Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (also referred to as “traumatic stress” or simply “trauma”) generally refers to the psychological stress experienced after a traumatic event or stressor has occurred.
Traumatic events are stressful because your ability to perform is exceeded by the demands of the situation. A traumatic event is any experience that is more than your nervous system can handle and “process.”
Traumatic stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occur when the hyperaroused physiological state associated with the Fight or Flight response has not been discharged after the trauma or stress has ended. Symptoms of trauma can be hidden, chronic, periodic, episodic, delayed, or complex.
Stressors That Can Cause Trauma
PTSD commonly results from physical abuse, accidents, war, natural disaster or if you are a victim of a crime. Trauma can also be caused by long-term neglect or other forms of abuse, including subtle, verbal, and psychological abuse or multiple less significant traumas.
Additionally, PTSD could result from caring for a sick loved one or the death of a loved one. “Vicarious trauma” may occur if you witness another person experience a trauma, or when you listen to someone recount the story of their trauma. Trauma can result from surgery, dental procedures, extreme isolation or poverty.
In addition to the more obvious traumas such as being bullied in school, a child may experience trauma from the loss of a favorite toy, being alone at night, moving to a new home, the humiliation of being seen nude during puberty, a new brother or sister, being tickled, a difficult birth, and even the most amicable divorce or separation.
Unfortunately, children are generally unable to talk about such stressors in ways that would make a parent notice the severity of their condition. In some cases, if the parent is stressed, the child may deny their own feelings in an attempt to shield the parent from further distress. One clue that your child may be suffering from trauma is a sudden change in their behavior.
Stress and Trauma Are Subjective
Traumatic events are subjective: your level of stress depends on your perception of the event. If two people experience the same traumatic event, it is possible that only one may experience PTSD.
In general, unexpected stressors invoke a much greater stress response than stressors that are predicted. A small amount of stress is healthy. Then stress feels like a challenge, not a problem.
Your ability to handle stress and how you perceive stress depends upon many factors such as your age, your overall health, your level of stress before the traumatic event, and your attitude about your life and your future.
Some Cultural Beliefs Can Inhibit Healing
Many culturally acceptable beliefs about stress and emotions actually inhibit our ability to recover from trauma, which could lead to PTSD. Society conditions us to be ashamed of strong emotions that reveal our vulnerability. To reveal emotions such as grief means we risk appearing weak.
Most physiological responses to traumatic situations or stress, such as trembling or crying, are suppressed in civilized society. We are expected to remain unaffected by any negative events around us, and if we do experience emotions, we are expected to “get over it” quickly so we can get back to work.
The most common approach to changing our thoughts or emotions is to repeat positive thoughts in our mind while denying the existence of our negative thoughts, which requires enormous will-power and has limited results, at best. Resisting or suppressing these “negative” or embarrassing emotions and thoughts makes it difficult to recover from trauma and has a deleterious impact on our mental and physical well-being.
How Trauma Becomes Stored in the Body
During a traumatic experience, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, triggering the Fight or Flight Response. This instinctual self-defense response commandeers energy from other vital functions in order to deal with the perceived imminent threat.
To prepare for battle or escape, your heart rate will increase; your blood vessels will constrict; and sugar will be pulled out of storage and dumped into your bloodstream to provide energy. In fact, Fight or Flight requires so much energy that some important functions are put on hold: Digestion, the sex drive and immunity are inhibited because energy is diverted to the muscles.
If you are unable to fight or flee, however, the body will attempt to protect itself by “playing dead.” This is known as the Freeze Response or Immobility Response.
In this stage, a person may experience temporary physical paralysis and immunity to pain. Dissociation occurs when emotions are shut down and the person feels detached from reality. You may experience an altered state of consciousness in which time stands still.
Suppression of emotions locks in the Freeze Response. PTSD may result when this state has not been turned off. If the energy mustered by the nervous system for defense is not released because the body and emotions are inhibited, the nervous system will remain supercharged.
As a result, the pent-up energy becomes stored in the body as chronically contracted muscles, most often in the muscles of the pelvis, abdomen, and thighs. Long-term stress (itself a form of trauma) or strenuous physical activity may also cause chronic tension in these muscles.
