When you start responding to trauma triggers—like completely overreacting to simple circumstances—do you begin to question your sanity? I know I do. But we have to remember that our sanity is not compromised when we get triggered. It is simply a matter of biology and psychology—our brains on PTSD.
PTSD and Survivors of Abuse
If you are new to learning about abuse and recovery, perhaps you only think of war veterans when even reading the term PTSD. It can; however, be the result of any traumatic event. Many survivors of abuse develop PTSD or C-PTSD during, or in the aftermath, of their experience.
“According to the nonprofit PTSD United, Inc., 70% of U.S. adults have experienced a significant trauma at least once in their lifetime. That equates to 223.4 million people. 20% of those victims develop PTSD. When we picture the disorder, we often see a returned soldieru—usalluy male—wrestling with emotional scars from the battlefield. In reality, one out of every nine suffers is female…” (from Been Traumatized? Here’s How PTSD Rewires the Brain on Big Think).
Trauma affects all of us differently. So if you have experienced trauma, you may or may not develop PTSD. One of the contributing factors may be that abuse is often not a traumatic event as such, but a traumatizing experience that can last many years. Being consistently exposed to harm or abuse may lead us not only to develop PTSD, but C-PTSD—or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“The “Complex” in Complex Post Traumatic Disorder describes how one layer after another of trauma can interact with [others]” describes Out Of the Fog. They go on to say: “People who suffer from C-PTSD may feel un-centered and shaky, as if they are likely to have an embarrassing emotional breakdown or burst into tears at any moment. They may feel unloved – or that nothing they can accomplish is ever going to be “good enough” for others. […] People who suffer from C-PTSD may feel that everything is just about to go “out the window” and that they will not be able to handle even the simplest task. They may be too distracted by what is going on at home to focus on being successful at school or in the workplace.”
See! It isn’t your sanity! It is your brain on (C-)PTSD!
PTSD and Your Brain
You may think of PTSD as an emotional disorder, but it really isn’t. PTSD is a physical alteration that takes place in the brain and actually influences the way it functions.
“When a trauma occurs, the reptilian brain takes over. This is the brain stem or the earliest developed part. It kicks in the “fight or flight” response. All nonessential body and mind functions shut down. When the threat ceases, the parasympathetic nervous system down-shifts and resumes those higher functions. For 20% of survivors, after effects remain, what we know as PTSD. The organ being plastic, trauma fundamentally changes how it operates” (from Been Traumatized? Here’s How PTSD Rewires the Brain on Big Think).
Psychology Today describes these three ways in which the traumatized brain looks different from a non-traumatized brain:
- The Thinking Center is underactivated,
- The Emotion Regulation Center is underactivated
- The Fear Center is overactivated.
Does that make more sense of those moments when your brain goes into a flurry? Not being able to regulate your thoughts and emotions? Feeling fearful of absolutely everything? In CPTSD & the Waves of Utter Despair I describe:
“I am just going to ask you to imagine something you are afraid of. Heights or spiders or some such. Something that, rationally, you know is not going to hurt you. But when you are confronted with it, it makes your heart rate jump, gives you the chills, and makes your hair stand on end. Your body reacts as if you are facing a threat. You either freeze or run. But if you override your fear response with rational thought, nothing will happen. You can just step down the ladder, or walk past the spider.”
Now imagine that it is not just a minor threat that you feel, but that you feel like you are going to die.
And, really, you should because you are a great big disappointment, and you fail at everything. Oh, and by the way, no one will or has ever loved you!
How long did it take your rational mind to talk you down from that 3 step ladder?
How long do you think it takes me to talk myself down from that emotional ledge?
I am not saying that every time I am triggered I end up on in that place—sometimes = it is more of a three step ladder. And other times it is the third floor. Today it was Mount Everest. So, yeah, I broke down in sobbing cries in the middle of afternoon lattes. I was already planning my escape. I was ready to run away. Go to another place where I imagined I would not be triggered anymore. The problem being that my head would move to this other place with me, and thus my ledge.”
PTSD Triggers and Emotional Flashbacks
One of the concepts that really helped me understand PTSD, and how it affected me personally, was the idea of flashbacks.
I knew that flashbacks were part of PTSD. Although memories sometimes snuck up on me, I did not relate to these as being flashbacks. At least not in the way that pop culture portrays PTSD flashbacks (usually for veterans) in mainstream media—completely detached from reality and experiencing their memories as if they are happening in the present. I don’t ever feel like that. I have never felt detached from reality to the extent that my senses are feeding me incorrect information. At least not my physical senses. My emotional senses? That is a different story.
For me, and many survivors of abuse, the flashbacks are emotional. Suddenly we have a strong emotional response, and it is not seemingly related to anything that is happening around us in the present. Triggers and flashbacks can be many and varied. Many of my triggers are smells or images. But they can also be far less tangible things like stress or experiencing irregularities in my daily routine. When I was moving house a few years ago, I was feeling extremely anxious when one of my survivor sisters reassured me: “Yes, you are off balance because things are changing. And it feels like when we were kids and our parents kept us off balance. But you can’t take a step without changing your balance. We just have a fear of it because we were subjected to our balance being unnecessarily messed up” (read the entire article here).
When we experience certain stimuli that remind us of our abuser, these things trigger emotional responses that are connected to the past abuse rather than our present situation.
Life With PTSD
When you are experiencing PTSD, you typically try to avoid being triggered. In fact, avoiding reminders of the trauma is a defining feature of the disorder. After I was run over by a truck, I tried to avoid getting anywhere near them in traffic for quite a long time. Pretty much until I got my license in fact (trucks are easier to avoid by bicycle than car, trust me). The trouble with triggers of long-term emotional trauma is that they are harder, if not impossible, to avoid. While the target of abuse, you will have lived many weeks, months, and often years under the traumatising influence of a bully. So much will have happened in that time—many things that may remind you the abuse. E.g. never going to the supermarket because certain products remind you of your abuser. Or never moving house because it creates panic. Wanting to avoid triggers altogether is understandable, but not always realistic.
Recognizing your triggers will help you deal with the flashbacks they bring up. It will allow you to start learning, and using, coping skills to regain control and feel better more quickly. Don’t write yourself off as broken, insane, or beyond saving. With time, care, and help you can improve your mental health by feeling, gradually, more in control of your own mind again.
* If you suspect you may be suffering from PTSD or C-PTSD, you will want to talk to your general practitioner or therapist. In some cases medication can help you better manage, and you can learn good coping skills too.