Posttraumatic stress is a mental disorder within the group of disorders related to trauma and stress factors. It is characterized by the appearance of specific symptoms after exposure by an individual to a stressful and/or traumatic event. It is a psychopathology that is highly debilitating for the patient, often neutralizing them to the extent that they become suicidal.
Our body has evolved over thousands of years and has enabled us to reach the tip of the evolutionary pyramid, thanks to a highly adaptive development of our organic systems. We have a brain that enables us to apply reasoned and logical analysis to the information we collect from our medium or environment, which allows us to interact with our environment in a very efficient, effective and more adaptive way.
But our cerebral cortex is not the only tool that has enabled us to get where we are today. We do not have powerful teeth, claws or muscles… There are many animals that are stronger, faster, more dangerous to us. To defend ourselves from them and from other possible threats as quickly and as efficiently as possible, our nervous system has an autonomous branch (that, as its name indicates, works automatically), which modulates part of our emotional response, all of our phylogenetic fight-flight defense system.
This fight-flight system enables us, when our senses detect a possible threat, to mobilize all of our organic resources to respond as operatively as possible. Evolution has modulated two main responses: we either face the threat, fight; or we run away from it, flight.
When we face an event that is perceived to be stressful (an accident, separation, phobias, illness, abuse, violence, death, etc.), this fight-flight system is highly active, so much so that it can even produce different negative effects on our cortical systems, memory, perception of time, perception of effort, etc. Depending on the intensity of the traumatic event and/or time of exposure, this response that had protected our species for thousands of years and enabled us to adapt to our environment can cause alterations in our brain that can turn into the dreaded posttraumatic stress disorder. Thus, the connection between the two halves of our brains, which is connected by the corpus callosum, may be affected, preventing proper cross communication between them, making it impossible to assimilate and consolidate the information from the traumatic event experienced.
This communication failure between the two halves has been marked as one of the possible causes at the structural level of this type of stress-related psychopathology and, more recently, new studies suggest that hyperactivity in one branch of the autonomous nervous system that we mentioned above could be the cause of these dysregulations.
In our case, we have spent nine years working in the area of combat psychophysiology, analyzing stress response in combatants and the effect on different organic systems. We have shown how situations of uncertainty, in which uncontrollability is maximum and the certainty of threat against life and limb is maximum, the response of this autonomous nervous system is also maximum. Here we can identify two branches: one that controls the stress response and activation that prepares us to face threats, the sympathetic autonomous nervous system; and the branch that does the exact opposite, it places the organism into a state of homeostasis, a state of calm and recovery. This is the parasympathetic branch.
In this military context, regardless of the type of action taken (parachute jumps, jumps from a height, symmetrical combat, asymmetrical combat, close-quarters combat, on cliffs, in rescue missions, subterfuge, etc.) and regardless of the unit (whether light infantry, heavy infantry, special operations, mountain operations, expeditionary forces, etc.), there is a high response from this sympathetic nervous system. Other researchers, primarily from the United States, when evaluating the state of the autonomous nervous system in combat veterans, saw that those with stress-related pathologies, such as posttraumatic stress, had sustained hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system caused by prolonged exposure to a highly demanding environment in which they had to face a multitude of stressful events. Since then, a number of interventions from the field of psychopharmacology and psychological intervention have attempted to treat it, with results that alleviated acute symptoms, but that achieved continuous improvement over time. With this background, our working group suggested a comprehensive intervention for military personnel that sought to treat the problem before it could occur. Thus, preparation was undertaken prior to the mission with a military unit before deploying to the operations zone, to improve the response of their autonomous nervous system before facing the stressful context of an international mission, in an attempt to avoid the activation of the nervous system when reaching pathological limits. In just six weeks, we achieved it, and after their mission their autonomous nervous system showed an even better response than before going on the mission, with no incidence of stress-related psychopathologies. It was an important discovery that helps us better understand the psychophysiology of this type of highly destructive pathology, and it encourages us to continue our research, in order to contribute another grain of sand to this knowledge structure. This research, like the rest undertaken by the applied psychophysiology group, seeks to apply the currently developed knowledge base directly to improve some area of life. In this case, it was military personnel, but it is also being applied to the areas of health, education, sport and in the penitentiary context.