PTSD impacts your brain and nervous system. This can lead to physiological effects — like headaches, inflammation, and heart trouble — long after the traumatic event.
When a mental health issue has physiological effects, this means it affects your physical health. For example, stress might give you a headache or nausea.
Physiology is a type of biology that studies bodily functions, including cells, tissues, and organ systems.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause a range of physical symptoms, including those that may not seem connected to the trauma you’ve been through. For example, you might experience extreme fatigue and muscle aches with no clear cause. Higher blood pressure, joint pain, and headaches are other possible effects.
There are various PTSD treatments available. Finding one that’s the right fit can help you feel better emotionally and physically.
Your fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in when your body perceives danger. This response causes physical adaptations meant to protect you, like an increased heart rate to help you run faster. Extra hormones, like epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol, and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), enter your bloodstream.
This response is supposed to be short-lived and the effects pass quickly for many people who experience a traumatic event. But for some, the state persists and becomes PTSD.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, while 50% to 60% of people experience trauma in their lives, around 6% of people develop PTSD.
Trauma can affect your body long after the traumatic event has ended, and post-traumatic symptoms like hypervigilance, anxiety, and distressing memories can place considerable strain on the body.
PTSD can cause a range of physiological effects, including:
- sleep changes
- reduced immune system function
- chest pain
- stomach upsets
- muscular aches and pains
- increased inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body
Over time, high levels of inflammation can lead to health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. People living with PTSD may have a higher risk of these complications.
Chronic PTSD can also lead to the early onset of aging-related conditions like:
- major neurocognitive disorder (dementia)
- other neurocognitive disorders
- chronic pain
- heart attack, stroke, and diabetes (cardiometabolic disease)
Physical symptoms like pain might remind you of the event that caused your PTSD. This in turn can make your symptoms worse.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) drives your fight, flight, or freeze response. This is part of the autonomic nervous system, the system that controls involuntary processes like heart rate and blood pressure.
The SNS has nerves responsible for sensory input and motor output. It monitors your environment and responds with the right amount of activation in the event of a crisis.
When your SNS is activated, your body pauses less critical functions, like digesting food. Instead, it prepares you for action with a few physiological changes:
- increased heart rate
- increased blood pressure and blood vessel volume
- glycogenolysis (converting glycogen stored in the liver into glucose to fuel the body)
- gastrointestinal peristalsis (muscle movement) stops
- widened pupils
- reduced urine output
- widened airways
- decreased enzyme and insulin secretion
- increased sweating
The amygdala is the part of your brain that sets these changes in motion. These physiological responses are helpful if there’s a real danger, but with trauma, the amygdala can’t tell the difference between a new threat and the memory of one that has passed.
If you live with PTSD, your amygdala may be too responsive. If something reminds you of past trauma, your SNS might activate even when it doesn’t have to. This means you spend a lot of time experiencing stress.
PTSD also impacts other areas of your brain.
A 2017 study found that PTSD causes changes to a brain region called the hippocampus. It’s the hippocampus that tells your amygdala whether a threat is real. When it can’t do this correctly, this contributes to the exaggerated anxiety you may be experiencing.
Trauma can also affect your prefrontal cortex. Often dubbed the “CEO of the brain,” its executive functioning abilities may be less active because of PTSD. This makes it harder for you to think clearly in the face of a trauma reminder or memory.
Therapy and medication are the main treatments for PTSD, and self-care strategies can also help.
In addition to easing current PTSD symptoms, therapy can also make their recurrences less bothersome. Sometimes it can even eliminate them.
Therapy helps by teaching you to recognize and change unhelpful thought patterns that may lead to unwanted behaviors.
A 2015 study compared seven types of PTSD therapy and found they covered similar topics:
- emotional regulation
- imaginal exposure
- cognitive processing and restructuring
- memory processes
Most types of therapy can offer some benefit, but choosing a therapy customized for trauma may be more helpful for PTSD.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, therapies that may be most effective for PTSD include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- cognitive processing therapy
- cognitive therapy
- prolonged exposure
Other therapies are conditionally recommended, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and narrative exposure therapy.
It’s important to remember that you can try more than one type if the therapy you start with doesn’t seem like the right fit.
Antidepressant medication may help with PTSD symptoms. Antidepressants that a doctor might prescribe for PTSD include:
- sertraline (Zoloft)
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- paroxetine (Paxil)
- venlafaxine (Effexor)
All four medications are effective for treating major depressive disorder (MDD). According to the American Psychological Association, MDD occurs with PTSD about 50% of the time.
Another helpful approach to managing PTSD is to prioritize self-care. You can do this in several ways:
- improved nutrition
- regular exercise
- consistent sleep schedule
- mindfulness training
- social support
- an enjoyable hobby
Mindfulness training may help by calming the fight, flight, or freeze response of your autonomic nervous system.
A 2017 meta-analytic investigation found that PTSD interventions with more mindfulness training were better at reducing the participants’ symptoms.
If it feels overwhelming to make several changes at once, it may be easier to start with one and add others when you’re ready. Even small lifestyle adjustments can make a difference.
If you’re living with PTSD, you don’t have to manage it alone. You may have friends or family members who can give you support if you ask.
If you have a primary care physician, consider having a conversation with them. They may be able to connect you with helpful resources.
PTSD treatment may reduce the impact of your symptoms. As the psychological issues from your condition improve, the physical effects can, too.
If you want to learn more about starting therapy, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help. You can also visit Psych Central’s PTSD resources and trauma resources for more insights and information.