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PTSD Brain Study Reveals People’s Experiences Are Unique

By April 1, 2024Blog
PTSD healing

Whilst post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) are very serious conditions, people do casually throw around labels such as ’trauma’, ‘traumatised’ and ‘PTSD’, without really knowing the meaning of them. But if we consider actual PTSD and CPTSD, it’s important to know that your personal experience may differ vastly to the experiences of others.

No two situations are ever the same and, therefore, no two recovery processes are the exact same either.

And so, if you’ve been reading an article that doesn’t fully resonate, or watching a video that doesn’t quite represent what you’re currently going through, don’t worry, that’s normal.

As elating as it can be to read an article that puts into words what you have experienced, it can be equally frustrating to feel that the exact right description of your experience is evading you. So allow me to help you with this by sharing a recent study that demonstrates just how unique each person’s experience of PTSD actually is.


PTSD Overview

First, here is a well-written description of PTSD courtesy of Hoppen et al. (2024); and we’ll come back to their research later on:

‘About 4% of individuals worldwide have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),1 which is a condition characterised by intrusive traumatic memories, avoidance, negative alterations in cognitions and mood, and increased arousal.2 Exposure to multiple (vs single) traumatic events is associated with higher prevalence and severity of PTSD and more emotion regulation difficulties, interpersonal problems, and overall functional impairment.3,4’ [1].


Traumatic Memories Vs. Sad Memories In People With PTSD

Researchers Perl et al. (2023) enlisted 28 participants with PTSD (average age of 38.2 years; 11 female) to see if they could determine any brain differences as they underwent a reactivation of traumatic memories when compared with ‘regular’ sad memories [2].

The participants shared their personal traumatic memories, ‘sad’ memories, and ‘calm’ memories and these were used to form scripts which were then read back to them whilst undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The scripts used based on the real life memories the participants had shared, depicted similar themes across the participants.

The researchers found that listening to narratives that represented sad autobiographical memories with similar themes, elicited similar neural activity across the PTSD participants. But in contrast, when they listened to thematically similar traumatic autobiographical memories, the neural activity patterns differed significantly between the participants; they didn’t match at all.

Not only were there no distinguishable patterns between participants for traumatic memories of a similar theme, each person’s own brain showed very different responses to listening to narratives about their own sad memories vs. their own traumatic memories. The researchers conclude that ‘…these findings suggest that traumatic memories are an alternative cognitive entity that deviates from memory per se’.

So traumatic memories are not represented in the brain like normal memories. This is helpful to know because it enables you to consider them as an alternative brain function, not necessarily a memory malfunction, and provides a new reason for why, in the case of these findings, the hippocampus should be factored into treatments.

And it also helps you to understand why those traumatic memories that haunt you in your waking life and sleeping life (in the form of nightmares), can be so stressful to experience, difficult to mentally process, and hard to explain to others, particularly in the early to mid stages of PTSD. Because they don’t work like normal memories. And because they work differently to other people’s brains processing traumatic memories of a similar theme.

Clearly, your PTSD experience is indeed unique to you, and your subsequent healing journey will also be equally unique. So don’t let other people tell you how you should feel, nor how quickly you should heal.

Do heal as quickly as you can, but don’t compare your experience to others. Healing from PTSD is a painful and arduous journey. And often times it can feel as though you have healed fully only to have life give you a wake up call, or several, telling you that you’re not quite done yet. This can be due to:

(a) areas you simply had not healed yet, neurologically, physiologically, psychologically,

(b) retraumatisation due to current triggers that remind you of your past trauma, and/or

(c) a real, new threat in the present.

It is all for your benefit though, so embrace the lows so that they may shape the highs to come.


How To Heal From PTSD

While there are a number of factors to consider for your unique healing journey and whilst there are different regions in your brain that you will need to ‘rehabilitate’, or rewire, for the sake of brevity, one important avenue for your healing is talking things out with someone, whether a friend, or a therapist/coach.

Whilst a friend may help you to feel heard and understood, and that in itself can have significant healing properties, psychotherapy/coaching can provide you with the additional benefits of equipping you with the practical tools for healing.

And psychological interventions have been found to be highly effective for treating PTSD in both those who have experienced a single traumatic event and those who have endured multiple traumatic events [1].

Researchers analysed data from 137 studies with 10,684 participants at the beginning of those studies and 9,477 participants with post-treatment data (average age of 40.2 years; 54% female).

The participants in the various studies analysed had gone through different types of both trauma-focused and non-trauma-focused psychological interventions such as cognitive behaviour therapy, psychotherapy, and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing.

The researchers explain that their analyses suggests that psychological interventions could also be effective for treating the additional disturbances experienced by those suffering from complex PTSD, and I agree. The additional disturbances can also be treated in this way, they just require additional interventions and time. Time is a great healer when coupled with the right approach.

If you don’t yet feel ready to talk to a professional because they are a stranger and you don’t yet feel safe enough doing so, please speak to someone you trust who will give you their undivided attention, compassion, listen to and understand what you are saying, and validate your experiences. These are crucial components so let me repeat those:

  • make you feel safe,
  • give you their undivided attention,
  • are compassionate towards you,
  • listen to and understand what you are saying,
  • validate your experiences.


Your Unique Experience

Your experience is unique. Not only how your trauma has affected your mind/body but also, specifically, your brain. The different brain regions that have been affected will have been affected to a different extent/severity to others and, therefore, the nature of your PTSD experience will be different to that of others.

Your healing journey will also be unique to you – the highs, the lows, the low lows, the back and forth you may experience, and the ultimate time it takes to heal.

You can’t outrun it, you have to walk through it. If you try to outrun it, life will catch up with you and pull you back to walk the bit you tried to sprint past. And when you think you’re done, you might not be done. But don’t worry, you will be.

It’s just that sometimes life will come along and give you experiences that reveal the healing that still remains to be done. It’s like that saying of you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes, you don’t know what you haven’t healed until circumstances reveal it to you. For you. For your bright, light, happy, safe future. So undertake that journey with hope and patience because the rest of your life eagerly awaits you.



1. Hoppen, T. H., Meiser-Stedman, R., Kip, A., Birkeland, M. S., & Morina, N. (2024). The efficacy of psychological interventions for adult post-traumatic stress disorder following exposure to single versus multiple traumatic events: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. The Lancet. Psychiatry, 11(2), 112–122.

2. Perl, O., Duek, O., Kulkarni, K. R., Gordon, C., Krystal, J. H., Levy, I., Harpaz-Rotem, I., & Schiller, D. (2023). Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD. Nature Neuroscience, 26(12), 2226–2236.