By Boyd Patterson
As a survivor, you well know the intense feelings associated with PTSD. They rise like tidal waves and crash into your day, washing away all self-control. In those moments of sudden crisis, helpful information about PTSD acts like a life preserver. Knowledge may not prevent the emotional waves from occurring, but can help you weather the storm. Such increased awareness often comes from therapists, fellow survivors and recovery literature. Better understanding your condition can help you stay more grounded (or less distressed) during hyper-vigilance as well as flashbacks. Here are some helpful hints that hopefully can provide your emotional stability during episodes of distress.
When struggling with a confusing situation, the best way to regain control comes from defining the problem. Consider the history of how clinicians learned to treat PTSD: It was only about 100 years ago, when large groups of former soldiers started returning home from war, that clinicians started developing a consistent definition. The initial terms “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” gave way to the more fitting diagnostic term “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Today’s well-established clinical definition of PTSD helps treatment providers by describing common symptoms, and objective understanding of the condition and, ultimately, steps to recovery.
Unfortunately, most survivors remain as baffled about PTSD recovery as clinicians were a 100 years ago. The condition itself keeps you spinning in fear, perpetually blindsided, so you can never really get your bearings. Thankfully, like modern-day clinicians, you too can benefit from a stabilizing definition of the condition. Ideally, this “survivor-centric” description will provide the same stability to you as the clinical definition provides to therapists. You can remain more objective during hyper-vigilance. You can accept the signs of an imminent panic attack and simply focus on making yourself as comfortable as possible. You can recognize during a flashback that, like riding a roller coaster or watching a movie, it’s just a chemical experience that will end.
A SURVIVOR’S DEFINITION
As you test this definition during times of crisis, feel free to modify the words to better fit your personal experience so you can better recognize the driving terror of a flashback for what it is: chemicals. The chemicals create uncomfortable body sensations and a tunnel vision of “threat,” tunnel vision that hides the positive aspects of your surroundings from view. All caused by neural pathways in your brain that remain stuck together, previously fused during your traumatic level of stress. Pathways that you can separate again, i.e., get “unstuck.” Ultimately you want to restore your cognitive versatility, to recognize the full range of environmental stimuli and respond with the full range of appropriate emotions.:
In many ways, your brain operates like a computer. The keyboard sends typewritten data to your computer’s central processing unit; your sensory organs (eyes, ears, skin, etc.) send information (about sight, sound, temperature, etc.) to your brain. Your computer’s CPU processes the data; your brain processes the input about the environment. Based on the processed data, the CPU generates output; based upon the processed information about the environment, neural pathways in your brain release certain neurochemicals.
The various combinations of neurochemicals released by a healthy brain correspond to the various circumstances of your environment. Key concept: once the environment provides different input, that brain activates different neural pathways, that release different chemicals, which facilitate different behaviors. See a beautiful sunrise? A healthy brain releases chemicals that create feelings of wonder. Later read a positive email from your supervisor? That brain releases different chemicals that create feelings of accomplishment. Still later, argue with a hostile co-worker? That brain releases different chemicals that create proportionate feelings of threat. For PTSD recovery purposes a healthy brain remains versatile, recognizing the changes in the environment and activating the neural pathways that fit the changing circumstances. Input. Process. Output.
Once you understand your brain’s input from your surroundings, you understand how to process those thoughts. Controlling these feelings leads to a better reaction and ultimately a self-awareness that is the beginning of getting stable.