Understanding PTSD: Recovering from Trauma
Left untreated, trauma destroys lives. Living with someone with PTSD can be extremely difficult. It can cause so much stress for family members that they may not be able to cope, and may eventually leave or divorce their partners. Fallout from this disorder is far-reaching and is devastating to all associated with it.
What Causes PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress can affect anyone, including those who have not experienced the horrors of battle. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD occurs after a “life-threatening event” that “creates intense fear, helplessness and horror.” Traumatic events include actual or threatened physical or sexual violence, kidnapping, natural or man-made disasters, and serious motor vehicle accidents, but they are not limited to these. For children, and those abused as children, inappropriate sexual experiences — even without violence — constitute traumatic events. In some cases, just learning about a violent event that affected a relative or close friend can be traumatic.
Those who grew up in abusive or neglectful households have experienced trauma over and over again. If a family member is repeatedly abusive, unavailable, or unable to connect emotionally, or if a child is repeatedly beaten and punished by one or both parents, it is like living in a war zone; its life is constantly threatened by real dangers around it. If we can’t trust mom and dad, who can we trust?
Witnessing an event can also be traumatizing. Watching someone get injured or killed can be just as traumatizing as if it were happening to the watcher. Being a survivor of a tragic accident, or recognizing how close to death we came, can cause PTSD.
Temporary Relief Followed by Flashbacks
With the passage of time, people with PTSD may feel a little better. They develop coping mechanisms in order to live in the world. But then someone says something or does something unexpected and they are “flashed back” to the incident, as though it just occurred. Their bodies react to the perceived crisis just as when the event actually happened. These flashbacks feel so real that they become traumatized all over again.
People with PTSD often suffer from dreams or flashbacks in which the events seem real, as if they were happening in the present moment. As a result, they go to extreme lengths to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma. For example, having been in a horrible car accident, they may avoid the stretch of highway where the incident occurred — even if it means going miles out of the way. PTSD can become its own prison, preventing people from living full lives.
As in the case of returning vets, we develop coping methods to deal with PTSD. We turn to drugs, alcohol, and self-mutilation, or we withdraw from the world. None of these are helpful behaviors. It might seem as if drinking, doing drugs, watching porn, or having affairs makes us feel better — but this is only temporary. If we don’t deal with the problem at the source, then everything we do is like trying to put a band-aid on a severed limb. We build inappropriate or harmful defenses. We become sick with a variety of illnesses. We become depressed or anxious. Our bodies carry the remembered pain.
When we are unable to properly process trauma, it becomes trapped in our memories in an incomplete way. Because there is a strong mind-body connection, we often experience physical symptoms and illnesses that doctors cannot diagnose. Many people with trauma are told, “It’s all in your head.” As a result, they keep looking for answers to explain their symptoms.
Christian Counseling Provides Hope for the Hopeless
But there is hope. As a Christian counselor, I am convinced that God understands what we have been through because he sent his beloved Son to die for us — and his death was brutal. He had to suffer that in order for us to know that he understands our pain. But you don’t have to suffer. There are therapies that will help you to deal with the fallout from the terrible and frightening things you have experienced. EMDR* is one of them. As a Christian counselor, I’m here to help you find a healthy path to wellness and peace of mind.
“Koh Samui (THAILAND/LANDSCAPE),” courtesy of Chi King, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “The Tree on the Hill,” courtesy of Bert Kaufmann, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)