Trauma, trauma, what do you hear?
During our vacation, we were in the car behind a big work vehicle. A rock dislodged from the bed and hit our windshield. It was very loud and abrupt, and left behind a chip.
We were startled by the noise then dismayed when we saw the damage. I looked up chip repair kits on amazon so we could plan how to fix it when we got home.
Hours later in our drive we heard a loud snap.
My husband’s first reaction was was dread, “Was that another rock?”
Thankfully it wasn’t. It was a toy our son was playing with in the back seat.
If my son had made this noise before we were hit by a rock, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. But we now associated the loud snapping sound to the sound a rock makes when it hits a windshield.
In the moment before my husband could process what the sound really was, his brain was convinced another rock had hit and damaged our windshield.
This is how PTSD works.
Only with PTSD the cortisone production that results from the stressful trigger continues, and doesn’t end in a single moment like it did with the snapping toy in the car. Hence, the resulting panic attacks that come from a trauma trigger.
During traumatic events, our brain files away important information to help us avoid those events in the future. We memorize sights, smells, sounds, and feelings we had during our trauma, so our brains can recall them and protect us from future harm. PTSD happens when our brain is confused between what’s really dangerous and what isn’t. It’s a type of anxiety disorder, and those who already have anxiety disorders are at greater risk for developing PTSD with a traumatic event.
Sometimes our brains shut down the memories of trauma, so we cannot recall them, but still triggers the cortisone stress response when experiencing a certain sight, smell, etc that is comparable to something from the event. The brain is a powerful shield, and can protect us from things we don’t even understand fully. This is why many PTSD triggers seem to come out of no where, or don’t always seem make sense. And why a person who doesn’t remember their trauma can still be triggered.
So what’s to be done?
In my husband’s case, as soon as his mind understood everything was ok, the panic passed.
With PTSD you just have to work a bit harder to help the mind get there. Tell yourself, or have someone else tell you, repeatedly that you’re safe. That no one and nothing can hurt you. That the trauma is in the past. The anxiety attack won’t end until your mind feels safe, so don’t fight it, let it play out, and gently tell yourself you’re safe until your mind really believes it.
Even before you’re triggered, you can “talk to” your trauma, tell it why it no longer has power over you. Reason why it can never happen to you again, at least not in the same way. Retrain your brain to realize, there’s no reason you need to be protected anymore.
And perhaps a little bit of that anxiety never ceases. PTSD isn’t thought to be totally curable. And maybe this is a good thing, because a little bit of caution can serve a purpose. And after all, the brain is meant to protect us in this way.
As J.R.R. Tolkien (who had PTSD) wrote in his epic novel The Lord of the Rings, the Return of the King, “There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep.”
***The information here is based on my personal experiences with PTSD, as well as what I have learned in trauma therapy. My recommendations are trauma specific tools I have learned for coping with PTSD, but could also be tried with any anxiety disorder.