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PTSD 5: How Emotions Are Processed

Originally posted February 5, 2021.

In PTSD: 1 No, it’s not all in your head, we talked about the causes and the symptoms of PTSD.

In PTSD: 2 No, it’s not all in your head: The Neuroplatform of Emotion, we talked about the underlying neurobiological emotional platform, that forms the unconscious basis for our emotional responses in everyday life.

In PTSD 3: No, it’s not all on your head: the Vagus Nerve, we talked about the cranial nerves, and, more specifically, the vagus nerve and polyvagal theory.

In PTSD 4: No, it’s not all in our head: Memory Encoding, we’ll talk about how traumatic memories are physically encoded differently in the brain than regular, non-traumatic memories.

In PTSD 5: No it’s not all in your head: How Emotions are Processed, we’ll talk about how emotions are processed in the brain, from the bottom up: from the emotional brain to the rational brain.

This is relevant for those who suffer from PTSD, as emotional and subsequent physical symptoms are driven from the underlying neuroplatform of emotion, which has been physically impacted by trauma.

In the final article of this series, PTSD 6: No it’s not all in your head: Harness Neuroplasticity for Healing, we discuss how current trauma models, informed by neurobiology, integrate somatic therapies, attachment theory and mindfulness for healing on mind and body levels.

Neurodevelopment – Brain changes from trauma

I want to mention brain scanning technology has allowed researchers to map the physical changes that profound and sustained trauma creates in the brain. We didn’t know just how “plastic” the brain was until we could physically map it.

How emotions are processed in the brain

Today, the development of the brain and nervous system are seen as use-dependent (Kain and Terrell, 2018, p. 166). Martin Teicher’s groundbreaking work about the effects of chronic childhood abuse on trauma is revelatory and shocking.

Teicher and his colleagues’ work shows that sustained abuse profoundly affects the brain. The brain becomes more emotionally reactive.

Our brains physically process the world subcortically, below our awareness, through the lens of our emotional brains first. Awareness through the neo-cortex follows milliseconds later.

We first process the world at a primitive level, the amygdala.

The amygdala’s basic job is survival. The amygdala is the emotional, imagistic part of the brain that gives us the feeling of what is safe or not safe, at a primitive, intuitive level. We continually gather information through our senses, the amygdala interprets the information, and, in a millisecond, assigns an emotional designation (safe/not-safe/threat-to-survival) in order to ensure survival.

Teicher shows us that, with sustained adverse conditions, the amygdala grows larger in size, and there is less connectivity between the emotional brain and the upper, reasoning brain, and the neocortex shrinks and becomes smaller than normal size.

The brain of a profoundly abused person has an “irritable amygdala,” meaning he or she can be predisposed to be more emotional, primed for suspicion and danger, and have less inhibition from the reasoning part of the brain, the neocortex.

How do we perceive and then interpret our environment?

We perceive our world via our sensory organs: the ears, eyes, nose, skin, and tongue. We also have a kinesthetic sense which is how we perceive our body in space. The sequence of how we process our emotions via the body and mind are as follows:

  • Our sense organs receive certain stimulation (sight, sound, scent, taste) which are instantly sent along the nervous system to the brain.

  • The brain, via the thalamus, routes the sensations first to the lower part of the brain: the emotional brain.

  • The amygdala checks things out first. The amygdala’s job is survival of the organism. The amygdala holds emotional memories, without a verbal narrative.

  • The amygdala’s job is to assign an emotional designation to whatever we see, hear, smell, etc. by checking out the new incoming information against old data.

  • If what we perceive reminds the amygdala about something dangerous, we go on high alert.

  • We then orient to our surroundings, scanning, listening for danger

  • The muscles in our ears actually automatically attune to listen for the lower sounds of predatory moves, rather than listening for speech

  • If the amygdala thinks there’s a threat to our survival…well, all bets are off and off and we can find ourselves running away, down the street! Whoops! This is called emotional hijacking!

  • Emotional hijacking occurs in milliseconds before the thalamus routes our perception further up to the upper brain for assessment.

  • An irritable, or hyper-active, amygdala is one of the consequences of PTSD …emotional hijacking of our entire body by the lower brain, all because of a scent or a flash of a red sweater that reminds us of something that happened before…

  • The neocortex is supposed to be an inhibitor. It is supposed to inhibit the emotional reactions of the amygdala. But the chronically traumatized brain has an irritable, hypersensitive amygdala and a foreshortened neocortical reaction.

Tying this all together

Can the complex constellation of biological changes to the neuroplatform of emotions by trauma be modified? Is PTSD responsive to treatment?

We’ll explore the somatic treatments that target PTSD in the next articles.

If you want to learn more, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., grand pooh pah of trauma, has studied PTSD for decades. He is on the forefront of the discovery that actual physical changes occur in the brain and body when a person suffers a traumatic incident. His wide ranging work, The Body Keeps the Score, outlines how the the brain and body are physically changed from trauma, how these changes cause a difference in how a traumatized person perceives his world, how traumatic memories are stored and what evidence-based treatments effectively treat trauma.

Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Conpany.

Kain, K. and Terrell (2018). Nurturing resilience. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books

Hannaford, C. (1995), Smart Moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, Utah: Great River Books

Teicher, M. H., Andersen,S. L., Polcari, A. Anderson,C. M., Navalta, C. P., and Kim, D. M. (2003). The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 27 (1–2), pp. 33-44

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. Penguin Books: New York.


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