Post-traumatic stress disorder is not actually diagnosed until we’ve had symptoms for at least six months after the trauma. The initial symptoms, which are often very similar to the ongoing symptoms, will only be diagnosed as PTSD if we’ve had them for a sustained period of time. And there are a number of different criteria for whether or not we are afflicted with PTSD. It’s not easy to actually ‘get the diagnosis’ (assuming we want it) because (as I understand it, and was told by the rape counsellor) a psychiatrist needs to do the diagnosis, and we don’t often have access to actual psychiatrists.
It was six years in before I was formally diagnosed, but I always knew that this was something that I was suffering from. And essentially, whether or not it’s an official diagnosis of PTSD or not, when we are suffering with hypervigilance, with panic attacks and flashbacks, with sleeplessness, with nightmares, then very likely it is PTSD. (Obviously this is my lay person’s opinion only).
It is the job of the unconscious brain is to protect us.
It regulates our bodies, it knows that we need to breath every few seconds, it knows what to do with food when we eat it, it knows how to get the nutrients from that food, it knows how to keep hydrated and pull out all the water from the food. It knows to blink, things that our body does without us consciously thinking about. And this is what it does when it’s trying to protect us from trauma as well.
And so, when we’ve been traumatised and we’re in that state of terror, that sometimes just doesn’t go away. It doesn’t abate, and we stay in that state. That’s because our brain is stuck in the animal state of looking out for what might be dangerous to us. It’s doing its job of trying to protect us. It feels like it needs to work extra hard to protect us because it hadn’t managed to stop the threat happening that happened.
The outcome of this is that we’re always on edge with hypervigilance, looking around us, jumping out of our skin at the slightest unexpected noise; anxiety attacks or panic attacks, having flashbacks that are taking us back to what happened. That’s natural and normal, it’s our brain trying to protect us.
We also will start to avoid things when we’re suffering from PTSD. Naturally, avoidance of a place or a thing that reminds us of the trauma is one of the criteria for PTSD. But we will just start to avoid things that we think might make us feel more anxious, that might make us feel more exhausted, that might mean that we need to be more alert and on edge. And so we start to make the choices that lead to us living a much narrower and smaller life.
We can also get very irritable and angry. And of course we just be very angry because of what’s happened to us. We can be angry at the injustice in the world and very angry at the unfairness of having been a good person and having bad things happen to us.
Of course, an effect of the hypervigilance being on edge, is that we can find it really difficult to concentrate. It means that our focus is really, really difficult because we’ve got our minds on like a zillion other things of who’s behind me, is that person over there safe, what’s going to happen; we’re on edge like an animal in the wild. And the fact that we can’t focus very easily, the fact that we have forgetfulness as well, which is also an impact of PTSD, does make it very much more difficult for us to do well in our work lives and in other areas of our lives.
If you’re struggling with these symptoms, remember it’s totally natural.
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s not a disorder of the brain; the brain is doing what it is naturally supposed to do. What is at fault is the trauma, not the response to it.
Your brain is processing the trauma, it’s just a little stuck in the terror loop. It will calm, over time. Studies have shown that PTSD, even without any intervention, is not necessarily a life-long affliction. I’ll say that again: even without any intervention it can disappear, it can alleviate and then disappear. And of course, there are many things we can do for ourselves to encourage that process and find ways for our lives to not be ruled by the PTSD. (And, of course access to trained mental health trauma professionals is gold).
I can’t really talk about PTSD without talking about the window of tolerance. I first discovered the window of tolerance in my psychiatrist’s office and it was like my whole world suddenly made sense. Imagine a ‘normal’ person, just your average person walking down the street. They go through the day, at times they’ll feel calm, at times they might feel excited, at times they might hit a peak towards stressed. At other times, they might get home from work and feel like flopping on the sofa, but they won’t be so entirely wiped out that they just never want to leave. This is the average human’s window of tolerance.
And with PTSD? It’s a bit of a yo-yo between hyper and hypo states.
Hyper is when we’re very on edge, hypervigilance. Hypo is when we’re absolutely crashed, exhausted, underneath the duvet, can’t move, no energy, not even to get up and brush our teeth. I know that happened to me a lot. It is the same as the average human’s curve, except what is an average amount of excitement or stress to us is very, very dangerous, it’s in the red zone. And what is for others would be an average amount of feeling tired, we are in the exhausted hypo zone. And it’s really, really difficult to live in this yo-yo.
Whether or not you’re finding yourself in the middle zone of ‘meh’, not feeling very much at all, and your window is very small, or you are finding yourself going between hyper and hypo and trying to ride that wave and whatever you’re doing to help you ride that wave or to keep the window manageable for you, it’s all okay. That window can be opened some more, over time. We can start to reduce the hyper through calming our parasympathetic system, and we can start to reduce the hypo through learning to pace ourselves through the day and understanding our body and what drains energy versus what replenishes us. There are all things that we can learn – and everything I learned through my recovery that helps overcome the symptoms of PTSD is in the Taste of Recovery.
Remember, PTSD is just your body’s response to trauma. It is protecting you.
It can feel like it’s doing it in a very unhelpful way, but it is doing it because its primary job is to protect you.
If PTSD is ruling your life, take a look at my free download, the Survivor’s Survival Kit, which has a number of tools that you can use to help you get through the day, and also my Safe Place Meditation, which will give you a calming sanctuary to retreat to. Finally, do consider whether the Taste of Recovery is for you: it’s everything I wished I had in the times when I was floundering.
Let me know if this has resonated, if it’s helped at all, in the comments below. Or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With love, xx
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