I have written much about grief and my grieving process over the last few years. However, one of the things I have not talked about is trauma. Grief and trauma are related, but not the same. One can experience grief without having suffered a trauma, however one cannot suffer a trauma without encountering grief. My hope in writing and in sharing some of what I have learned/am learning, is to help others that have battled PTSD and the effects of trauma. Trauma is lonely, but we don’t have to be alone.
Trauma is defined as: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience
In writing I will primarily discuss physical trauma while at times referencing emotional trauma.
The brain is a fascinating thing. It can complete many complex tasks simultaneously and problem solve quickly. During a traumatic event the brain does something differently to help survive, it shifts the processing center from the new brain (dedicated to problem solving) to the area referred to as the old brain (dedicated to reflex behavior). In sensing that the body needs to respond quickly it moves the functioning to the reflex center. The shift in this processing is often referred to as fight or flight. The brain and body work in conjunction, the brain moving it’s processing center and the body releasing cortisol, a hormone that heightens senses and improves balance. While in the moment this helps to navigate the traumatic event, it has far reaching effects.
These effects can most often be seen through what are called flashbacks. Flashbacks can be caused due to processing center being shifted. In these moments, it is as if everything is being recorded. You will often hear trauma survivors reference how everything seemed to slow down. That is due to it being processed through the reflex portion of the brain. This portion of the brain is not meant to store memories. Flashbacks occur when the memories are stored in the wrong place. So your body is replaying them as if they are happening, therefore triggering all of the responses that were necessary in that moment. These flashbacks are caused by what can be defined as triggers. A trigger is something that causes the survivor to reference the misplaced memory. Due to everything being recorded, the trigger can vary from a smell or taste, a sound, a series of events, an image or a feeling. Triggers are sometimes hard to identify because they may be hidden below the surface.
These triggers and flashbacks can cause a behavioral shift. In this article I will share some of my story, but out of respect to the others that were with me, I will change their names and only reference the process and effects without crossing boundaries.
After I suffered trauma, I couldn’t eat. If I did eat, I couldn’t keep it down. My friend “Ted” was having vivid nightmares and wake up with a racing pulse. My other friend “Mark” would have periods of extreme anger and the compulsion to fight. This period was hellacious for me, us. I felt trapped, unable to explain what was going on, embarrassed at times, anxious about seemingly not being able to control the sudden deluge of impulses both physical and emotional.
We met with a trauma counselor a few days later. Let me take this opportunity to express that if you or someone you know has suffered an extreme trauma, I would urge you to see specifically a trauma counselor as soon as possible. The counselor cannot “fix” things. However when trained in the proper techniques, they can help to move the memories from the “old brain” to the proper processing center in the brain. These techniques can greatly aid in reducing the effects of triggers.
The counselor greatly helped us to understand not what happened, but how our bodies were responding to it and even processing it. My body was choosing not to eat, because during the trauma experienced, I had to run for help. The body knows that you run faster on an empty stomach. My body was trying to constantly stay prepared to be able to run at top speed, it was doing what it thought was necessary. “Ted” was suffering nightmares since his experience required him to critically think fast and be incredibly alert. Even in rest his brain was still at maximum alert, playing through scenarios and events. “Mark” was always wanting to fight because he viewed everything as a threat. The trauma was so unexpected that he was trying to remain prepared to minimize all threats.
So although we felt so out of control, the counselor helped us to see and understand. This helped greatly. What was also helpful was learning how to deal with triggers. What to do when a sequence of events triggers a flashback, causing the flood of physical, emotional and mental responses. Same responses, different situation.
PTSD in my case was/is learning how to deal with triggers. Not so much the explaining of the events that caused them, but how to function when the triggers are engaged.
The amount and severity of the trauma will determine the intensity of PTSD. What we found in our case was what is diagnosed as compounding trauma. This is when there is a rapid succession of traumatic events. These events don’t necessarily have to be back to back, but the new trauma occurs before the body has reached a healthy functioning level from the old trauma, therefore the emotions or responses are compounded. If you dealt with anxiety from the previous trauma and started to see it as a one time event is now verified as a realistic expectation. Others may view this as paranoia but for the victim of PTSD it is very much a reality. In some cases it isn’t that the victim is suffering anxiety, but rather may be in a state of heightened awareness. They see the risk that others are ignorant of or choose to ignore. Living with PTSD is like living with your outer protective layer of skin removed….you feel everything.
This heightened sense of awareness is overwhelming and transforming. This is another reason why counseling is so important. The counselor for me has acted as a protective layer due to mine being removed. The sessions help to deflect and shield what is so vulnerable.
My heart in writing about my experience is in hope that those who have also suffered trauma may know that they are not alone. My hope is that you will have hope. I am by no means over it, my triggers were activated a few days ago, but there is hope.
Next time I will write a bit more on my experience on dealing with triggers; and for all of those who know someone with severe trauma or PTSD, how to help them with these.
May God bless you and keep you, May He cause His face to shine upon you, and give you peace.