Understanding PTSD

There are a lot of scary things going on in the world right now.  I suppose that even those that refuse to believe in the pandemic may be starting to be scared.

Either way, fear elicits a huge response in the mind and body.  We all have two components of our nervous system that deal with fear: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic.

The Parasympathetic is the side of us that calms down.  It fosters digestion, conservation of energy, slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure.

The Sympathetic is the fight or flight.  It boosts chemicals in our bodies that cause increased heart rate, reactivity to stimuli, and makes us sweat and feel anxious.  It has an important function in making us get motivated and to run from threats.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that creates a massive imbalance between the two systems.  It overrides the parasympathetic and feeds the sympathetic system.  It is caused by trauma.  Trauma is caused by possibly anything; we are all different and what traumatizes one person may not bother another.

The feeling of trauma may even happen before there is trauma.  A forensic psychiatrist, Lise Van Susteren, coined the term “Pre-TSD”.  This is a trauma of preparing for the worst that may come.   She is an expert on how climate change affects mental health.  She has written about people that are so depressed and distressed by what may happen by climate change that they struggle with day to day functioning.   One report I read was of a 17-year-old Australian boy who stopped drinking water because he was so scared of how that would contribute to a worldwide drought.

Either way, it shows you how we can be traumatized by anything.

This is a very traumatic time.  We may not be soldiers in a war, but we are in a war about corona virus, climate change, politics, racism, general world changes.

We are all vulnerable to PTSD.   Our minds have a way of taking a traumatic situation and consolidating it into our long-term memories quickly.  This results in a protective feature of trying to avoid the threat the next time it is presented.

The problem is that this can evolve to a place where we may feel threatened all the time or that any reminder of the threat may lead to a reaction.  This may mean a reexperience of the trauma.  It feels like the traumatized person is in a movie and they are truly reliving the threat again and again.  They have nightmares about it and a physical reaction of jump scare feelings to it.

This also leads to avoidance.  Avoidance of feelings, detachment from self, and feeling there is no future.  In addition, there is avoidance of relationships and connections.

Next, there is a fear reaction physically manifested by insomnia and irritability.  With that, there may be hyper-vigilance; constantly looking for the next threat, and hyper-startle that the threat is here, and it is time to fight or run.  This happens even if the threat is not actually not present.

Lastly, this all leads to grief.   To a loss of innocence.  A loss of feeling of being safe.  Grief takes on strong turns of sadness, anger, guilt, bargaining, and denial.  Sometimes, it teases with a sense of relief, that there may be hope, only to be followed by a punch in the gut.  Grieving, feeling and dealing with the pain does lead to a feeling of acceptance and peace over time.

Nobody should go through this alone.  PTSD can be helped.   There is a way out of this intrusive and, at times, irrational disorder.   It is certainly through therapy.  The Veterans Administration acknowledges that therapy is the first line approach to dealing with trauma.  And believe me, they know trauma.

Also, continue to live your life with self-regulation.  This includes consistent and thoughtful sleep patterns, healthy eating, avoiding drugs and alcohol, social outreach (which can still be done safely), regular exercise and yoga/meditation, and developing positive coping skills such as mindfulness and deep breathing.

A doctor who worked on the front lines to help treat traumatized health care workers in Wuhan writes about 10 emotional stages his team identified that the workers went through.  They were:

  1. Bewilderment
  2. Shock
  3. Anger
  4. Anxiety
  5. Burnout
  6. Desperation
  7. Acceptance
  8. Hope
  9. Recovery
  10. Aftermath (presumptive)

He notes that the best time they found to intervene for the workers was in stage 3 or 4.  In other words, seek help before stage 5.   (Cheng, P, Psychiatric News, volume 55 number 8, April 17, 2020).

Most of us feel the trauma of what is going on.   Feeling and acknowledging the trauma lets us deal with the trauma.  It focuses us on getting help, speaking out, reaching out, and taking care of ourselves and therefore the world.

Some of us are still lost in anger and delusion, in scapegoating, and in defying science.   These things are the antithesis of what we should be doing as we work to quell this disaster.

I do feel that the majority will win in the end.  The world always has changed and always will.   We must accept that and work with it.  Humanity has been through traumatic times in the past and come out feet first.  I am hopeful we will learn from this and the world will change in positive ways from it.

One interesting way things have changed is that we will never look at a roll of toilet paper the same way again.

Please take care of yourself and others as you follow the three W’s:  Wear a mask, Wash your hands, Watch your distancing.  Maybe we should add a fourth W; they Work!

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