Most people have heard the term PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but not everyone knows what it means. The National Institute for Mental Health defines it as “PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people get after seeing or living through a dangerous event.” The National Center for PTSD says that is “is a mental health problem that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault, or disaster.”I would go further and say that it is the result of unresolved or unprocessed trauma.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness,
“PTSD can affect many different people, from survivors of rape and survivors of natural disasters to military service men and women. Roughly 10 percent of women and 5 percent of men are diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetimes, and many others will experience some adverse effects from trauma at some point in their lives. According to the National institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 1 in 30 adults in the U.S. suffer from PTSD in a given year—and that risk is much higher in veterans of war.”
The symptoms of PTSD include black-and-white or binary thinking, rigidity of thought, being reactionary rather than responsive, either overreacting or checking out completely, a high startle response, insomnia, and hyper-vigilance. The typical idea we are handed by television and film, or a sufferer suddenly thinking they are somewhere else is sometimes an over-exaggeration; it does happen, but more commonly someone will simply react to a current situation as if they were in the original trauma. So, if your original trauma was when you were 5 years old, your reaction to something that triggers your trauma will be the reaction of a five year old.
There is an actual biological component to PTSD. Essentially, the fight-or-flight switch in the brain gets stuck on, and the person suffering from PTSD is being flooded with really unhelpful chemistry. It can reroute neural pathways in an unhelpful way, bringing on memory and cognition issues. PTSD can cause the sufferer to crave things that will soothe the hyper-vigilance, like drugs and alcohol, thereby leading to addiction and alcoholism. The powerlessness of the originating unresolved trauma, combined with the lack of control that comes with being triggered can further lead to depression, or even suicidal ideation. The stress chemicals constantly flowing through the body can even create physical problems.
From a shamanic point of view, when a trauma occurs, we leave a piece of ourselves there in that place. If the trauma remains unprocessed, that part of ourselves stays in the past, not progressing and growing with the rest of our self, and perpetuating the trauma. Every time something happens that in some way reminds us of the originating trauma, we are rubber-banded back to that time, and act from the part of us that was left then. When this happens, we are not only not in our bodies, we’re not even in our present. It becomes impossible to hear and process what other people are actually saying; everything is heard through the filter of the past and expectation and fear.
With training and attention and assistance, someone with PTSD can start to recognize when they are triggered. This step is critical if they are going to begin to heal, because they must first be re-empowered. Any therapy or medical assistance will be of no use if the person with the PTSD does not find ways that they can start to heal themselves. That recognition, that self-awareness, is actually the first step in healing, because it starts to bring them back into the now.
While I have described the symptoms of PTSD, that may not be helpful in generating awareness on the part of the sufferer. When you are triggered, you may feel disconnected, irritable, fearful. Everything may feel unsafe or overwhelming. You may want to hide, or to lash out. Your hands and feet may feel numb. Your heart will likely be pounding and it may be hard to breathe. It may feel like there’s more energy in your body than you can handle.
The moment someone recognizes these symptoms in themselves, it would be helpful to ground. When I say ground, I mean that they should imagine that hey have roots growing out of the soles in their feet, all they way down into the center of the earth. They can further imagine that these roots connect them to a limitless source of power, and that they can also release anything they don’t need in that moment down into the roots, so that the energy can be dealt with by the earth. This imagery should help them breathe more slowly and calm their heart rate. It may even help to switch off the fight-or-flight response in the brain.
To bring themselves even more fully into the present, a triggered person can answer the following questions for themselves:
- What does how I feel right now remind me of?
- When was the first time I remember feeling this way?
- How is this different?
They can also check in with their immediate surroundings. What are they seeing? What are they smelling? Is it warm or cold? What are they hearing? What do their clothes feel like? Is it light or dark? What are they standing or sitting on? What are they wearing?
It is in learning how to recognize that they are triggered, and subsequently learning to become present again that a person starts to be re-empowered. Healing, therapy, and even short-term medication can be helpful at this point. It may not have much positive effect prior to the point of re-empowerment, no matter how small.