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Column: Post traumatic stress is not a 'disorder'

Denise Williams | 6/8/2014, 7:50 p.m.
It's a treatable problem, and it's time we started acknowledging that and dealing with it as such, columnist Denise Williams ...

When faced with a life threatening situation, the human body goes through a series of changes and events. These include the release of massive amounts of hormones and chemicals that allow us to function in ways beyond what is needed in ordinary situations. They cause our vital organs and brains, our muscles and nervous systems to act and react in ways they are not designed to function at for sustained periods.

The effects of these chemicals and hormones allow a mother to lift a car off the body of her child. Or a soldier to run uphill, carrying a buddy whose weight matches his own even though he was moments before physically exhausted. But there is a price to pay, physically, for these superhuman feats of strength and endurance.

To better understand that price let’s look at what actually happens, physiologically, when we experience that fight or flight moment, as it’s called. This is an admitted gross oversimplification.

You perceive a threat. Before your conscious mind can process the exact nature of the threat and the best course of action, your brain and body kick into gear. The hypothalamus sends a chemical signal to the pituitary, telling it to release other chemicals. Simultaneously, the hypothalamus sends both electrical and chemical signals to the adrenal glands, directing release of epinephrine, which causes a release of cortisol into the bloodstream. The brain stem also reacts immediately, releasing norepinephrine.

All of these chemical releases and electrical signals cause other reactions in the body. In short, your body readies itself to either stand and fight or take flight.

When you are repeatedly exposed to danger or a perceived threat, these reactions occur even faster. Think of it like a conditioned response; you’ve experienced this or a similar set of circumstances before. Your body and subconscious responds again as it did then, both because it is part of our primal programming and because that response was successful in the past. The proof is that you are alive to face this threat once again.

The human body is incredibly delicate even while it is incredibly resilient. It doesn’t take much to damage but given the right amount of space, time and support, can generally heal itself. This is a thought that is very important to bear in mind when discussing PTS.

All those chemical and electrical reactions that occur when faced with a threat, while useful, needful and even necessary, can also be very damaging to the delicate systems of the body. Continuous firing of electrical impulses, constant swamping of the nerve endings with these very powerful chemicals can literally short out the system. Sometimes, that short leaves the switches ‘on’; sometimes, they are burned out.

This short circuiting is Post Traumatic Stress. These physiological changes are what is occurring in the bodies of those who have gone through repeated episodes of life threatening danger. This is not a mental disorder. It is quite literally, “…an impairment of the normal state…” of the functioning of the human body.