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Home » Janet Seahorn: Understanding PTSD’s Effects on Brain, Body, and Emotions (Transcript)

Janet Seahorn: Understanding PTSD’s Effects on Brain, Body, and Emotions (Transcript)

Janet Seahorn

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.

Now for any of you have had toddlers and you’re trying to get them awake, fed, and dressed by 6:00 in the morning, you better have a miracle on hand. At one minute after 6:00, my husband’s pacing. At two minutes after 6:00, he’s getting a little anxious. At three minutes after 6:00, now he’s irritable. And at four minutes after 6:00, he’s found language and it sounds like this: “Hurry up! You’re going too slow. What’s the matter with you. We planned on this last night. We were going to be in the car driving down the road at six o’clock in the morning.”

Well we eventually get there, although I didn’t want to be in that car with him and nor did my sons. And going down the road, Whoa! All of a sudden he’s singing, he’s happy. We’re a mess but now he’s in control, no worries, we made it past the danger.

Now, this is what we didn’t understand. We didn’t understand that in combat if you’re late people died. But subconsciously he knew that and that he carried with him: nightmares, night sweats, panic attacks, insomnia which really messes up the brain for short-term memory and also your immune system. You kind of need sleep.

Flashbacks, another story. We like to go to Allegis, a big amusement park in Denver. And my boys and myself, we would just go with neighbors and friends, except for this one Saturday. And my husband decided to go with us and we had a favorite ride. It was called the dragon. It looked like a dragon and it went up; some of you may know this, came down down fast pulling those Gs, went up, came down fast, we’re lovin’ this. We had hardly wait to get him on that ride. So we board and it goes up and it comes down and it goes up and it comes down. And I’m looking at my husband and he should be laughing but he’s turned white and ashen colored and he’s starting to say in a very anxious voice: “I’ve got to get off of this ride.” You have to make it stop. I have got to get off of this ride, and you can’t. It has ten more fun cycles.

As soon as he got off, he ran to a bathroom, threw up, came back. He’s this ashen color still and he says: “We have to go home. I’m really sick.” And we just thought it was that hot dog he ate for lunch, make sense blame everything on hot dogs. But this is what was really happening.

That ride triggered a flashback from when he was in Vietnam. And on one occasion he was flying right wing in helicopters and they had gone into a hot combat zone to remove some wounded military. They were all loaded on the helicopter. They were starting to take off 20, 30 feet off the ground. He, being right-wing, hadn’t quite buckled his seatbelt when the helicopter took a direct hit. He was blown out and when he landed he looked at himself and he was covered in the oil, the gas and the blood of everyone in that helicopter. That was his flashback. That’s what that fun ride did to him. It was anything but fun — those overwhelming waves of emotion that you would do anything to get rid of, just keep flowing. The personality changes where you’re more anxious, you’re more irritable, you may become angry, you may have feelings of detachment and you want to just isolate, because you no longer fit into that normal world. You used to but you don’t now.

And trying to be with all of you when I’m not normal, hey guys, you’re my triggers. There are days I don’t want to be around people and nor does he. Eventually that may make us feel different about who we are, how we live, how we proceed in our environment. And if you don’t get a handle on it, this is what happens is that your brain and your body start to wear out. High incidence of hypertension, you have chronic incidence of strokes and different types of heart attacks. We know we have obesity, we have diabetes, we have ulcers, we have chronic fatigue symptoms. There’s so many issues to our body when it starts to wear out.

But this is what we can do. This is the good news. We can start healing but it’s by doing something that helps us heal — things like we know that cognitive therapy and feedback — biofeedback work. We know that doing things like exercise helps us. We know and we’re getting smarter because if information is coming from our body, why not start working on our body first, like massage, yoga, tai chi, meditation, because what those are doing is resetting our breathing back to normal. We take a lot of that fly-fishing, because the motion of that fly back and forth mimics that good heartbeat and that healthy breathing.

We have our dog — he’s a service dog, Bailey, just stroking him helps. So there’s all kinds of positive things that we can do to heal and we’ve been practicing that for years.

In the end, it is not in the hoping that we might heal; it is in the doing that will help us move forward. And I can tell you at this time in our lives Maya Angelou says when we know better we do better, we know better and we practice hard. We’re going to win that Hunger Games. We’re going to be those survivors. And in spite of those traumatic experiences we have become stronger, we become more compassionate, not more doubtful. We definitely become more grateful for every single thing we have in our lives in our days, versus angry at things we don’t have or may have lost. And we’ve become wiser.

Marcel Proust says: in wisdom, you do not receive wisdom, you discover it within yourselves after a journey that no one can take for you or with you. And in our silence we say the serenity prayer which calms us down and we are learning to finally begin to bear what it once felt so unbearable to us and to heal what once felt so shattered.

Thank you.


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