Picture yourself enjoying a beautiful summer afternoon on the beach. You feel the warm sunshine on your skin. It’s getting a little hot, so you decide to go for a dip in the water. The moment your toes touch the water you notice kids splashing and screeching.
You stop. Frozen.
Almost in a blink of an eye your heart starts racing, you start breathing fast, your body becomes restless, and bad memories start flashing through your mind. Your body is immediately screaming at you, “GET OUT OF THE WATER AND RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!” Your reaction completely overrides the part of your brain that is trying to tell you it’s ok and you have nothing to worry about. After all, it’s just a group of kids playing in the water.
What is PTSD?
This previous example is only a glimpse of what someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience when reminded of a traumatic event. PTSD is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, sexual assault or other traumatic event.
Everyone responds differently to trauma, but it is not uncommon for people to develop responses like nightmares, repeating memories of the traumatic event, jumpiness, irritability, and avoidance. Living with PTSD can feel very lonely. People with PTSD may avoid their normal social circles and support in order to escape unwanted memories. They fear experiencing something that could trigger a bad memory. As a result, the person with PTSD ends up very isolated.
That is why — even though it may be hard — it is important to talk to someone about what you are going through if you feel like you may be struggling with PTSD. Seeking help may feel embarrassing, but it’s a necessary thing to do in order to find a way to cope with trauma.
You brain is doing what is is designed to do.
Maybe you have had symptoms of PTSD or you have watched a loved one suffer and not know how to help. You may be wondering why our brains and bodies have such extreme reactions when we are not in any danger? A person should know that kids splashing in the water is not a warning to run for safety, right? What is wrong?
Your brain is doing what it is wired to do: protect you from life-threatening danger. The brain does a marvelous job helping your body to react quickly and know to fight, run, or freeze when needing to escape a threat. The trick is — how often are we in situations where we need to run for our lives? On a day-to-day basis, probably not very often.
Unfortunately, our brains cannot tell the difference between an actual threat and a flashback from that event. So, when something triggers the old memory (like the kids splashing in the water), your body reacts the same way it would have in the real event. The brain sends signals that you are in immediate danger and the body responds to it with rapid breathing, a burst of energy and impulse to react.
The fight,flight, or freeze instinct is an important reflex. It has served human kind for ages, getting us to where we are now — not having to fight for our survival on a daily basis. We are here because the earliest humans had an extremely well developed limbic system (the part of the brain that is responsible for knowing whether to fight, run, or freeze) and were able to escape a threat. Our brains really are trying hard to protect us. Thanks brain!
Get into your body.
Ok, we know why our brains respond the way they do, so how can we bring ourselves back to reality? Start with paying attention to your breath.
When you feel yourself starting to react, pay attention to how fast you are breathing. Then, focus on slowing your breath. The calmer breathing will help communicate to your brain that you are not in active danger.
You can also intentionally shift your attention to different body parts by doing a simple check-in: How does it feel? Is it tense or relaxed? Is it cold or warm? What does it need?
Or, if turning attention inward seems scary, you can also focus on things you see around you and identify:
- 5 things you can see,
- 4 things you can touch,
- 3 things you can hear,
- 2 things you can smell, and
- 1 thing you can taste.
This can help create distance between an intense flashback and your sense of what is happening to you right now.
Because PTSD symptoms can be extremely intrusive it is important to explore your triggers — anything that would provoke a traumatic experience (situation, people, places even thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations). What happens before your body starts sending you panic-inducing signals? Are you usually in the same situations when it happens? What thoughts and emotions do you have?
When asking your self these questions be kind to yourself. Remember, your brain thinks you’re in extreme danger — why wouldn’t it make your legs so restless you feel like running away? Exploring and being curious about what triggers your body to react might help you overcome it.
You Don’t Have to Struggle Alone.
Something happened to you and caused PTSD, but PTSD does not have to define who you are. Most importantly, you don’t have to do this alone. Find someone you can talk to about your symptoms and seek professional help if needed. You can still live a happy and fulfilling life in spite of what has happened to you in the past.