Updated: Mar 28
By Armaan Singh
When one thinks about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, one might imagine soldiers delving into the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of Iraq, or the beaches of Normandy. However, PTSD extends beyond the military. PTSD—and other mental illnesses like depression—has seen a dramatic spike in America’s ghettos. The Borgen Project states that “living in poverty often means surviving daily in vulnerable conditions, and with financial instability that limits access to necessities such as food, shelter and water. The inability to pay for expenses starts to become emotionally and mentally taxing. Poverty acts as a traumatic experience in many people’s lives and even after graduating in class status, difficulty persists to enjoy day to day life.” PTSD is among the most common mental illnesses in high-crime neighborhood areas. To understand PTSD, we first need to understand the basic functions of the brain. PTSD is characterized by intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disturbances, changes in memory and concentration, and startled responses. Symptoms of PTSD are hypothesized to represent the behavioral manifestation of stress-induced changes in brain structure and function.
The brain sends signals through neurons, which are pathways to specialized regions of the brain. In dangerous situations (often called “fight or flight” situations), impulses are sent to the amygdala, and stress hormones, like adrenaline and norepinephrine, are released to boost your energy. Your heart begins to beat faster, and your brain puts some of its normal tasks, such as filing short-term memories, on pause. Your amygdala becomes like a natural alarm system. It recognizes things that it deems harmful and sends the brain to a fearful, alert, state. People who suffer from PTSD have an overactive amygdala. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, assesses fears and the validity of the threat; it recognizes threats and brings the brain back to its normal homeostasis. In PTSD the prefrontal cortex is underactive. In other words, the prefrontal cortex is the yin to the amygdala’s yang. The equivalent of PTSD is having a car where a brick is on the gas pedal and the brakes are broken. There is no way for the brain to escape panic mode. The process is interrupted and the yin and yang are out of sync—a rewiring of brain circuits occurs.
PTSD is often prevalent in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods like Canarsie, Brownsville, Compton, and areas of Chicago. Twenty-seven percent of students in LA Unified reported PTSD-like symptoms from exposure to trauma. The rate of adult psychiatric hospitalizations in Brownsville is more than twice the rates in Brooklyn and Manhattan. This likely results from the sheer number of amygdala-triggering situations in which these individuals find themselves. Studies indicate that it takes less than a month after traumatic events for PTSD to manifest. As a result of this, the amygdala becomes overactive and stays in that alert mode to be safe. Since the prefrontal cortex rarely has an opportunity to assess the situation -- and most perceived threats are, in fact, real threats -- it becomes underactive. It’s like going to the gym and working out on one arm but not using the other. One arm becomes muscular and strong whilst the other shrinks and becomes less flexible.
PTSD therapy is often recommended, but in many scenarios, it is ineffective. An upcoming treatment is the Stellate Ganglion Block. The operation “involves injecting a local anesthetic into the stellate ganglion. This group of nerve cells and nerves in the neck helps regulate the body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism.” The results seem promising so far and perhaps we can combat the PTSD epidemic as science progresses. Further studies are needed as well on greater interventions before traumatic experiences of poverty and crime occur. Building communities of trust and support and breaking cycles of poverty are indeed long-term, necessary goals.
What did I learn?
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Answer: PTSD is characterized by specific symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, flashbacks, nightmares, and sleep disturbances, changes in memory and concentration, and startled responses. Symptoms of PTSD are hypothesized to represent the behavioral manifestation of stress-induced changes in brain structure and function.
What is the amygdala?
Answer: The brain sends signals through pathways called neurons to specialized regions of the brain. In dangerous situations (penned fight or flight situations) impulses are sent to the part of the brain called the amygdala as stress hormones are released, like adrenaline and norepinephrine, to give you a burst of energy.