It’s natural to be afraid after something scary or dangerous happens. When you feel you’re in danger, your body responds with a rush of chemicals that make you more alert. This is called the “flight or fight” response. It helps us survive life-threatening events.
But the brain’s response to frightening events can also lead to chronic problems. This can include trouble sleeping; feeling on edge frequently; being very easily startled, anxious, or jumpy; having flashbacks; or avoiding things that remind you of the event.
Sometimes these symptoms go away after a few weeks. But sometimes they last much longer. If symptoms last more than a month and become severe enough to interfere with relationships or work, it may be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“There are real neurobiological consequences of trauma that are associated with PTSD,” explains Dr. Farris Tuma, who oversees the NIH traumatic stress research program. NIH-funded researchers are uncovering the biology behind these brain changes and looking for ways to prevent and treat PTSD.
What is Trauma?
“Most people associate post-traumatic stress symptoms with veterans and combat situations,” says Dr. Amit Etkin, an NIH-funded mental health expert at Stanford University. “However, all sorts of trauma happen during one’s life that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms.”
This includes people who have been through a physical or sexual assault, abuse, an accident, a disaster, or many other serious events.