Suppose there are five soldiers who had the same horrifying experience while overseas, yet only one of these soldiers ends up with PTSD—post traumatic stress disorder. That’s often the case.
And so, since we know that not everyone who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event will have PTSD, we ask this question: Is there a common denominator in terms of who may be more vulnerable to PTSD? When we understand how the lower brain functions, the answer to that question is yes.
More specifically, people may be more susceptible to PTSD if they have not finished their lower brain development at the time they experienced or witnessed the trauma. Here’s why.
If the pons is underdeveloped, that means the amygdala is already working overtime. Recall that the amygdala’s job is to continually scan the environment for any threat. But it only has to note something that seems similar to whatever the brain already processed as danger to sound the alarm. That’s why a car backfiring is more than enough to trigger a soldier’s amygdala if a bomb explosion was part of that soldier’s original trauma.
Yet, triggers can be more subtle than a car backfiring. For example, the amygdala might get triggered just from sensing someone coming up from behind—if a person has PTSD.
And then, if the midbrain is also underdeveloped, well, that person will now additionally have difficulty shifting gears. In such case, that person’s brain will play and re-play the same terrifying thought or image, over and over again, which then keeps triggering the amygdala—and so, the fear and stress never seems to end.
Completing the lower centers of the brain not only makes us less vulnerable to having PTSD, but finishing this development can also greatly help those who already have this diagnosis. In other words, it’s never too late to go back and organize the brain so that it functions as intended.
We’re not just theorizing here. We have worked with both adults and kids with PTSD. And while we love working with all our participants, it’s always wonderful to hear, for example, soldiers tell us how their child was coming up from behind the other day—and they didn’t jump or react. Or, when we see kids who have experienced traumas that seem like more than anyone should ever have to endure, are now smiling and relaxed.
In general, the relationship between PTSD and incomplete lower brain development underscores a primary, overall theme of brain organization. Having an organized brain doesn’t mean that we won’t ever encounter some difficult challenges—or even horrifying traumas—in our life. But when the brain is working as intended, we truly are better equipped to handle whatever we have to face.