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  • Writer's pictureMind by Design® Team

Trauma and the Brain: A Look at Current PTSD Treatments


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex mental health condition that can have profound effects on an individual's well-being, particularly due to the haunting nature of traumatic memories. Those with PTSD often find themselves reliving these experiences, a phenomenon intricately tied to how the brain processes memories. In this exploration, we delve into the current therapeutic approaches for PTSD, shedding light on their effectiveness in addressing the impact of traumatic memories and peering into the horizon of emerging research that promises to reshape the landscape of PTSD treatments.


"Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914)


Sigmund Freud, esteemed as the father of psychoanalysis, devoted substantial effort to the study of dreams, positing the theory that dreams are ostensibly expressions of our unfulfilled desires. In his seminal work, "The Interpretation of Dreams," Freud demystified the hidden symbolism in dreams and introduced the concept of the "royal road to the unconscious." However, his perspectives evolved when he encountered war veterans and individuals plagued by repetitive, trauma-induced dreams.


In grappling with these potent experiences, Freud wrote "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" in 1914, a textual pivot point in psychoanalytic theory. He postulated that when an individual experiences a traumatic event, an innate mechanism compels them to relive or repeat the event. This repetition, Freud believed, was not merely a manifestation of the trauma but rather a means of addressing and overcoming it. The act of re-experiencing the trauma allowed individuals to confront their fears in a controlled, conscious manner—akin to a healing process. In Freud's words, "The patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed; he acts it out… he repeats it instead of remembering it." Herein lies the essence of "working through" - a therapeutic process that encourages individuals to recall, repeat, and confront their trauma, thereby facilitating the journey towards recovery and psychological integration.


Although Freud, initially a neurologist, continually endeavoured to correlate his psychological discoveries with physiological processes, his era's limited resources and technological advancements hindered this. However, today's scientific milieu, blessed with groundbreaking neuroscientific advances, allows us to probe deeper into the physiological underpinnings of disorders like PTSD. 


The current prevailing therapeutic approaches for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) primarily focus on mitigating the impact of traumatic memories. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), for instance, is an evidence-based therapeutic approach that encourages individuals to actively reframe and challenge negative thought patterns that are associated with the traumatic event. Doing so empowers them to develop a healthier and more adaptive perspective towards their experiences. Through a structured and systematic process, CPT helps individuals identify and modify cognitive distortions and beliefs that may be hindering their recovery and well-being. This therapy aims to enhance resilience and promote positive psychological growth in individuals who have experienced trauma.


Conversely, Prolonged Exposure Therapy is a therapeutic approach that involves gradually exposing individuals to the memories of their trauma in a controlled environment. By doing so, it allows them to confront and process their traumatic experiences, helping them to gradually reduce their fear response and regain a sense of control and empowerment over their lives. We offer Virtual Reality Therapy in order to create a controlled environment for this gradual exposure to the traumatic triggers; you can learn more about it here. This evidence-based treatment has shown promising results in helping individuals overcome the debilitating effects of trauma and move toward healing and recovery. 


And let us not forget to mention EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) since it is a highly regarded psychotherapy technique combining cognitive therapy elements with rhythmic, side-to-side movements or sounds. This innovative approach aims to desensitize patients to traumatic memories, facilitating the healing process by accessing and reprocessing distressing experiences. By integrating bilateral stimulation and cognitive restructuring, EMDR provides a comprehensive treatment modality that has shown remarkable effectiveness in addressing a wide range of psychological conditions and trauma-related symptoms.


Recent Studies


Research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience a couple of days ago, "Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD," adds a new layer of understanding to how traumatic memories are processed in individuals with PTSD. The study identifies distinct brain regions involved in processing sad, non-traumatic memories versus traumatic ones. While the hippocampus plays a crucial role in the former, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) is activated when recalling traumatic memories.


This revelation opens the door to potential innovations in PTSD treatment. Understanding the neural underpinnings of memory processing could pave the way for therapies that specifically target the mechanisms responsible for the intrusive and distressing nature of traumatic memories.


And now, a recent study published in Nature Medicine introduces an intriguing approach - methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted manualized inner-directed therapy (MDMA-AT). This study reveals that MDMA-AT proves more effective in treating moderate to severe PTSD compared to manualized inner-directed therapy alone.


You can learn more about this topic by listening to Brad Burge's Ted Talk "MDMA, Psychotherapy, and the Future of PTSD Treatment". 


A Glimpse into the Future of PTSD Therapy




In conclusion, the exploration of the role of memory in therapy for PTSD is a journey into the heart of mental health treatment. Current therapeutic approaches have provided significant relief for many, yet the evolving landscape of research presents an opportunity to refine and revolutionize PTSD treatments. As we unlock the mysteries of how memories are processed in the brain, we inch closer to a future where the heavy burden of traumatic memories may be lightened, offering hope and healing to those who have endured the weight of PTSD.

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