When the term, “PTSD” is mentioned, it is common for one’s mind to think of soldiers, in camouflage, on the battlefield with bombs exploding all around them, but this disorder is not exclusive to our amazing military hero’s.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is described by the Mayo Clinc as, “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” Anything, from the loss of a child, to a car accident, can trigger this in any of us no matter how strong we think we are.
On August 18, 2013, a beautiful sunshine-filled day, I was driving my car, preparing to make a left turn. While waiting for on-coming traffic to pass, the constant clicking noise of my turn signal warning others of my pending turn –- I was rear-ended. I will never forget the sight in my rear-view mirror. The other driver looked up and a look of pure terror consumed her features as she realized she was about to hit me. And yet, there was nothing I could do to change our fates – save watch in horror as it all unfolded around me in what seemed like slow-motion. To this day, as a result of this accident, I suffer from nightmares and other manifestations of PTSD.
Being a social-worker; on the front-lines with clients of all ages who often have mental health and addiction issues or are suffering from the traumatic results of these issues; it is my job to help guide people to healthier solutions — to heal their anguish. Yet after my own accident, while being aware of what I was feeling and why and knowing that my behavior was destructive, I was unable to affect a change — unable to heal myself. It felt as though I had been hi-jacked by a monster which had the real me locked away in a trunk, left to watch as it, using my body, set out on a path of reckless destruction … of my life! I was a helpless bystander.
In more technical terms, there is an internal struggle that occurs. While the human brain recognizes its reactions are “overkill,” the chemical response triggered bypasses this logic, causing the body to react physically to a serious threat, in a manner that is not a custom of the person or effective for the situation. A human’s instincts are very sharp and animal-like, the mind reverting to a time when it was “kill or be killed.” Your base survival instincts kick in on the most minor of details or situations and the brain translates what is not, in reality, a threat, and responds with a vengeance.
When suffering from PTSD, adrenaline and cortisol run rampant through the brain, creating dependence — an addiction and the body has become the drug dealer, deciding for you, when you will take it. As a result, the body becomes chemically unbalanced making even the meeting of your simplest needs (such as food and sleep), difficult or impossible to achieve.
In the average human body, these are good things designed to help us escape a perceived threat. The adrenal glands secrete the hormone Adrenaline, responsible for a variety of functions such as heart rate and blood pressure, which swiftly saturates the muscles giving the body a quick jolt of what some perceive as super-human strength and speed. At the same time, these same glands secrete another hormone called Cortisol which shuts down functions not needed during times of perceived threats, such as appetite and sleep preventing the body from being fatigued by hunger or the need for rest while danger is present.
In a person with PTSD, however, the brain perceives even safe and secure environments as threats be it through misunderstandings of surroundings, or even hallucinations by way of example. These happen frequently, triggering adrenaline and cortisol far too often for the human body to tolerate and thus, a chemical imbalance is created and we begin to self-destruct.
In my own case, these chemicals were so high in my body were so high that the thought of eating positively repulsed me. I couldn’t even prepare food for myself for five weeks, stomaching only coffee. To add insult to injury, I smoked incessantly, adding even more dangerous chemicals to my already over-taxed system, further compounding the problem. Of course I knew better and yet, I was helpless to do otherwise. By the time I was able to get the chemical levels low enough where I actually wanted to eat, my body rejected food. This went on for a further four weeks and all the while, I could not sleep! I needed to learn how to take care of my base needs all over again.
Although through my job, these were all things I understood very well and helped other people through, on a daily basis, I could not seem to help myself. I needed help! I needed a trauma trained professional who knew the right therapies to help me and my specific problem. I learned to be gentle and forgiving with myself as one does with a child when they learn to care for themselves for the first time. Through the help of my therapy, I also learned that it is not “me” who behaves so wretchedly, but the defender of the frightened child inside me that reacts over-protectively to what it perceives a threat. The body is biochemically geared to protect when the monster called “fear” is unleashed.
When seeking to understand and/or treat PTSD, it is important to note that present-day trauma education is still a very new perspective and is in the exploration, discovery and educational stages. If you suffer from PTSD, please find a therapist who is Trauma trained. This will provide you with a proper diagnosis and the most effective tools to help you find your path back to health, happiness and security. One of the websites I prefer, for information about treatment of both adults and children, is presented by the Trauma Institute at http://www.childtrauma.com.
In the end, the most important thing I’ve learned through my own experience, however, is that no one can heal by themselves! You must find help, a guiding light at the end of a very dark tunnel and that there is positively NO shame what-so-ever in getting that help, only in hiding from the problem!