An early morning she opens the door and the sunlight softly embraces her body. Smiling, she puts sunglasses on and locks the door.
The birch tree in her driveway proudly waves its new green coat. The teasing sunlight sifts through its leaves and dances on the grass like a bunch of baby bunnies.
The cheerful chirping of birds welcomes a new day.
She walks to the car, taking pleasure in every moment, inhaling the smells of damp earth and blue hyacinths saluting her from their pots, smiling to herself and to the world.
Her presentation is ready, but she wants to go through it once more–it has to be perfect.
While driving, she goes through the main points in her head.
The traffic lights at the intersection are green, and she’s nearly there, when…
There’s a terrible roar of twisting metal and shattering glass.
Stunned, she looks at the wreck and her weirdly twisted limbs inside it. Her body is stuck.
“I must get out,” she thinks, but her body won’t respond. She stares down at the scene feeling helpless and terrified.
The piercing sound of approaching sirens makes her flinch.
Her bones have healed, but not her soul.
She woke up from the accident in another world. It feels unreal and distant as if she was watching it through a dingy glass. It’s a dangerous place to be.
She stays inside, hiding from her memories, other people, and herself.
She doesn’t even miss her job. She has no ambitions, no desires, and no feelings of self-worth.
Just flashes of her helpless body trapped in that car a year ago. There’s a pain and tension that won’t go away, and she feels helpless and alone.
Is it even her?
Twisted Reality of Trauma
When trauma happens, you start carrying it inside. It changes your self-perception, your beliefs, and the way you function as a human being.
Trauma is a conditioned response; just like Pavlov’s dogs, you react to anything that reminds you of the triggering event.
So you do whatever you can not to feel the emotional pain. You avoid places and situations that can bring up intolerable memories and feelings.
Your inner world is out of balance.
“I’m a monster… I’m a horrible, angry person… I can’t connect with anyone… I feel dead inside… I don’t feel anything… I blow up for no apparent reason… I’m dangerous for people… I feel ashamed of myself and bereft.”
Trauma destroys your identity and gives you a new one: “I’m not me. I’m a survivor/ witness.”
You’re out of sync with other people because trauma destroys your relationships, too.
You’ve lost your sense of purpose, your direction in life, and your focus.
Trauma also changes your sense of time – it either passes too fast or stays still.
“Trauma is an illness of not being alive in the present.” – Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Either way, you’re stuck in the past.
Trauma Plays Havoc with Your Brain
Your brain gets rewired. New, conditioned circuits replace the old ones and your reward system gets out of order.
According to research, PTSD reduces the brain’s capacity for reward (Elman et al., 2005).
Let’s say that something good happens to you, but the areas of your brain that are supposed to respond to pleasure stay unaffected. They simply “forget” to do their job and don’t light up when they should…
… with one exception.
When you engage in a high-risk behavior like speeding on a highway, jumping from a skyscraper, or getting into a fight.
Seeking risk and adventure is the only way to feel satisfied even only for the short time.
When you are traumatized, you prefer that “buzz” to natural stimulants to get your reward system fired up.
To get positive energy, motivation, and pleasure naturally, you need healthy relationships, but you probably have none because they were all devoured by your trauma.
This imbalance in neural responsibility to risk and reward constitute a marker for stress vulnerability.
Cognitive Functions Go Down the Drain
Trauma also limits your mental capacity by restraining your executive functions that reside in the frontal cortex of your brain.
You can’t think, concentrate, or remember. Learning becomes impossible.
You’re either hyper-aroused and inefficient or hypo-aroused and lacking the energy. Either way, you feel frustrated and unable to finish any task.
It’s All About Feelings
Have you ever had a root channel fixed?
Then you know the feeling of an open nerve pulsating inside your tooth.
Being traumatized feels like that, only your whole body becomes that open nerve.
You are your feelings, but you can’t reflect upon them. You can’t go inside and observe–and just the thought of doing that scares you to death.
That’s because an amygdala, the smoke alarm of your brain, reacts like an open nerve to the slightest touch of a dental explorer. Keeping you on guard.
