Here is the full transcript of Tears of a Warrior author Janet Seahorn’s TEDx Talk: Understanding PTSD’s Effects on Brain, Body, and Emotions at TEDxCSU conference. This event took place on March 5, 2016 at Fort Collins, Colorado.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Understanding PTSD’s Effects on Brain, Body, and Emotions by Janet Seahorn at TEDxCSU
I’m having that identical twin sister. And my background in neuroscience is probably giving my husband more stress than he ever thought he knew when he married me. He thought he was getting one person, he received two.
They asked us earlier this morning how we felt going into the TED talks. And one of my very creative other presenters said feel like Katniss going into the Hunger Games. That’s kind of what I feel like and my subject is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which I think I have today.
So I’ll start out with our poem.
Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall;
Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall.
All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men
Putting Good Foot Humpty Together Again.
One moment, he’s on the wall eating a hamburger, drinking a beer, talking about the Friday Night Football game. And the next minute he’s a scrambled egg. His mind, his body, and his emotions are very different.
So this is our active learning. I want you to look at the person to your right and to your left. And I want you to think: can you tell that this person has gone through some really traumatic event? Now I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands. But the answer is probably no, because we call it the hidden wound. I like to refer to it as the silent screen, because it’s very much in that person but most of us can’t see it, can’t hear it, and can’t feel it but they can, and they’re not going to talk about it.
Now I have been married to my husband for over 40 years. He’s a Vietnam vet. I didn’t know him before he went over, which is probably a good thing. On the other hand, I didn’t know what normal looked like for him.
So he arrived in country three weeks after his 21st birthday. He was one of the older ones. He was a second lieutenant. And on his first week there, he was sleeping in a tent with two other second lieutenants when a rocket exploded over their tent. One person was killed; one person lost an arm and a leg and he was injured, but not bad enough to be sent back home. It’s like welcome to Vietnam.
And after a few weeks when he was healed enough, they sent him on his first mission and that was out in the jungles of Vietnam where he stayed and lived day in and day out experiencing tremendous high doses of traumatic events that indelved with life and death experiences.
Now we had no idea where some of his — for the first 25 years where some of his strange over-the-top behaviors were coming from, like if he opened the refrigerator door and there was a certain smell that he didn’t like, he had a very abnormal event to that. Having toys or materials on the floor that shouldn’t be there, not a good thing in his eyes.
Now our military and our first responders are highly trained to be in abnormal events so that they have normal for them responses to be able to survive battle and even with all that training they cannot be inoculated against post-traumatic stress.
By definition, post-traumatic stress is an anxiety disorder that develops in reaction to a physical injury or a severe mental or emotional distress. Now I’m not going to name all the ways you can get post-traumatic stress. All you have to do is look on your cell phone, open a paper, turn on the news, and there’s millions of different types of ways you can get post-traumatic stress.
But here’s a fairly new one. And it’s happening to our young people. It’s called cyberbullying. And cyberbullying for a young mind puts them into that mental and emotional distress. In Larimer County — we’re not all that big – we had 81 suicides last year. Two of them were 11 years old, one was 12. If it takes a village to raise a child it will take a village to help support and heal the wounded, all of the wounded, at any age in our society.
And I’m going to take issue to the word disorder. We’re changing the language, because post-traumatic stress, by a neurological standpoint, is not a disorder; it’s a reordering of your neural networks and pathways and your sensory pathways, so that you can survive in a really dangerous situation. I tell my students here at CSU that the one reason you get a brain is not to pick out your girlfriend for a Saturday night date. It’s much more primal than that, although that might be pretty primal. But you get it to survive. The brain is organized so you, when you get in difficult situations, may live through that difficult situation. It helps you through that.
And I also tell my students experience gulps the brain. Good experiences, bad experiences, the brain doesn’t care. All it’s doing is taking information from the environment through our senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, that lets us know or green light everything’s okay, or yellow light that’s tolerable stress, it’s actually supposed to help us our immune system, I get that driving down the freeway and at 80 miles an hour, I see somebody texting, okay. And I’m no longer in tolerable stress.
I may go into that red zone, the toxic zone. This is the one, it’s what’s happening with the brain is that our prefrontal cortex, that may not all be all that developed anyway, is now starting to shut down, I can’t get information to it fast enough.
The hippocampus is getting shorter; that’s why we have short term memory. Example: I got in the shower today, turned off the water, and said, “Did I wash my hair?” I am Katniss in The Hunger Games.
And the amygdala — and the amygdala is what I call the traffic cop. It is where it starts getting the information for all the senses. And the amygdala does this: Oh goodness we’re in the red zone. I’m rallying the troops, I’m telling them to call into the hippocampus or the hypothalamus, the pituitary, the adrenal glands: release those stress hormones. Get me ready to fight and flight. So I release noradrenaline, epinephrine, cortisone, glucose, and it’s not going up here for me to think; it’s going into my limbs so I can fight the heck out of my way out. Or better yet, I’m going to run faster than any of the rest of you and be safe.
Now eventually our sensory systems become a little overwhelmed, you think. They become sensitized to what’s happening, so they’re easily triggered. We hear things that may not be there or we don’t hear things that are there. My husband blames me on not hearing what I’ve told him.
Vision: we see things that aren’t there and we don’t see things that are there, and driving down the highway that’s not a good thing to have. So in that brain change the sensory system, when it’s overloaded, looks like this. You become hyper-vigilant and hyper aroused. So we like to go on ski trips. We started our kids when they were toddlers and we had to be out of the house at 6:00 in the morning.