Global Resilience Solutions > Category:PTSD

Stress: Give Your Brain a Fighting Chance!

Based upon Dr. Bruce McEwen’s Herzberg Lecture “The Brain on Stress: Novel Epigenetic Mechanisms of Brain Plasticity”, delivered at Carleton University 19 November 2015

Your body is an adaptive organism. It adjusts to the environment it finds itself in. When that environment includes significant amounts of stress, dozens of important biological changes take place, changes that impact your ability to live your life.

The first, most important thing to understand is that scientists at the cutting edge of this research are nowhere close to having all of the body’s responses to stress mapped out. But many of the most interesting responses have to do with the brain.

The Brain Changes

In people experiencing prolonged stress, the hippocampus, the region of your brain most directly responsible for processing stress, shrinks dramatically. You’d almost think that was good news. The problem is, the same mechanism that gets you worked up about stressful situations is the mechanism that helps stimulate you in general. The more stress, the less you can actually motivate yourself.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same neurotransmitter chemicals that are released in response to stress are very important in terms of epigenetics- they help to determine which of your genes get expressed in any given cell at any given time. For the brain, this means that cells begin to produce excess free radicals- molecules that are normally part of your body’s immune system but which lead to cell death if they build up.

With prolonged stress, the dendritic connections in that part of your brain, the neural pathways that you depend on to function properly, recede and begin to break down. The only new pathways being formed under chronic stress are ones that are impacted by the imbalanced neurochemical environment created by that stress- in other words, you’re learning how to be stressed.

These reactions are the sort of thing designed to help us survive periods of scarcity- in fact, in some ways they look a lot like the reaction of a hibernating brain. Unfortunately, since most of our stress is human-created rather than anything to do with danger or absolute scarcity, these responses don’t help us much.

Another side-effect of chronic stress is that your circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, usually resulting in insomnia. This in turn reduces your ability to process stress.

The Brain Grows Back

Two definite factors that quickly and reliably reverse the epigenetic process, change the neurochemical balance and help your brain regenerate to a normal state are regular exercise- even studies which involved senior citizens in low-impact exercise for an hour a day over a period of time found vast improvement- and intense learning. Mindfulness meditation has also shown promise, as has a reduced diet. But by far the most powerful positive impact comes from a sense of meaning and purpose in life, combined with social integration.

On the other hand, there are a number of factors known to increase neural impairment over the course of a lifetime. These include a lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic or unsupportive/distant home life and lack of exercise in childhood.

For more on the benefits of meditation for stress, check out the TEDx talk below:


Sudden traumatic events produce a different impact than chronic stress. In this case, the problem, especially the first time around, is that you may not have the capacity to produce enough of the right neurotransmitter to fully process the stress. When this happens, your body will tend to overcorrect, and after about ten days your brain will be fully keyed in to respond to that kind of stress. That’s why one experimental intervention for post-traumatic stress involves injecting glucocorticoids, the neurotransmitter in question, within a short time after a major trauma, to let the victims physiologically process what happened to them.

PTS after a single major incident, therefore, may have a lot to do with not being able to respond to it at the time. Repeated traumas act differently, acting on the amygdala, the part of your brain that helps you control stress. As a result, you begin to respond to different levels of stressor with the same intensity your body has learned to bring to life-or-death situations.

Finding a Way Forward

When we look at the many responses of the brain to its environment, and add to that the wider context of epigenetic change and the sophisticated system of brain-body interaction that leads to the emotional and biochemical state called Survival Mode, we risk getting lost in a system of baffling complexity. At the same time, the options we have for usefully addressing chronic stress may seem both too many and insufficient to the task.

And that is so. If you’ve lived years with chronic stress or anxiety, you will not conquer it by making minor adjustments to your lifestyle. An active mind, exercise, meditation, these are all useful tools, but none of them can replace having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

Stress and the Warrior

A blog post is no place to cover what could fill a book! Suffice to say that for the true practitioner of Warriorship, the ultimate “anti-stress weapon” is simply mind-body integration. Sadly, few people ever realize this consciously, even if they dabble in practices that promote this integration, like that Yoga class at your local fitness center or the Tai Chi class nearest you. The catch is this…

Can you find a way to assimilate the small tastes of mind-body integration you get in classes like those into every moment of your life, as you go through your day? When you can do this, your TAO will reveal itself to you and you will be a true Warrior who understands the magic of life.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Healing PTSD: Tai Chi and Energy Psychology to the Rescue…

Here’s a terrifying statistic for you – during 2012 alone, 349 active-duty U.S. military personnel took their own lives. More astounding is that number is 54 more than were killed in combat in Afghanistan that same year and a second all-time peak in three years! (Since 2001, more than 6,800 American service personnel have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan).

According to a well-known Veterans Affairs investigation, 22 veterans commit suicide in the US every day.

