7 Ways to Heal from Stress and PTSD

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of chronic, overwhelming stress. Today, I will follow this up with some ways I learned to heal from these conditions. This all came from a very informative PTSD training with John Preston, Psy.D.

1. Hold and be held. Particularly with babies, tactile stimulation does wonders. In one study, a control group held babies for two hours a day while an experimental group held babies for four hours a day. After six weeks, the babies in the experimental group cried 43% less. This applies cross-culturally. Babies who are held more are least likely to develop PTSD or hypercortisolemia. While the first year is so critical for lifelong brain development, I don’t think human touch ever becomes less essential. Sure, maybe we don’t need four hours a day, but hugs, cuddles, and massages go a long way.

2. Medication. I am not one to believe in going straight for the magic pill, but there are several medications that can be helpful if you are feeling very overwhelmed or out of control. Several types of medication can activate Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which strengthens neural pathways and can protect the brain from damage by extreme stress. All antidepressants activate BDNF (this is their one common denominator). Others that can be used for this purpose are Lithium, Depakote, Tegratol, Lamictal, and Seroquel. And guess what? Omega-3 fatty acids are also neural-protective. If you think you may need medication, of course talk with your doctor or psychiatrist.

3. Movement. Exercise also activates the neural pathway protector BDNF. It increases seratonin levels as well. Much of the feeling of PTSD is that of being “frozen.” Movement of any kind can immediately snap one out of that feeling.

4. Make choices that increase safety and structure in your daily life. In events of trauma and abuse/neglect, a common theme is powerlessness. Looking at brain chemistry, BDNF decreases when an individual experiences perceived powerlessness. Of course, it is not possible to always be in control of one’s circumstances, but it is possible to make choices that increases the chances of safety. It is also possible to have a regular schedule that increases predictability in your daily life. This will help. If this point interests you, look into the Seeking Safety program.

5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction. I love this one. It is a form of meditation and  consists of simple exercises one can do  to increase one’s mindfulness, which strengthens the brain and increases one’s ability to have control over where attention is placed. There is a lot of good science out there showing that this stuff really works.

6. Facing fears. The act of facing fears actually increases the frontal lobe’s ability to dampen down anxiety. It also gives one a restored sense of self-efficacy and control. When I am at my best, I try to face one fear every day. it is amazingly uplifting.

7. Exposure therapy. This can be useful for people who have been traumatized and feel strong enough to face their trauma. It is one of the most common therapies used for PTSD. Research has shown that exposure therapy strengthens the Arterial Cingulate (AC) and expands neural pathways between the AC and amygdala (remember the top-down control dampening down the anxiety/arousal I talked about last time?). Being able to look at the traumatic event while calm and centered in the present gives one the ability to handle stressful situations more effectively. It also minimizes the effect of the trauma. However, this needs to be executed carefully. An individual needs to learn emotional management skills before he/she begins this work in order to avoid re-traumatization.

Did you know stress can cause brain damage?

ImageI went to a training on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recently. I did learn quite a bit about how to treat PTSD, but the presenter’s information about the effects of chronic and/or severe stress was what really struck me and stuck with me. So, I am going to blather a bit, and it may be somewhat technical, but I need to get this down on the page in order to internalize the info a bit more, if you know what I mean. Hopefully, some of you will find it interesting and learn from it as well.

Many of us have probably heard of the stress-related hormone cortisol. I myself have heard a lot about how it causes belly fat. What I didn’t know was that chronically high levels of cortisol can cause a condition called Hypercortisolemia. Quite a mouthful, right? Here’s the thing: there are two very important structures in the brain that help us to regulate our emotions (the Arterial Cingulate, or AC, and the Hippocampus). These structures are packed with cortisol receptors, and if they care constantly being bombarded with cortisol, they become damaged and unable to do their job properly. This is hypercortisolemia.

I am talking lifelong effects, especially when this occurs in young, developing brains.

Impacts of hypercortisolemia:

1) The Artertial Cingulate (AC) has top down control over the amygdala. You know that reptilian part of your brain that gets triggered in the present because something reminds you of painful memories from the past, even when you know things have changed, but you’re still tripping? That’s the amygdala working. It never forgets, but isn’t always rational. So basically the AC is the structure that tells the amygdala, “Calm down, relax, that was then, this is now.” If the AC is damaged, the amygdala is hyperactive (oh, please, god, no), and anxiety goes up.

2) The risk of depression goes up from a 15% chance (general population) to a whopping 58% chance. Not fun.

3) Some of the other clinical outcomes include severe personality disorders (especially borderline, for you other psych nerds out there), attachment problems, vulnerability to PTSD, and chronic PTSD.

Obviously this is serious. Take a big breath of relief, because most people will not get this condition. It is not generally caused by your run of the mill everyday stress.

Causes/ Risk Factors of Hypercortisolemia:

1) Ongoing trauma or chronic stress

2) Prenatal conditions: Cortisol can cross the placental barrier and damage a developing brain. Depressed or chronically stressed pregnant women need to have their cortisol levels screened and take anti-depressants if they are high.

3) Severe neglect

Now I am going to go on a bit of a tangent and talk a little bit about severe neglect, as the effects are quite tragic. Some of the behavioral symptoms of severe neglect include hypersensitivity (reacting more strongly to stress and taking longer to calm down), self-mutilation, and aggression.

Another symptom of severe neglect is alcohol abuse. Even in studies with primates, all of the monkeys were given alcohol, and it was the neglected monkeys who drank regularly and excessively.

Individuals who have experienced severe neglect also are more likely to have lifelong attachment problems. Studies on primates also show that neglected monkeys are not accepted, as they do not know how to read social cues. Neglected monkeys will have no mates. If they are inseminated, they will not take care of their babies (as a side note, this makes me kind of want to hurt whatever researchers felt the need to so deeply damage these poor monkeys).

Severe neglect can also cause lifelong neurobiological changes. Cortisol goes up (increased anxiety, depression, and lack of deep sleep). Seratonin goes down (more irritability, anxiety, impulsivity). Oxytocin goes down (causing problems with developing healthy attachments).

Another uplifting animal study: Infant rats were separated from their mothers for six hours a day very early in life. Another group was also separated, but continued to receive tactile stimulation. The control group was left to bond with their mommies. After a bit of all this, these amazing researchers threw all of the rats in a tub of water. Guess what? Those rats that stayed with their mommies and those rats that continued to receive tactile stimulation both fought for their little rat lives for TWICE as long.

Obviously, it is the very young brain that is most at risk here. However, experiencing trauma also happens to quite a lot of us, more than I like to believe is true.

Take home message? Take care of your baby. Get checked out if you are pregnant and tend toward depression or have a lot of stress in your life right now (but don’t stress!). If you do go through something traumatic, ask for help if you are feeling you are not getting over it after a month or so.

I am going to wrap up this highly uplifting post right now, but I will be back with some ways that you can deal with and heal this fun stuff.