At last, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a widely recognized mental health condition and the causal processes behind it are increasingly being understood. Once primarily associated with soldiers, it is now known to occur in individuals of all ages as a result of unrelenting stress and/or significant trauma. As cortisol and adrenaline repeatedly flood the brain under major stress, a person can become trapped in the fight, flight or freeze mode, whereby fear of imminent danger preoccupies one’s thoughts. Understandably, this can produce hyper-anxiety and frequently depression — the hallmarks of PTSD.
A large number of therapies are used to treat PTSD, primarily in combination with prescription medications. Sometimes the medications are effective, but often it is a hit-or-miss approach and medications are switched or dosages adjusted until desired results are achieved. Some individuals report disliking the side effects or find that the medications lose much of their efficacy after a while, so they must turn to a different medication. Others pursue different treatments entirely.
This imprecise science arose largely because so little was understood about the brain’s complexity, and very few biomarkers were available to help medical professionals pinpoint the exact source of the mental health challenges. Thankfully, this situation has been changing rapidly in recent decades as sophisticated brain-imaging techniques have been developed that allow researchers to more precisely map and understand brain function.
With PTSD, these imaging techniques reveal excessive activity in the right temporal lobe — the fear center — and too much slow-wave activity in the frontal lobe. This explains the over-aroused PTSD brain and its association with reduced attention and problem solving. As EEG technology has advanced, specific brainwave patterns have become identified as characteristic of PTSD. New brain stimulation therapies have emerged to help in balancing the PTSD brain by retraining these targeted brainwaves. The following three therapies are receiving very positive reviews, but this is only a partial list and they are provided for informational purposes only:
- EEG/Neurofeedback — Neurofeedback begins with administering the qEEG, a diagnostic EEG, run against a large database of standard EEG results. It provides extensive brainwave information and identifies brain areas not performing optimally. Neurofeedback sessions are then begun with EEG sensors placed only on those areas requiring attention. Hooked into a computer system, a person undergoes brainwave training by interfacing with synced tones and visuals that encourage the brain to retrain itself. The number of required sessions varies by individual and issue(s) being addressed, determined by the medical professional administering the neurofeedback. Twenty to forty sessions is an average number of sessions. There are amazing success stories about the use of neurofeedback, not just for PTSD, but for other mental health conditions, including traumatic brain injury and seizures. Various VA facilities employ this technology. Insurance coverage varies by practitioner, so make certain to inquire up front. For more information and to locate a practitioner in your area visit: www.eeginfo.com/what-is-neurofeedback.jsp
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) — Transcranial magnetic stimulation has also been showing very positive results for PTSD, especially when partnered with neurofeedback. It involves pulsating coils emitting magnetic fields aimed at identified parts of the brain with the intent of balancing frequencies and normalizing brain function. Interestingly, researchers cannot explain fully how the technology works, but overall they are pleased with the results. The technology has only been approved by the FDA since 2008, but is growing in popularity. Check out this Washington Post article to read more about the success of what many explain as “magic”: www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/brain-zapping-veterans-say-experimental-ptsd-treatment-has-changed-their-lives/2015/01/12/2fc8b3ca-58aa-11e4-8264-deed989ae9a2_story.html
- Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulator (CES) — This is low-voltage stimulation applied to one’s side temples, usually worn inside a headband and connected to a base device generally the size of a cell phone. The pulsed current (below 4 milliamps) is worn for approximately 20 minutes a day and has proven as effective, or exceeded, antidepressants in some research studies. It is reported to stimulate production of serotonin and lower cortisol levels. Forbes selected one popular brand, the Fisher Wallace Stimulator, as “1 of 4 technologies innovating mental health in 2016.” The device requires a prescription and is covered by some insurance. It is intended for home use and costs anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per unit.
Fortunately, there are numerous healing PTSD therapies to choose from, more of which can be found in the suggested reading below and through online searches. Work with your healthcare professionals to determine which ones are best for you and take comfort in knowing your choices are many.
- Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Mental Health (Mental Health America), www.mentalhealthamerica.net/sites/default/files/MHA_CAM.pdf
- “Drugless Healing of PTSD,” by Debra Gibson, N.D., Natural Nutmeg Magazine, December 9, 2013, www.naturalnutmeg.com/drugless-healing-of-ptsd/
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Viking Penguin), by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.