It is safe to say that many of these cases involve Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other psychological consequences of combat such as depression. PTSD is not a phenomenon confined to soldiers, but for obvious reasons, its highest concentrations are found in military and veteran populations.

What is PTSD?

Like all forms of traumatic programming, PTSD creates involuntary behaviour. The difference with PTSD is that the trauma is so intense that it starts to invade every aspect of life. Intrusive memories, flashbacks, the involuntary engagement of the fight-or-flight response leading to difficulty concentrating as well as insomnia and other symptoms, and emotional numbing in response to the traumatic event are all common symptoms. The hyper-arousal state caused by PTSD can lead to violent outbursts, and the experience can lead to substance abuse and other aberrant behaviours.

Modern warfare is a perfect breeding ground for PTSD. In World War I, when it was known as Shell Shock, men faced with the decimation of their units by weapons they couldn’t see or fight against, with the constant danger of bombardment and the prospect of being asked to perform suicidal charges against machine guns, it became obvious that the human mind is not designed to cope with the machinery of modern war.

PTSD and its symptoms of hyper-vigilance, anxiety, anger, overreaction and helplessness are strongly associated with repeated subjection to danger that cannot be fought off or even seen coming. Think about it for a moment…

In “conventional” war, from World War II through the first Gulf War, there was a clear front line and you knew when you were in danger and when you probably were not. As traumatic as those conflicts could be, you had “down time”.

However, in a “Vietnam-like” scenario – which is exactly the kind of conflict allied forces have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan – you can never know what’s about to hit you. There is no clear, visible enemy to fight, everyday life can turn into a battlefield instantly and the next IED may be right around the corner. The repeated tours of front-line duty typical of Afghanistan and Iraq have actually exceeded those of any previous war in terms of prolonged exposure to this hideously complex war environment.

However, many types of traumatic events, and particularly repeated or sudden traumas, can generate PTSD in the civilian population. Auto accident victims, victims of childhood abuse and civilian victims or war and terrorism are among the most frequent groups of PTSD sufferers.

What We Can Do About It

Veterans’ organisations are generally very good at educating people about the basics of helping someone with PTSD. Patience and support are crucial, because by the nature of the disorder, the person suffering from it will often drive people away and destroy all ties with ordinary life. It is therefore important when acknowledging the condition to offer support and, in professional settings, to make it clear that while they should seek treatment, there will be no professional repercussions. The two essential points to remember with PTSD are to make sure those who suffer it get help, which they will often resist, and that as difficult as the symptoms may be for everyone, it is essential to give PTSD sufferers a stable professional and personal support system while they work through the disorder.

With that support structure in place, how can we ultimately deal with the condition? Numerous methods of treatment have been tried, from talk therapy and pharmaceutical medication to hypnosis and virtual reality therapy, with varying results. In many cases, without a substantial reduction in the underlying condition, the patient ultimately gives up.

In this video, Jacob White, a Vietnam veteran and Tai Chi master, talks about his own struggle with PTSD and how he used the techniques of Tai Chi to transform his inner state. What I like about this video is that Jacob underscores the transformation that needs to take place from the reactions and default settings of a soldier to those of a warrior, which is a fundamental change in how we process the world.

The Warrior Within from Jacob White on Vimeo.

Tai Chi is one avenue of work that has shown promise with PTSD, but there are a number of other approaches that have as well. Thought-Field Therapy (TFT) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) are approaches combining acupuncture point pressure with cognitive exercises which have shown startling results in several peer-reviewed studies. In studies with child survivors of the Rwandan Genocide and combat veterans where the subjects were assessed using standard PTSD checklist measures, decreases across most symptom areas of 40% or more were recorded, and retained over time after 90-day and 1-year follow-ups (1). A control study with EFT showed that after three months, 86% of treated subjects no longer met clinical criteria for PTSD (Presented at Society of Behavioral Medicine 2010). In some studies, brainwaves were monitored before and after the therapy, and showed significant change.

TFT and EFT are among the most basic tools of Energy Psychology. The deeper baggage of traumatic events often takes more sophisticated tools to root out. It is in areas like cognitive reframing and the relationship between cognition, emotions and the body’s neurochemical responses that some interesting studies are being done. Psychoneuroimmunology, which studies this relationship, has found that PTSD sufferers literally have an altered biochemistry caused by the relationship between emotional states and immune system triggers.

In any case, it is reassuring to know that the decades-long struggles of PTSD sufferers of previous generations need not be repeated, that the condition can not only be managed, but substantially reduced.

Do you know any PTSD sufferers or those caring for them? Let’s get the word out that there is hope!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

(1) (Traumatology, (2010), 15(1), 45-55; International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, Winter 2010, 12(1), 41-50; and International Journal of Healing and Caring, September 2009, 9(3)).