Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Counseling

PTSD:  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a specific kind of anxiety disorder that comes from a sudden and frightening, overwhelming experience. It can be very intense, like having experienced war or domestic violence, but it can also be as simple as feeling threatened by an aggressive person you've had to deal with, whether a stranger or somebody closer to you. PTSD is characterized by flashbacks of the incident, memories of the incident that intrude into your thinking, feeling nervous and on edge, feeling jumpy, feeling like there is potential danger all around you, not trusting others, and often even nightmares of the incident.  This disorder will not clear up and go away on it's own; it can last for many years without proper treatment.  But I want you to know that there is hope.  Please let me know if I can answer any questions for you. Let me share with you a little more about PTSD.

The parts of our nervous system that allow random memories from the near and distant past to trigger feelings of joy and contentment in present time are exactly the same parts that trigger sensations of panic and anxiety when painful memories are recollected.  This article explains PTSD by first explaining the relationship between pleasant memories, physical sensation and emotion.  Follow along and give this a try -- Step One:

Imagine something pleasant.  For me, it’s easy to remember the smell of hot apple cider.  I can see the crockpot filled with the sweet smelling stuff, orange peels and cinnamon sticks floating on the surface.  I lift the lid, and the aroma fills the room. I smile every time, can't help it.

Step Two:

As the image deepens in your mind, allow yourself to notice how your body is reacting.  For instance, if you imagined the face of someone you love, do your lips automatically curve into a happy smile?  Is there a sense of warmth in your chest?  Notice how your stomach, arms and legs feel.  Can you detect a shift in your sense of smell, taste or touch?

The elements of the human nervous system that allow one to recall and relive positive memories are the very same mechanisms that produce symptoms of PTSD.  The sound of a loud cracking noise can trigger instant panic, while the sound of coffee brewing can trigger a peaceful smile.  Both reactions are instant and automatic. Steps One and Two are examples of what is known in the mental health field as Resourcing.  Resourcing allows one to consciously create a safe and comforting pathway back into the body.  This is crucial because people who have been physically victimized often feel cut off from their body.  It’s as if they are only living from the neck up.  This is a great temporary coping strategy for short-term survival.  It's like a mental sanctuary while your nervous system tries to re-boot and get back on-line. PTSD is born when what is supposed to be a temporary survival strategy becomes a permanent condition.

As an example, let’s say Alice is attacked while walking home from the market.  Her nervous system kicks into high gear and instantly mobilizes for fight, flight or freeze. Most people know what it feels like to fly into a rage (fight response) or to run away (flight response) from an attack.  What is less familiar is the freeze response.  It’s the proverbial “deer in the head lights" experience.  Your arms and legs literally stop working in the freeze response.  The person experiences a sense of being “off line."  This is nature’s way of protecting us from the pain and suffering of an inescapable attack.

Alice survives the attack.  The excess energy in her body that was mobilized for fight, flight or freeze needs to discharge now that the life-threatening situation is over.  Alice begins to cry, shake, tremble, scream, or evenlaugh.  This is actually normal, healthy and most importantly, temporary.  Her nervous system is now on auto-pilot.  This phase is often referred to as shock.  PTSD is still avoidable at this point.

A Fork In The Road

If Alice is allowed and encouraged to talk about and experience her feelings as her body releases the excess energy, her body will naturally recalibrate itself and Alice will bounce right back into the flow of her life.  On the other hand, if Alice is encouraged to “suck it up," be strong, stop crying, pull it together, etc., then the attack has no natural ending and PTSD has a chance to take hold.  Life-threatening events, like stories, should have a natural beginning, middle and end.  When the internal process of surviving something horrible is halted (either by well meaning people or ourselves) then trauma has a place to latch onto and live and grow inside of the body.  It's gets blazed into the nervous system.  Trauma is not in the event itself.  Trauma is in the body.

It’s Just Math

Regardless of circumstance, convenience, culture or safety, A+B=C

(A) A life-threatening event (real or imagined) + (B) Suppression of feelings and sensations that should be discharging after the life-threatening event = (C) The emotional trauma is imprinted onto the nervous system; a place for trauma, anxiety and stress to live and grow in our body.  PTSD is born.

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