The Realities of PTSD: Making Sense of the Symptoms, Part II

This article is Part II of a two-part article. Click here to read part I.

You may avoid thoughts, feelings, situations, places, people, and activities that remind you of the trauma. If you were happy with your buddies and got ambushed, you may decide never to be happy again.

It is not conscious, and often it is done by staying drunk, drugged, or high on adrenaline. Maybe you feel a mistake on your part got someone killed, so you are never going to be wrong again. Most of these are unconscious decisions, and you may not know you have made them.

Avoidance is self-protective and helps you avoid triggers, but it also perpetuates PTSD. Being really numb can lead to depression and to outbursts when your emotions erupt and scare everyone around you. You may also lose interest in significant activities, which helps you avoid triggers. What activities? Sex (losing control), hunting (no more killing), parties (crowds), family gatherings (people who wonder why you're not over it yet), cookouts (burning flesh) among other things.


Finally, we get to re-experiencing, where the psychiatrists start the diagnosis. I think your brain keeps you alive by doing better-safe-than-sorry. Primitive parts of the brain can't speak English and can't tell time, so they don't know it is over and you are home. Bits of experience, sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and physical feelings like a thump on the head all bring back the trauma in full living color. These are non-verbal memories like your dog has when it sees a ball, only they are painful and upsetting.

You may have the opposite of avoidance and be constantly tormented with intrusive recollections of the war or trauma. You may also have nightmares about it, symbolic or actual repetitions of some awful events. You may suddenly act or feel like you are back in the war (flashbacks). You get upset by stuff that resembles or symbolizes the trauma, including anniversaries of holidays and of personal events – even ones you don't remember! And you can have a physiological reaction to things that remind you of the trauma – heart rate goes sky high when you see a car parked by the road or hear a helicopter, etc.

You can also have second and third-generation triggers. You get triggered by a car backfiring while you are eating a hot dog and watching children play, and after a while, you can't stand hot dogs or the sound of kids playing, and you think you are nuts or a bad person instead of realizing this is from the war. Re-experiencing symptoms are probably what brings most people in for help because they feel pretty nuts.

An Effective Method of Healing

It appears that moving your non-verbal memories from what they call the "reptile brain" into your forebrain and encoding them as narrative memories is probably the most important healing device. This is called therapy when done with a therapist, writing when done with a typewriter (like Bob in Chickenhawk) or a pen in your journal or your fourth step in a 12-step program. It is the basis of cognitive therapy and narrative therapy and talks therapy, of EMDR, TIR, and other alphabet therapies.

If remembering is too upsetting, you need something like the skills you learn in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, meditation, or the HEALS technique developed by Steven Stosny, Ph.D., so that you can tolerate painful feelings in order to heal them.

You Deserve to Recover

Whatever you have done or not done, witnessed or ignored, you did not deserve to be traumatized, even if everyone says you deserve what you got. You do deserve to recover, and I hope to look at PTSD through my eyes will help you find the courage to get help. It is not fair that it hurts to recover. It is just a reality. And since you made it through your war or other trauma, you can probably make it through the work it takes to recover.

I also have seen people recycle PTSD symptoms when a new war starts or another traumatic event happens, and I think this is probably normal too. That's why I don't like the term "cured" – "in remission" seems more realistic and more accurate to me. If your symptoms do come back, what worked before will work again. Don't give up. Get more help. You deserve to recover.

Source: This article is a guest post from Patience Mason's PTSD Blog. It was republished on with permission.
Photo: Pexels

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