Dissecting PTSD: How it Alters the Brain and Behavior

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The capabilities of the human brain are fascinating and unique. Such a detailed structure supports everything in our bodies, and it facilitates our thoughts, memories, emotions, and abilities. Brain Trauma doesn’t just impact our behaviors. It also changes the physical makeup of the brain. When someone has PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, their brain becomes wired differently from someone who has not experienced trauma.

The ultimate goal of the brain is to ensure the body’s safety. In traumatic situations, the brain switches into survival mode. It activates our fight-or-flight mechanisms. For most people, the brain switches back to everyday living and resting mode once the trauma is over. However, the brain never switches back for just a little less than five percent of the population. As a result, they become stuck in survival mode. Their brain is never able to relax, and this has a significant impact on behavior and the body itself.Below, we further explain how PTSD alters the brain and a person’s behavior.

Physical Changes in the Brain

There are three parts of the brain impacted and changed by PTSD: the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus. The amygdala is a tiny part of the brain that serves as the switch. In other words, when the signal for survival happens, the amygdala flips the switch to fight or flight.

For those who have PTSD, the amygdala doesn’t understand the difference between current events and a memory of a threat. It confuses a memory as an active threat and switches to survival mode.

The prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, is where we make rational decisions. Studies have found that the prefrontal cortex is not nearly as active as usual during survival mode. So, when the amygdala flips the switch, we become less rational.

Think of the hippocampus as the part of the brain that helps us learn. For people who have PTSD, it is smaller and not nearly as active. This results in memory and concentration problems.

Changes to Behavior

When a person has suffered trauma and develops PTSD, their brain is almost constantly confused. It becomes unaware of real versus perceived trauma. Fight or flight activates at seemingly random times. This results in behavior changes as well. Some of the expected behaviors in a person with PTSD include:

  • Difficulty concentrating and retaining information
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Bouts of severe anger or rage
  • Bouts of severe depression
  • Flashbacks to trauma events
  • Nightmares and trouble sleeping
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Difficulty with decision-making
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension and headaches
  • Unexplained pain throughout the body

Many factors, events, or actions, some of which may seem innocuous, can pose a trigger for a PTSD attack. These attacks can result in a person flashing back to the trauma event as if they are reliving it. Alternatively, they may lead to panic attacks. The triggers, for a variety of reasons, are events that tell the amygdala in the brain to flip the switch into survival mode.

Treatment Options

There are various treatments for the changes in brain chemistry and physical behaviors of someone with PTSD. A few ways to combat PTSD include therapy and a variety of medications.<


When struggling with PTSD, sometimes taking an SSRI can reduce anxiety and depression. A few medications include Zoloft, Paxil, and Effexor. To take medicine for PTSD, it’s best to consult with a licensed mental health professional. A trusted psychiatrist can prescribe the appropriate medication and doses to combat PTSD.

Medication Marijuana

Medical marijuana for PTSD is gaining traction as a treatment. And it has scientific backing for its effectiveness. Cannabis has calming effects on a person and also aids in rest. Those struggling with PTSD report finding relief while using cannabis.

A person dealing with a mental health condition likely qualifies for medical marijuana. It’s possible to apply for a medical marijuana card in your state online.


Although the brain map, so to speak, is forever changed in someone who has experienced trauma, there are treatments and options. Many treatments provide positive steps toward a more normal life for these people. Treatments that allow the brain to step back from fight or flight mode and relax will enable the body to ultimately heal.

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