We live in a world of acronyms. We are surrounded by them: KFC, ATT, CPR, CPS, OMG. For some years now, one of most common ones to come across is PTSD. PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a phenomenon that we have heard mentioned often on TV, in the news, and in movies. Yet, even though the four simple letters are familiar enough, it is important to remember that they signify a complicated, interwoven, and even mysterious world of symptoms, struggles, and stress, whose power can lead to deadly outcomes if not taken seriously. Here at Common Ground, we take the power of PTSD very seriously, but we also know the power of healing and the strength of the human spirit are even stronger.
What then exactly is this destructive power of PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? To answer that question, we need to look at the heart of our acronym, that is the heart of the matter – the “T” of trauma. The topic of trauma is something that is getting an intense amount of attention these days in all aspects of society – in the military, in schools, in the medical world, in the mental health world, in public health, and in law enforcement. We hear about the “trauma” of war, or the trauma caused by a car accident or a school shooting, of domestic violence, or natural disasters. It appears then that trauma can come in all shapes and sizes. It is important then to ask what is common to all? Broadly speaking, trauma can be defined as any experience that overwhelms our normal capacity to respond. That may sound simple enough, but because they overwhelm our normal coping mechanisms, traumatic events are devastatingly destructive. Because it is overwhelming, trauma, or a traumatic event, undermines and destroys our normal sense of the order of things: of safety, of security, of trust, of choice, and even of our power to act.
To understand PTSD then, it is necessary to understand what it is like to live with this “reality” after trauma. For the trauma victim, life after trauma can be a feeling that one is not emotionally or physically safe, that things and people cannot be trusted, that one has lost the ability to choose, that one is alone and without the power to act. To put it simply, and to move on to the “S” in our acronym, it is stressful. Yet to say something is causing us “stress” or is “stressful” in our common usage can make it seem pretty benign or harmless. We can say our job is stressful, or traffic was stressful, or waiting in the doctor’s office was stressful; but with a truly traumatic event we are speaking about a whole other thing. More and more, science is showing how devastating and powerful traumatic stress can be. Traumatic stress is tied to the feeling that one’s very existence is threatened, and that life is forever changed. That kind of experience can affect our bodies, our thinking, our emotions, and our behavior in all kinds of ways. We may develop nausea and a rapid heart rate, we might have trouble thinking or problem solving; we may be racked with fear or terror, we may lose our appetite, be hyper-alert and not be unable to sit still or sleep, or feel our life is meaningless. Traumatic stress is real and powerful.
What then of the “P” in our acronym? It might be argued that it is natural to have powerful responses “post” or after something like a car accident, or after being a victim of a crime. Studies have shown that soon after the event, it is natural to re-experience the trauma in recurrent images, thoughts, dreams, and to re-experience the reactions as well, even for up to 4 weeks. Something different is happening, however, if the experience is being relived beyond that time, after months or even years. This is the “Post” of PTSD. Sparked by the trigger of a similar sound, or smell, or gesture from the original event, a person with very deep trauma can be catapulted back after months or years to vividly reliving the event and re-experiencing the same set of symptoms. This is the uniquely crippling power of PTSD, able to maintain its hold on us long after the event has passed. Because it can seem inescapable, PTSD can lead people to try to break free of the cycle of stress by any means necessary, even it is means hurting themselves or others, or by numbing themself through drugs or alcohol, or any host of other addictions or destructive behaviors.
So, what can be done to free ourselves from this long and destructive reach of the power of traumatic stress experienced in PTSD? Though most experts point out that we will probably never forget the traumatic event itself, with the right help and hard work, it is possible to become free of its disruptive and distressing effects. The first step is to strengthen our grip on the present, so we are to loosen the grip on us of the past. With the help of a trained therapist, we can build order back in our “Disorder.” With our feet planted in the present, we can rebuild the ‘right order’ of those elements of our life that we felt were lost in the traumatic event: to rebuild our sense of the physical and emotional safety in our surroundings, of our ability to trust those who want to help us, of our ability to make our own choices and to share in decisions, of our strengths and capacity to effect the change we seek, and of the power to live a life of meaning and purpose.
PTSD is indeed powerful, but more powerful yet is the determination of the human spirit to bring order and healing back into our lives.
Struggling with sudden overwhelming feelings or thoughts from a painful event that happened in the past? Help is possible. For more information, contact our Resource & Crisis Helpline (1-800-231-1127) to learn more about resources that can help!
Author: Sean Sylvester, Compliance Analyst at Common Ground