Researchers exploring the connections between stress and memory may have explained part of how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) works, and they’ve done it by sending lab rats for a swim. One of the toughest symptoms of PTSD is trauma flashbacks that are triggered by seemingly unrelated circumstances and scenarios. This makes it difficult for a therapist or counselor to prepare his or her client for such a situation, as opposed to a clearly-related scenario that resembles a person or place involved in the trauma. Knowing that ordinary, unrelated memories can trigger trauma flashbacks, researchers at three academic institutions (Rockefeller University, the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center, and the Czech Republic’s Academy of Sciences) teamed up to explore how stress influences memory formation.
The study was fairly straightforward. First the researchers taught rats how to distinguish left from right within a T-shaped maze. The next day, they put some of the rats in a shallow pan of water and other rats in a bucket of water, the latter of which stressed the rats by requiring them to swim. Then they sent all of the rats back through the maze. Those who had been stressed performed better in the maze: their memories for learning left and right were stronger than they had been the day before, even though the maze had nothing to do with being forced to swim.
What does this tell counselors and therapists about PTSD? It explains how seemingly unrelated triggers can become triggers. When an individual experiences trauma, the stress of that situation can re-activate and enhance previous, non-traumatic memories. This connection, in itself, does not immediately alter the cognitive behavioral therapy used for PTSD counseling, but it may serve as the first step toward future progress. Our growing understanding of PTSD symptoms helps therapists treat patients living with the condition. Likewise, a growing understanding of how trauma impacts the brain may even help soldiers and others to minimize that impact in the first place, buffering against PTSD. With research continually growing, no one knows how this knowledge will be applied years from now.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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