Sometimes our past and present lives can seem to blur, and often in ways we’re not fully in control of. Signs of anxiety—racing heartbeat, dry mouth, an urge to flee—need to be evaluated carefully to determine the underlying cause. Sometimes the cause is a traumatic incident, or series of incidents, that occurred in our past, and that our nervous system has not been able to process. The result is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. I actually prefer to call it Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, because I don’t think of it as a disorder, but really an ingenious coping mechanism.
When I counsel people who are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, I often begin by drawing a diagram. I explain how PTSD affects our brain and nervous system--just as a disease affects our body. Education is an important component of recovery. If we can begin to understand what is happening in our neuro-chemical system, we can begin to recognize signs of it and therefore begin to manage symptoms.
PTSD can be thought of as an extreme form of coping mechanisms that we use in less extreme forms every day. For example, in our everyday lives, if we see something upsetting or scary we may unconsciously pinch our eyes shut. This is actually a very normal, and somewhat effective response—it is a way of blocking out the upsetting image, and therefore keeping it from affecting our nervous system.
In cases where we have personally experienced trauma, our brains may do something similar to “pinching our eyes shut”—by storing the memory in what we might think of as a locked box. This is actually a separate neural memory system that, under most circumstances, we don’t have access to.
The problem occurs when we encounter something that reminds us—consciously or otherwise—of the traumatic event. And then what happens? The neural system storing the memory becomes reactivated, and we literally re-experience the memory—the lock box is open! Due to the traumatic nature of the memory, our “fight-or-flight” response takes over—we may panic (flight) or rage (fight), or whatever our body tells us is necessary in order to survive the event. Even though the event is in the past, our body does not know that.
The symptoms that someone feels while they are experiencing “flash-backs” are only part of this complex condition. Secondary symptoms can include social withdrawal, self-destructive behavior, or even suicidal impulses.
So how can someone recover from PTSD? The good news is that there are many effective approaches. I use body awareness techniques including breathing and movement to help you stay grounded; psycho-education about what “triggers” the memories in the lock box; mindfulness and guided visualization, and more.
Yes—there is hope for trauma survivors, and relief from symptoms of PTSD. If you would like to learn more, or are ready to take the first step toward healing – I encourage you to call me.