You’re living in a state of chronic distress.
The helplessness drives you nuts while hopelessness becomes your reality.
PTSD and Dissociation
When you’re stuck in trauma, you may feel like you are not real and the world around you is a mirage.
You don’t belong, you’re different, and you’re not like the “normal” people.
It’s like somebody cut you out of life – you can watch it passing by, but you can’t be part of it. And you can’t feel.
Although this state is invisible and not dangerous, the excruciatingly painful feeling of numbness and not belonging is a frequent companion of post-traumatic stress.
It’s called depersonalization/derealization or DPDR.
Damaged, NOT Destroyed
You may be a survivor or a witness of a horrible event like an accident, assault, war, or natural disaster.
But you don’t have to suffer.
Your good memories, feelings, and dreams are not gone. They are dwelling within you, waiting to reemerge.
And there are ways to bring them back.
This hard drive of yours isn’t dead, only damaged.
Your condition is difficult, but treatable.
Get professional help to get better. You owe it to yourself.
I urge you to do it, and the sooner, the better.
Please. The universe needs you.
If you suffer from consequences of a traumatic event or know someone who does, please feel free to share this article. Thank you!
Want to know more?
Definition and Symptoms of PTSD
There are a few definitions of psychological trauma you can find. Here’s some.
“[Trauma is] an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms people’s existing coping mechanisms.”– Bessel van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995
“Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or of enduring conditions in which the individual’s ability to integrate his or her emotional experience is overwhelmed (ie his or her ability to stay present, understand what is happening, integrate the feelings, and make sense of the experience), or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.” – Karen Saakvitne
The American Psychiatric Association’s current definition of PTSD in the next paragraph. introduced in 1994, states that a person must have experienced or witnessed an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and which involved fear, helplessness, or horror.
PTSD: Symptoms and Criteria
Here is the summary of full diagnostic criteria of PTSD (American Psychiatric Association).
Criterion A (one required)- Exposure to Trauma
A person must have experienced or witnessed an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others (ex. sexual violence), and which involved fear, helplessness, or horror.
Exposure to traumatic circumstances can also be indirect e.g. learned from a close relative or friend; or through professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics).
Criterion B (one required) – Re-experiencing Trauma
A traumatized person persistently re-experience the traumatic event(s) as unwanted upsetting memories, flashbacks, nightmares, emotional distress or physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders.
Criterion C (one required)- Avoidance
A traumatized person tries to avoid trauma-related stimuli such as:
• Trauma-related thoughts or feelings
• Trauma-related reminders (ex. place of the accident)
Criterion D (two required) – Cognition and Moods
Negative thoughts or feelings that began or worsened after the trauma, in the following way(s):
• Overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world
• Negative affect
• Exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma
• Inability to recall key features of the trauma
• Decreased interest in activities
• Difficulty experiencing positive affect
• Feeling isolated
Criterion E (two required) – Emotional Dysregulation
Trauma-related arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the trauma, in the following way(s):
• Irritability or aggression
• Risky or destructive behavior
• Heightened startle reaction
• Difficulty concentrating
• Difficulty sleeping
Criterion F (required) – Duration
Symptoms last for more than 1 month.
Criterion G (required) – Functional Significance
Symptoms create distress or functional impairment (e.g., social, occupational).
Criterion H (required) – Exclusion
Symptoms are not due to medication, substance use, or other illness.
- Dissociative Specification. In addition to meeting criteria for diagnosis, an individual experiences high levels of either of the following in reaction to trauma-related stimuli.
- Depersonalization. Experience of being an outside observer of or detached from oneself (e.g., feeling as if “this is not happening to me” or one were in a dream).
- Derealization. Experience of unreality, distance, or distortion (e.g., “things are not real”).
Delayed Specification. Full diagnostic criteria are not met until at least six months after the trauma(s), although the onset of symptoms may occur immediately.
All of the criteria are required for the diagnosis of PTSD.
Note of caution: Don’t use these criteria for self-diagnosis but to educate yourself. If you have a suspicion that either you or someone you love is having the disorder, take a qualified talk with your physician.
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