This is a short essay I wrote yesterday about PTSD. I’ve tried to keep my own experiences out of it for now, although I do draw on them a little toward the end. I figured, I’ll share my stuff at another time.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been around for a long time. In World War I, it was called ‘Shell Shock.’ World War II referred to it as ‘War Neurosis.’ In the 1980s, it became more widely known as PTSD.
The simplest way to describe PTSD is as a memory processing disorder. We all experience multiple situations every day, and for most of those experiences, our brain processes them as they occur, filing them away as memories. However, when we experience a traumatic event, our body automatically suspends normal operations, shutting down our usual bodily functions, like memory processing. The reason this happens goes back to the old ‘Fight or Flight’ response. The body experiences whatever danger is happening and uses all its energy to prepare our legs for flight, or our arms for fight. Adrenalin floods our bodies, increasing our heart rate, and every part of our body is focussed on survival.
Which leaves the trauma floating around in our brains. But, the trauma isn’t categorised as a memory, so whenever it comes to the front of our brain, we experience it as though it’s happening right now. Smells, sounds, tastes, music; so many things that are associated (albeit, subconsciously, at first) with the trauma can trigger flashbacks and dissociations. We continually re-experience the trauma, as the brain is completely unable to recognise it as a memory.
I read a couple of articles before writing this. Did you know that 1 in 2 people experience trauma at some time in their lives? Traumatic events include: violent assaults, military combat, motor accidents, natural disasters, miscarriage, bereavement, being told you have a life threatening illness, terrorism, traumatic childbirth, plus many more.
Of the people who experience trauma, around 20% go on to experience PTSD. Some of the symptoms are: flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, hyper vigilance, intense emotions, outbursts of anger, exhaustion, amnesia, dissociation, relationship difficulties, fear, withdrawal from others. It doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? The worst thing is having no control over when your brain will decide to subject you to the horrors. At least, little control. You can work on your triggers, but it usually requires professional help.
About four years ago, I reached the point where I had no choice but to seek help. I saw a therapist for my allotted ten sessions (NHS: say no more). She worked with me on finding grounding techniques to help return myself to the here and now when I’m re-experiencing the trauma. I use these techniques every day, and they are a big help. The therapist also recommended I undergo an odd-sounding therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing). I researched it a lot and agreed to be assessed for it.
Firstly, let me try to explain the theory behind it and what it entails. As I mentioned above, PTSD is caused by traumatic events that haven’t been processed properly as memories. So, EMDR evokes eye movements similar to REM sleep. This is achieved by the therapist holding their finger in front of the patient and moving it from side to side. The patient follows it with their eyes, whilst talking about a specific incident of the trauma. This is thought to help the trauma to be processed. It all sounds a little kooky, but I read the success rate is over 70%.
I never had the EMDR. The assessing psychologist said I have complex PTSD (meaning I experienced lots of traumatic incidents over a long period of time, going back to when I was really young), and so she didn’t think EMDR would help. What I read today, though, doesn’t state that as true. So I don’t know.
In conclusion, there are psychological therapies, most of them involving grounding techniques, and they can help you to feel better. I won’t say recover because I don’t believe it’s possible to ever be free from this illness. I work every day to fight flashbacks, and I have nightmares every night. I dissociate in the middle of conversations and—sometimes—want nothing more than to die. But, I am better than I was when I first got the diagnosis. PTSD is manageable. Never be too ashamed to ask for help.