Ted Crawford, M.S., LMFT
Clinical Therapist, Pine Grove’s Outpatient Services
June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day. There has been no shortage of traumatic events so far in 2016, and over the last couple of weeks in particular. Of course, the numbers of our combat veterans suffering from PTSD continues to grow as well. It's a condition that reaches far past the sufferer, affecting the loved ones closest to them. Everyone has some amount of trauma in their past that hasn't been fully processed. Even though the actual events are over, numerous people still have instances when the high-charged emotions connected to those experiences seem to "re-visit" them. If you're one of these people, know that after any overwhelming incident, there can be some emotional energy that continues to hang around. If it's bad enough and goes on for a while, it's called Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Either way, it's part of a normal reaction to an abnormal amount of stress. In other words, you're not going crazy.
PTSD is a condition in which the trauma sufferer is triggered to "re-experience" the event in some way (intrusive thoughts, feelings, body sensations, images, nightmares, etc.). The fear of being triggered naturally causes the person to avoid people, places, or situations that they would rather not have to avoid. They may also experience emotional shut-down mixed with intervals of heightened senses, feeling "on edge," being increasingly irritable and having difficulty sleeping and concentrating.
So why do some suffer these symptoms more than others, even after they go through similar events? First, know that there’s a multitude of factors influencing how an individual experiences a certain crisis. These factors determine how easy or difficult it is to make sense of that event in the moment. The more we understand about what’s happening and why, the quicker we can put our “fight and flight” energy to use to get safe (and have a gripping story to tell later). Any leftover energy is processed and released as we talk about it and allow ourselves to feel the associated emotions. If we do this enough, the story is de-stimulated to the point where it actually begins to bore the story-teller, and when it comes to getting over trauma, “boring” is what you want. This would be an example of processing a traumatic event according to the ideal pre-wired neurological plan. Other crisis situations, however, leave us with a story that’s so over-stimulating that it feels too difficult to talk (or even think) about. This is because, for numerous possible reasons, the experience overwhelmed our ability to comprehend it in that moment, therefore leaving us feeling helpless or “frozen” to some degree. An immobilized mind and body leaves the survival energy with no “discharge instructions.” Trapped inside, this energy prompts the survival portion of the brain to continue sensing a danger that no longer exists, particularly when triggered by something we associate with the event. You can imagine how all of this could interfere with a person’s ability to come to terms with something!
Now you know that post-traumatic symptoms aren’t really caused by the traumatic event itself, rather, they’re the result of not allowing ourselves to feel and express the emotions associated with the event. Emotions are meant to be released after they’ve run their course, and although they can be disturbing, they can’t hurt you unless you keep them bottled up. When an alarming emotion is sparked, it’s an opportunity to discharge the energy it carries. When enough of this energy is liberated, the information is stored in our long-term memory, where it rests (instead of banging around in our bodies, wreaking havoc). This is a requirement for us to fully heal. So talk about the event and how you experienced it. Cry, shout, shake (yes, when you can do it safely, let yourself fall apart a little)! Although our symptoms generally fade over time when we do this, it’s often wise to use professional help to move things along when needed. Many counselors are trained to work with this particular issue, and can help you through the process toward a full recovery.
At Pine Grove Outpatient Services, we understand the changes that life can bring for both adults and children. Pine Grove Outpatient Services is designed to help meet mental health needs by offering outpatient assessment/evaluation, medication management, and individual, family, and specialized therapy services. Highly skilled and experienced psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists are available to help you cope with life's changes.
Visit www.pinegrovetreatment.com or call 1-888-574-HOPE (4673) for more information.