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  • Writer's pictureDr. David Bonanno

Even Science Cannot Explain PTSD

For years now the hot topic in psychology has been PTSD. But who can say what PTSD is? Go online to any website and you’ll see the same vague rhetoric that does not even amount to a definition. The best you can find is just a list of symptoms. I talk all the time to different people who have massive PTSD and barely understand it for themselves. Sadly, most therapists and doctors do not get it. Most people believe that PTSD is only for combat veterans or people who survive the worst imaginable things in life. How can you get better if you don’t even understand what’s going on with you?

I felt crazy for years. Do you feel like you are crazy? I often had no idea at all why I felt and acted the way I did, even after I became a psychologist! I had diagnoses of depression and anxiety, but that didn’t embody what I was going through at all. Worse, I could not explain myself to anyone else, so when I acted “crazy”, that is just what we called it. Would you like to better understand yourself? Would you like to understand why your doctors and therapists usually do not understand what is going on? Please read on!

I have had the opportunity to evaluate thousands of people who suffer from PTSD. Most of them were undiagnosed or had been wrongly diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. I became a psychologist so I could figure out why people do the things that they do. It took me years to conclude that we have two different brain systems that work at the same time and are often completely at odds with each other.

The fundamental problem with research and writing about trauma is that everyone tries to explain unconscious, emotional phenomena with logical, conscious terms. They do not translate! Science cannot yet fully explain unconscious phenomena such as dreaming, meditation, mindfulness, or hypnosis. So why do people try so hard to put the round, wordless, emotional peg of PTSD into such a square hole? Our brains always sacrifice accuracy for certainty. It’s comforting to at least feel like we know everything works in our environment, whether that is true or not. But it’s time now to lose tired metaphors such as our brain is a computer, or a recording device, etc. and look for the truth. Understanding PTSD requires opening our minds and looking at it in an entirely different way.

Many brilliant people have tried to reduce PTSD into as many small parts as possible to try to better understand and explain PTSD. That doesn’t work. The answer is not in the trees. It’s in looking at the forest a different way. Look at any book about brain science. They get so complicated so fast. And because they are so thoroughly intellectually square, they miss the round point. Dr. Stephen Porges is a celebrated brain scientist who conceived of polyvagal theory. It discusses parts of human development and how there is a nerve that runs from our gut to our brain. It explains how people feel safe and affiliated with others unless trauma derails its functioning. The book was so long and complicated that only other brain scientists could read it. So then he wrote the pocket guide. I couldn’t get through the first chapter. And there’s no way it could fit in my pocket.

The number one thing I’ve noticed patients are looking for is understanding. They want to know why they are the way they are. They have their eureka moment when I tell them this:

When a person is subjected to trauma or unhealthy conditions, their brain changes to adapt. It’s a healthy response to an unhealthy situation.

They end up having much more adrenaline than other people because they need to be ready to deal with the next awful thing. The fight or flight system becomes engaged to some degree and never fully shuts down. That’s why it’s so difficult for people to sleep or relax and be comfortable in their skin. This has nothing to do with the logical part of our brain, so we can’t use logic to reason our way out of it. If you are surging with adrenaline, you can’t command your body to stop that. It would be like trying to talk yourself out of being drunk. No matter how many times your therapist or loved ones think you should remind yourself that you are safe, it’s not going to work.

We are drawn to what makes sense to us at face value. Remember how I said that we always sacrifice accuracy for certainty? Even scientists end up doing that. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is by far the most studied form of therapy because it is the most easily studied. It makes the most sense to our logical brains right off the bat. That doesn’t mean that it’s effective for treating anything other than cognition. Imagine seeing someone looking for his wallet in the bushes underneath the streetlight. You ask him where he last had it and he says, “Over there.” Well… why are you looking for it here then? Because there is no light over there!”

A famous medical doctor named Daniel Amen makes boatloads of money charging people for doing brain scans. He says he can diagnose and treat disorders by studying the structures and functioning of your brain. That made a lot of sense to me at face value but then when I investigated it, I saw that there’s no scientific evidence at all to support its efficacy. People and especially hyper-logical research scientists would do well to expand their minds enough to look at things in different ways.

I love these two quotes: “Science sharpens the mind by narrowing it.” and, “Science advances as its members die.” People get so committed to the one lens through which they look, that they close themselves off to the truth. This blog is not an attack on science. Science is awesome. I wish that it would catch up in terms of understanding The Mind. Or at least stop confusing the mind with the brain. If you would like to know much more about PTSD and how your mind works, please read our current and upcoming content. Thanks!

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