This post was originally a guest blog I wrote for http://healmyptsd.com
“Heal My PTSD” is a support group for survivors with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
All PTSD is not the same. As survivors, we have different traumas and different experiences before and after the traumas that shape our behavior and affect our recovery. Some come by PTSD from prolonged, severe stress and injury – like combat or child abuse. Some have a single traumatic event, like a severe accident or natural disaster. I’ve also heard of PTSD cases triggered by loss – of a spouse, parent, or even a job or health. Those cases would be different, because the trauma hasn’t necessarily gone away.
To me, the key factor in classic PTSD is “Post”, meaning “after”. You are feeling stress even though your trauma is over. You’re home from the war, grown up and out of the abusive home, healed up from the car accident, or rescued from the flood, but you still feel the stress of the triggering event.
The first step to healing is to REALIZE that you have survived. That you are no longer in the war zone, that you are no longer a child at the mercy of adults. It sounds so easy, but it can be really hard to achieve. This is especially true of cases of amnesia induced by single event traumas like car accidents. The amnesia is usually triggered because the brain shut down when you thought you were going to die. Trying to take you forward through the events will have the same result-your brain will refuse to go there (just like it did the first time). But a clever therapist will start the regression at the survival point and step backwards (“what happened before that”). That way you are starting from a point in the past where you KNOW you survived.
What you know intellectually doesn’t always mesh with what you feel emotionally. When you encounter a situation that in some way matches a time when you were in danger, suddenly you are back in the emotional state that accompanied the trauma.
It can be a sound, a smell, a touch. It can be the curve of the road, or a change in the weather. Your body remembers that condition and those emotions will come flooding back. The false cue can even lead you to react in the way that you reacted to the actual trauma, whether that response is appropriate or not.
It’s like the husky pup orphaned in the dead of winter. The clever pup digs a pit in the snow to shelter itself from the arctic winds — the pit keeps the puppy alive by conserving its body heat. When summer comes and the snow melts, the pup may still try to dig a pit, in the dirt. The pit is no longer needed, but the pup may not see that — it is stuck in the rut of doing what worked before.
As survivors, we have to wake up and realize that the snow is gone and we no longer have to hide. We can learn new behaviors and new responses to old triggers. We can go forward with the mission of “don’t let them win”. After all, surviving and living a good life is the best revenge against those who wronged us.