Updated: Dec 22, 2020
I recently came across several articles on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and while some topics were addressed accurately, the articles did not adequately describe PTSD. They were written by doctors or support groups. Dodged the ugly truth. The truth sufferers live in order to survive. So here is the truth about PTSD and ways to help sufferers survive.
What It’s Like to Suffer from PTSD
When you have PTSD, you live in a fight-or-flight response. Your primitive, reptilian brain is highly active and your fear response is often engaged.
You have trouble sleeping and constant nightmares. You break out into cold sweats and hives. Your blood sugar drops. Sometimes you faint. Your adrenaline skyrockets causing your energy levels to fluctuate, resulting in adrenal fatigue.
You’re on constant alert, rarely able to settle down. Causing your muscles to stay tightened. Your nerves to be shot. Your jaw to clench and your shoulders to rise. Causing TMJ and neck and shoulder pain.
You become easily overstimulated. By too much going on. Too many people. Too much movement. Too many things happening at once. Too much sensory input.
Your sensory processing is disordered. A smell makes your thinking foggy or a fabric makes you nauseous. Your nervous system is a wreck. Affecting your digestion. Your activity. Your ability to be well.
Sounds distort your thinking. Vibrate and rattle your mind and body. Send signals straight to your reptilian brain telling you to fight, flee or freeze. Making you fear for your life. Or you fawn, giving others what they want. And suppressing your instincts.
You’re often thrown into the past. By a smell or a sound. A person or a place. Memories flood you sometimes forcing you back into the trauma. You’re jerked between the past and the future. Often struggling to live in the present.
You either feel multiple emotions at once or nothing at all. You get depressed. Making it difficult to keep up with your life. With others. Sometimes you hurt yourself. Sometimes on accident. Sometimes in a fit of rage. You deal with feeling angry. All. Of. The. Time. You fight off suicidal thoughts. And contemplate ending things to get rid of the pain.
Because you are living in a fight-or-flight response, you have little time for much else. And your ability to think clearly is often lost. Causing you to lose focus quickly. To lose energy. To not be as productive as you’d like to be. And as a result, your mental health deteriorates.
Interactions with others suffer. You don’t want to be hugged or touched. And being in public becomes difficult to bear. You have a hard time with sudden movements or people or things moving behind you. When things move in different directions, it overwhelms you. You’re skittish. Sometimes anxiety-ridden or panicked.
Someone touching you, especially unexpectedly, often sends you back to the trauma. And if it’s a painful memory your body holds onto, or a somatic trauma, your body relives the experience. So you fight, flee or freeze. Often scream and cry and panic as if you were facing the trauma all over again. Dissociating from your body to cope. Leaving only a shell of yourself in the present and the pain to deal with in the future.
When others whiteness your post-traumatic reactions, they often don’t understand that it is the trauma you are reliving. So they judge you. View you as being dramatic or overreactive. Difficult. Selfish or rude. And in the worst cases, consider it a choice or a personality flaw. Think poorly of you. Don’t know what to do with you. Are embarrassed by you.
Because of this, you might hide your reactions. Pretend to be okay. Bury everything until you’re alone. But then you’re left to deal with yourself after. Which can be dangerous.
You feel like a burden to others. Especially those you are closest to. Because you know your reactions are extreme. You’re told you are intense. Hard to deal with. Difficult to be around.
Going through all of this makes you feel tired. Fatigued. Hopeless. But there are ways to feel better.
Ways Sufferers Can Help Themselves Survive
While you can’t stop your post-traumatic reactions from happening, you can find ways to help yourself. To manage. To know your strength. To learn how to be calm in your mind, body and soul.
See a psychotherapist. I’ve been in psychotherapy for years to help me reframe my thoughts. To help me separate my PTSD (and other neurological disorders) from who I am. To keep me from going down a negative mental path.
See an occupational therapist. To teach you to regulate your nervous system. I’ve been seeing an occupational therapist for a little over one year who has helped me learn how to stay in my body.
Find someone who helps you reconnect to your soul. I see a spiritual healer who guides me to connect to myself through yoga and breathing. Who helps me and my body move through the trauma.
Practice self-care and self-love. Every day. However you need to. It might mean some days you take it slow while other days you are able to be more productive.
Meditate. To help yourself stay present. I meditate every morning to help clear my mind and to set my intentions for the day.
Write. I write down my thoughts and track my behaviors every day, allowing me to better see what triggers me, to be able to manage my emotions and to have a record of my progress.
Practice yoga. I practice yoga and do body scans every day. To teach me how to move through the pain and to recognize where the pain sits in my body.
Move. All of the time. To release the tension in your nervous system and to build endorphins. To help your neurological juices flow. I attempt some form of exercise every day. Whether it’s running, walking or jumping on my mini trampoline.
Breathe. If I’m not mindful, my breaths stay shallow, so I take deep breaths often throughout the day. Having a daily meditation and yoga practice helps me be conscious of my breath.
Maintain your gut health. To keep your digestion regulated. So your digestion doesn’t cause mental fog or slow you down.
Take supplements. I take hormone-balancing and neurological-boosting supplements, vitamins, probiotics, medical marijuana and magnesium.
Get to a safe place once you’ve been triggered. Both in your environment and inside yourself. Once alone in your safe space, reconnect to yourself through yoga, meditation and music. Eagle pose helps get your left and right side of the brain communicating again. I also find that medical marijuana helps me reconnect my body and my soul.
Communicate with those close to you. Educate them on what happens when you’re triggered. Make sure they know not to touch you when it happens. Let them know you need to be alone after. That you’d like their understanding of what happens to you. And only keep people around who are willing to understand. To help you feel safe. Because that’s the only way you will survive.
How Others Can Help Those Who Suffer
It’s important that those who do not have PTSD recognize when others do. So that those who suffer feel safe enough to share, and to show, what they go through. Safe enough to ask for help. Basically, so they feel safe. Because when you’ve suffered a trauma, nothing feels safe anymore. Which is the basis of PTSD: it is a primal reaction to fear.
So if you know someone who suffers from PTSD, or even someone who you suspect might, respect their boundaries and what they endure. Especially once they’ve been triggered. Let them know you care for them. That you understand them. And believe that what happens to them is not their fault. Because it isn’t. View them like they are fighting for their life. Because that’s what they have to do. Every. Single. Day.
This story originally ran on Psych Central on September 27, 2019. Since Psych Central has been sold, the link to the original is no longer available:
Cover photo by Camila Quintero Franco on Unsplash