness-based programs such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) may provide relief from post-traumatic symptoms such as anxiety, sleep disturbance, and difficulty concentrating.

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress and PTSD may occur after experiencing or witnessing a shocking or dangerous event. During the event, fear triggers a cascade of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that flood the nervous system and mobilize the body’s defenses. Once the threat subsides, the nervous system usually “resets,” initiating the healing and recovery process. 

In some cases, or when stress is chronic, the system does not reset, and the physical and psychological effects of acute or prolonged stress manifest as symptoms of traumatic stress. Not everyone who survives a trauma develops PTSD, and not everyone with PTSD has experienced or observed a life-threatening event. Sudden, unexpected death or loss, or persistent environmental threat can also lead to a person developing post-traumatic stress symptoms. 

It is important to note that post-traumatic stress symptoms are not, in and of themselves, pathological. They represent the mind and body’s natural process of recovery following severe, often painful life experiences. Often more chronic and extremely traumatic events require longer periods of healing and repair.

As resilience builds, symptoms often lessen and eventually subside altogether. For some, however, post-traumatic symptoms can be accompanied by significant depression, anxiety, panic, and thoughts of suicide. In these cases, evidence-based treatment approaches under the care of a medical professional may be necessary to help alleviate the impacts of trauma. 

The Symptoms of PTSD

Although there are many causes of trauma, people with PTSD have a great deal in common. According to non-profit Anxiety and Depression Association of America, PTSD is characterized by three primary symptoms: 

  1. Repeating or reimagining the experience — Most have intrusive memories or bad dreams that occur in combination with physical symptoms like a racing heart and shortness of breath. 
  2. Avoidance— Individuals also tend to avoid objects, places, or events that trigger recollection of the initial experience, and learn to numb physical and emotional sensations when under duress. 
  3. Hyperactivity — The combination of unresolved nervous system hyperactivity and emotional distress can result in tension, anger, irritability, a tendency to startle easily, or difficulties coping with life events. This is often accompanied by difficulties sleeping, eating, and concentrating, and a tendency toward sadness, depression, social isolation, guilt, and a lack of trust in others and the world. 

How Traumatic Stress Affects the Brain

Acute and persistent traumas are also known to impact the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. Human and animal studies find that traumatic stress is associated with decreased volume in the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and left amygdala; brain regions that are highly sensitive to environmental threat. 

The hippocampus, part of the brain’s emotion processing center (limbic system), plays an important role in learning, memory, and emotion processing. It is particularly vulnerable to stress, and tends to be smaller in volume in those with PTSD.

The anterior cingulate links the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex—often referred to as the brain’s “thinking center.” It plays an important role in emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility. 

All told, these brain signaling anomalies may be related to greater difficulty regulating and coping with negative thoughts, feelings, and memories — a hallmark of post-traumatic stress.

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