Wild animals also have the Flight, Fight or Freeze Response. However, they rarely develop PTSD or traumatic stress. If they survive immobilization, they discharge the energy with bodily shaking and deep breathing, thus restoring the body and mind to a normal, healthy state. Shaking mimics flight.
Possible Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma
Emotional and mental symptoms of PTSD and chronic stress may include avoidance (avoiding triggers), hyperarousal (always alert to threats), panic attacks and extreme fear, anger issues, debilitating shame or humiliation, relationship issues, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks, recurring dreams about the trauma, inability to experience love or joy, and more.
Chronically contracted muscles as a result of the Freeze Response reduce circulation and oxygenation of neighboring organs. If the contracted muscles are not released, the individual could develop health conditions, which might appear to be unrelated to trauma, such as low back pain, incontinence, colon cancer, constipation or diarrhea, shortness of breath, hormonal issues, digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, Fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, chronic illness or illnesses that doctors can’t explain.
More Possible Symptoms of PTSD:
• Obesity and eating disorders
• Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and hoarding
• Headaches or migraines
• Nightmares, insomnia and other sleep disturbances
• Phobias, anxiety and paranoia
• Attention Deficit Disorder
• Low libido or excessive libido
• Isolation and loneliness
• Apathy and depression
• Addictive behaviors
• Low self-esteem and self-hatred
• Nervous twitches and tics
• Feeling unable to change behavior
• Poor posture
• Infertility, PMS and menstrual cramping
• Poor boundaries in relationships; inability to say “no”
• Disconnected from emotions or emotional numbness
Recurring Negative Life Situations Resulting from Trauma
As an organism capable of healing its own trauma, the human psyche is constantly attempting to heal itself. In cases where time, rest, and the support of family and community are not enough to heal the trauma, and help is required, the psyche must alert the conscious mind to the problem to drive the conscious mind to seek help.
In cases of severe trauma, the personality may be radically altered, and the traumatized mind becomes identified with trauma-based values and beliefs, such as “I will be alone all my life” or “I can never change” or “I will never be happy.”
Because these thoughts were a survival strategy during the traumatic event, they are tenacious and hold the trauma in place in a perpetual cycle. The personality becomes their trauma, which is reflected in statements such as “I am a loser” or “I am broken.” In essence, the person has become their trauma—it has become their identity.
Healing always replaces these thoughts with positive statements, which also changes the personality. It is very difficult for a trauma-based personality to change itself, because deep inside it believes these negative thoughts are required for survival.
Full recovery requires changing the mental program established during trauma. The conscious mind may need to engage help to accomplish this.
The Subconscious Mind Orchestrates Events to Initiate Change
The impulse to heal starts in the spirit or soul, and utilizes the subconscious mind in an attempt to engage the conscious mind, which is necessary to manifest a full recovery. The powerful subconscious mind is capable of orchestrating events and creating situations in order to recreate important and unhealed aspects of the original trauma.
These recreations take many forms, involving abusive or narcissistic life partners or bosses, legal issues, passive-aggressive behavior patterns, self-sacrifice, or even being randomly abused by strangers. Generally, there is a theme or pattern which can be boiled down to an archetype such as “Betrayal” or “Persecution” or “Abandonment.”
If the conscious mind refuses to address the underlying issue of the primary trauma, then a “temporary solution” may occur, such as divorce, separation or perhaps moving to another city. These solutions are “temporary” because the person has not actually changed their trauma-based thoughts or behavior, nor have they addressed the pattern or archetype.
Generally, temporary solutions are followed by a period of relative freedom from the issue before the trauma begins to resurface, causing the subconscious to recreate the same negative situation again in order to enlist the conscious mind to take action.
Resisting the message to address the trauma, can cause these negative cycles to become more and more intense, and perhaps even life threatening, involving serious illness or accidents leading to near-death experiences that force the conscious mind to “wake up” and begin the process of self-transformation, healing and forgiveness.
Ideally, these negative situations provide the impetus for the individual to finally confront and heal the primary source of the stress or dysfunction—the original traumatic event—in order to function in the present and begin to move forward again, free from the past. The conscious mind perceives these negative situations as a “problem” and takes action or seeks help to initiate change, growth and resolution.
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