War changes the human brain

The brutality of the fighting and the destruction it caused is changing the minds of everyone in Ukraine today, from soldiers to adult civilians and children.

War sharpens normal defense mechanisms: the sounds of bombs or gunshots around you trigger the fear mechanism in your brain. As the father of fear research, Joseph Ledoux, describes, the structures of the limbic system, that is, the system of emotions located at the center of our brain, send out a hereditary signal to prepare for flight or fight.

The central structure of fear, the amygdala, triggers a chemical cascade of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which increase the heart rate and prepare us to mobilize the body for battle. Even our short-term memory is suspended. And the more intense and prolonged the stimulus, the more these mechanisms are tested, especially if fight and flight are impossible. This follows from what medicine now calls post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

The two great wars, the Vietnam War, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, have made it possible to study the effects of war stress on the brain. A rather troubling overall picture emerges of the long-term effects of combat exposure on both soldiers and the public.

Post-traumatic stress disorder causes the brain to remain on high alert even after the threat has passed. The amygdala in patients remains active, and the area responsible for memory – the hippocampus – is reduced. This leads to abnormal behavior. These people experience flashbacks, sleep problems, emotional numbness, tantrums, and guilt that begin less than three months after the injury. But this is a latent syndrome, because it happens that the symptoms appear more than a year later. Without treatment, with the help of psychotherapy or antidepressants, whose success is not always guaranteed, victims can live in this hell for the rest of their lives.

Various scans using medical imaging have shown serious and often irreversible changes in the brains of military personnel who have participated in combat operations. One of these studies, published in 2021 and involving German soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Mali among others, reports a decrease in the size of the prefrontal cortex, important for everyday decision making, and the thalamus, a structure that acts as a pivot in processing information from our senses: hearing, sight and touch. For researchers, these changes are harbingers of mental health problems that may arise in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, such as depression and anxiety.

Impact on the adult population

Many Ukrainians will not see the fighting directly. But thousands more will witness violent shootings or bombings. Experiencing these events causes a host of mental health issues. A comprehensive review of the work on this subject speaks volumes. For example, after the conflict in Afghanistan, a study found that 67% of the population suffered from depressive symptoms, 72% from anxiety, and 42% from post-traumatic stress. The same applies to all countries that have been victims of armed conflicts, whether in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa or Southeast Asia. And everywhere women seem more vulnerable to the atrocities of war. Scientific studies also show that anxiety and distress are at their peak in mothers, regardless of the child’s age, from pregnancy to adulthood.

Impact on children

Even though toddlers can adapt and often don’t understand the reality of conflict, some research shows a real impact on their brains. In a longitudinal study of children who survived the 2019 Vietnam War, bombing survivors under the age of five had higher rates of depression as adults than the general population. These results confirm their authors’ belief that the ground needs to be set in order to come to the aid of children as soon as the fighting is over, with significant psychological support.

What about us?

The fighting is currently thousands of miles away from Quebec, but it’s really only inches from our eyes as images of this horror flood our screens on a daily basis. Therefore, we are not immune from the consequences of this war for our brain. A US study found that high consumption of images of the war in Iraq and September 11, 2001 – four hours a day – can lead to negative physical and psychological reactions, including post-stress symptoms. after the event.

Viewing these images through the media, even just once, can also trigger a crisis in those already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And there are more than you can imagine. According to American data, 8% of people will suffer from such a syndrome during their lifetime.

More than half of the population will experience a traumatic emotional experience at one time or another. But the syndrome will not appear in everyone. Factors such as childhood abuse, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or traumatic experiences, among others, increase the risk.

We can only wish each other a speedy exit from this conflict, because science proves to us that the longer the war, the greater the damage to the brain.

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