Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been around for thousands of years, but has had lots of different names like shell shock, war neurosis and combat stress reaction. It was in the 1980s that the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was introduced and for most of us we know it’s as unresolved issues stemming back from a traumatic event. Your mind is like a library and PTSD is essentially a memory filing error, whereby your mind couldn’t deal with the feelings caused by a traumatic event. There are lots of people exposed to traumatic events that experience some short-term distress, which naturally resolves without the need for professional help, but unfortunately the people who do develop the disorder are unlikely to seek help.
PTSD suffers can often feel that there isn’t a solution for it and that they don’t want to look back and try and resolve it as it holds way too much fear for them. Instead most people battle on despite their symptoms and their quality of life suffers because of it. In fact, evidence shows 70% of people who suffer with PTSD in the UK do not receive any professional help at all. The disorder can be very toxic, not only for the person suffering from this, but it will also impact their family, loved ones, work colleagues and in fact at times everyone they meet in life.
The defining characteristic of a traumatic event is its capacity to provoke fear, helplessness, or horror in response to the threat of injury or death. Examples of traumatic events include: serious accidents, bereavement, mugging, being told you have a life-threatening illness, violent personal assault, such as a physical attack, sexual assault, burglary, robbery, military combat, miscarriage, natural or man-made disasters, terrorist attack, prolonged bullying, traumatic childbirth, childhood neglect and shock.
Being exposed to a traumatic event can happen in several different ways too, from being the person to experience the traumatic event, witnessing a traumatic event, the trauma of learning someone close to you experienced or was threatened by the traumatic event. Also, if you are repeatedly exposed to graphic details of traumatic events like policemen, ambulance and fire men as the first responders to the scene of events. All of these can cause PTSD as the mind can’t process what is happening or cope in the way it would normally in life. The mind has to respond in the one of the fight, freeze and flight responses, such as freezing on the spot as they can’t run away, fight or escape the trauma.
While your mind is in this mode it doesn’t function in the ‘normal’ way. Until the danger passes the mind does not produce a memory for this traumatic event in the way it usually does. The memories such as what happened, the emotions associated with the trauma plus the sensations touch, taste, sound, vision, movement, and smell can be presented by the mind in the form of nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive unwanted memories. When your mind tries to file this memory, it can be very distressing and some people re-experiences the event in flashbacks, understandably this is very unpleasant and frightening because they get repeatedly exposed to the original trauma.
Your mind is like a massive library and everything has its place and needs to be filed back on the right shelf, in the correct section and in the correct order. In the moment of trauma your mind stops this natural process of filing and then just starts dumping things in a pile in your library. More things come in and get added to the pile of unfilled and unprocessed papers and books. The thoughts of going back to sort this out, are of course associated with fear and the trauma of the event and each time this is put off, or time passes then your mind becomes more anxious about sorting this out. If your trauma was years ago then you can imagine the impact on your mind and if you did go back to it would you know where everything needs to go? And in fact, you may feel way too afraid to even look, let alone read then to know where they should go. For many people, this is why they don’t seek help because its scarier to go back to sort this out, than it is to keep going carrying this burden in their minds, feeling the horrific impact on their daily lives. This cycle will continue until you ask someone for help, someone who can help you understand where the books and papers go, or at the very least can help you find out what you need to know, in order to help file them.
People with PTSD can find it difficult to control their emotions and suffer intense symptoms of anxiety, phobias and fears. This anxiety can present itself in physical ways like shortness of breath, tight muscles, profuse sweating and a racing heart as well as emotionally hyper-vigilance, angry, tearful, on edge and a constant feeling of foreboding. Hyper-arousal can increase emotional response, but lots of PTSD sufferers also feel emotionally and psychically numb and have trouble communicating with others and even being around other people. There are so many symptoms of PTSD and for everyone there is often a completely different reaction or set of them, even if two people are exposed to the same trauma event doesn’t mean they will have the same level of symptoms and issues. Quite often, the feelings and symptoms of PTSD become so unmanageable and uncomfortable, that the sufferer starts to avoid anything that has any connection to the original trauma which, as you can imagine, can massively impact their day to day life.
The brain is programmed to process memories, but if you avoid things like thinking about the trauma, plus things linked or similar to it, the less likely is it that any memory processing will occur. This then then leads to more books and papers not being put away where they should be and the pile of unfiled books and papers continues to grow. These cycles grow and can lead to further nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive memories, which lead on to further hyper-arousal and emotional numbing, and in turn can lead on to more avoidance and so on. This is how the symptom clusters perpetuate themselves in a vicious cycle, which can go on for years and why some PTSD sufferers manage for such a long time without help, but eventually the symptoms become unmanageable or just a small event can trigger you into being unable to cope in this way anymore.
Following a trauma, for the majority of people, the immediate psychological reactions will settle down, but for many people we either get used to feeling this way or these reactions can get stuck and over time become chronic. At this point you would be listed as having PTSD, to overcome this your mind needs to process the unprocessed trauma and refile and organise your minds library. This is why therapies such as EMDR aimed at helping the individual to process and work through the traumatic material are extremely beneficial.
Over the last 25 years I have helped many people deal with their trauma and understand this on a deep level, having recovered from my own complex trauma issues. Over the next few weeks the blogs will explore this is more detail to help you understand this in more detail. I also see that many people hold this on a very small level too not like the extremes of PTSD that consume your whole life, but it can just be effecting a small area of your life. If this is you then it’s time to acknowledge this might be happening, it may not have the severe responses of full blown PTSD, but can be stopping you from moving on from fears and issues that are impacting your ability to be the best version of yourself.
Thanks for dropping by Sara x