5 things you might not know about PTSD

I lived with undiagnosed, untreated PTSD symptoms for over a decade until I heard an interview with Whitney Cummings a few years ago. Until that day, I’d never heard someone utter the words “trauma therapy”. I knew deep down that what I had been through was limiting my life and causing me ongoing pain, but I didn’t know that there was anything I could do about it. This was my lot in life, I thought. My burden to carry.

Since hearing that interview in 2015, I’ve been on a mission to heal. I’ve received the right diagnosis, I’ve gotten the proper treatment and I’ve learned to manage symptoms as they arise on a day to day basis. If I could go back in time, I’d reassure my younger self that I would one day feel whole, steady and clear-headed — that the pain wouldn’t last forever.

As I write this, my Facebook feed is exploding with heartbreaking #metoo stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence from women spanning every chapter of my life. As if being a victim of this behavior weren’t difficult enough, some of us walk away from these experiences with an illness causing life altering symptoms. PTSD is widely recognized, but little understood. Here are a few things I’ve learned that I wish I’d known sooner.

PTSD is an injury of the nervous system. Among other functions, the nervous system determines when the body needs to respond with an appropriate threat response (Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn). A healthy system will initiate the appropriate threat response when the body detects physical danger, and then is able to disengage the threat response once the potential for danger has passed. A system with PTSD initiates a threat response anytime it’s reminded of a traumatic event that occurred in the past, even if there is no current threat of danger. This is similar to an overly sensitive car alarm that goes off whenever anyone walks nearby. A system with PTSD may also have trouble disengaging a threat response, causing the person to stay “stuck” in a hyper- or hypo-aroused state. Being in a near constant state of threat response heavily taxes the body and is the cause of many PTSD symptoms.

PTSD is diagnosed based on the presence and severity of symptoms, not the severity of a trauma. It’s a common misconception that the “worse” a traumatic event is, the worse the PTSD symptoms will be, but this is not the case. Each body’s reaction to a particular acute or ongoing traumatic situation will be different. In fact, two people can experience the exact same traumatic event, and one can walk away with PTSD and the other can walk away symptom free.

Remembering or discussing the details of a trauma can trigger symptoms. As mentioned, a system with PTSD can fire off a physical threat response due to a conscious or unconscious memory of a traumatic event. Take care when reading #metoo accounts on Facebook or in the media and notice if you feel especially agitated, angry, nervous or overwhelmed. If so, take a break and do something that’s relaxing. And if you’ve thought about posting a specific story but it feels too difficult for any reason — that’s ok. You are seen and you are counted. Limiting triggers and caring for yourself is part of managing PTSD.

Understanding PTSD symptoms is crucial to receiving the right diagnosis. As with most mental health conditions, the information needed to determine a diagnosis exists within the patient’s own experience. A doctor or therapist develops a professional opinion largely based on the information you provide. Being able to articulate your experience as it relates to symptoms is an important ingredient to receiving the right diagnosis, treatment and insurance coverage. A therapist or psychiatrist will most likely use the DSM-V criteria for a PTSD diagnosis — take some time to familiarize yourself with this when you’re ready.

PTSD is treatable. This hasn’t always been the case, so let me say it again — PTSD IS TREATABLE! There are a few kinds of trauma therapy, but only one that I can personally endorse, which is called Somatic Experiencing. It’s a body based therapy that retrains the nervous system to feel safe in the absence of danger, so the body can learn to relax and spend less time stuck in threat response. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend the book Waking the Tiger by Dr. Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing.

Additional Resources

Call BAWAR’s crisis hotline at (510) 845–7273 to speak to someone immediately.

* Waking the Tiger by Dr. Peter Levine
* The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Somatic Meditations:
* by Tara Brach
* by Reggie Ray

Find a Therapist:
* Somatic Experiencing Practitioners
* Psychology Today List of Therapists

I am not a doctor or a mental health professional, and this is not a comprehensive overview of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.