“Traumas are an injury. And while injuries are not our fault we do have the capability to heal.”
When we experience stressful, life-threatening, or life-changing events, our mind and body prioritize survival functions that lead to a fight, flight, or freeze response. Our prefrontal cortex which is responsible for language and higher reasoning is less active, because our brain is trying to protect us by directing resources towards essential body functions. Memories may be encoded differently leading to gaps in memory, or strong associations between traumatic feelings and a seemingly benign trigger like a particular sound or smell.
This response isn’t a choice, but rather a deeply encoded survival mechanism originating with our early ancestors. When experiencing stressful or frightening events our body is adapted to focus on giving us the energy to escape, or to defend ourselves. For some of us this response can be exciting or invigorating, but if the neurochemical conditions of the fight/flight/freeze response can’t be reset to normal, we may feel that we are experiencing the traumatic event over and over. Trauma can vary in manifestation and severity. We may be unusually afraid of or stressed out by something that others find mundane, or we may find ourselves completely unable to function. At the highest point of severity trauma can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Some people who experience trauma develop PTSD. Symptoms can emerge instantaneously, or over time as the person’s brain fully absorbs the impact of the traumatic experience. While not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, the severity of the trauma, family history of mental illness, and your unique neurochemical makeup can make you more susceptible than others.
PTSD commonly manifests as intrusive traumatic memories that interfere with a person’s ability to function. These memories cause intense physical and emotional reactions as if the traumatic event is repeating in the present, and can arise in response to a specific trigger, or appear out of nowhere. The sufferer may lose touch with reality as the feelings and memories consume them, and behave uncharacteristically. They may lose their temper easily and have disproportionate reactions to everyday issues, or they may shut down in an effort to protect themselves and become distant. Sometimes these changes in mood and personality are accompanied by self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, or casually engaging in life-risking activities like driving at excessive speed as the person struggles to manage or escape from their feelings. Many PTSD sufferers experience sleep disruption due to intense and disturbing nightmares.
Some of the more commonly known causes of trauma and PTSD include experiencing a physical assault, engaging in a career like active combat or nursing in an intensive care unit, or surviving a natural disaster. You don’t have to have direct experience of a traumatic event to be affected by trauma and PTSD. Other lesser known causes include witnessing trauma to others, or even learning someone you love was affected by a traumatic event. To be formally diagnosed with PTSD symptoms must affect you for more than a month and interfere with your ability to cope and function in day-to-day life.
How can a therapist help you process trauma and manage PTSD symptoms?Talking about traumatic memories with a trained therapist can help you feel more grounded and connected in the midst of these overwhelming emotions. It can also provide some needed distance between you and the trauma, and a safe space to re-evaluate your feelings around the traumatic memories. By gradually confronting the experience in a supportive therapeutic environment you can desensitize yourself to the fear your memories cause, and build skills to manage it more healthily.