What does Processing Experiences Mean for PTSD Patients?
I am fascinated with how the human brain works, especially when it comes to painful experiences. I read an article today that piqued my interest. It was by Bessel Van der Kolke, the author of a book called The Body Keeps the Score. Here is an excerpt from it:
“When a combat vet remembers traumatic events from his past, the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the center of rational thinking – shuts down. That makes it impossible to try to use logic to confront his memories.” In particular, one part of the left frontal lobe of the brain called the Broca’s area shuts down when confronted by trauma. “Without a functioning Broca’s area, you cannot put your thoughts and feelings into words,” van der Kolk wrote in his book. “Our scans showed that Broca’s area went offline whenever a flashback was triggered….”
A linguistic analysis of speech in PTSD patients done in 2012 showed decreased blood flow to the Broca’s area when they were asked to verbalise their trauma. So, what is Broca’s area?
Broca's area is a region in the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere. It is also known as the motor speech area. This area regulates breathing patterns while speaking and vocalizations required for normal speech. When there is a shortage of blood flow to this region, speech production is impeded. The question is – Why?
Why is it so difficult to verbalise traumatic experiences? Here are my two cents.
When we put our thoughts or feelings about the traumatic experiences into words, it forces the brain to go into a fiercer survival mode. When you are trying to outrun a tiger that is chasing you, it just doesn’t make sense for you to talk about it when you’re trying to save your life.
Besides, no one wants to relive or re-experience those painful thoughts/emotions again. Right?
So, how can talking about it help people?
Why does talking about it help?
As we consciously prompt the brain to put meanings to those painful experiences, it forces the Broca’s area to work. Directing the overly active amygdala to the frontal lobe so that the mind slowly recognises that it is a different time and space now, and that it is over. This is especially important for PTSD patients because they carry those unexpressed thoughts/feelings somatically, and it feels just like yesterday.
PTSD patients also tend to blame themselves over what happened and they carry a lot of shame and guilt for their actions, or the lack of, during the event. When talking about it with another pair of ears and eyes, the lens through which the experiences are viewed will be broader, hence making the experience less biased.
As I was writing this, these verses from Sonnet 18 come to mind:
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Yep, so long as those experiences are not verbalised and processed at the Broca’s area, so long as this gives life to those painful experiences. They have to be processed alright, but do it in your time. Not anyone’s time, but yours.