I wonder what it would be like to live one day without a jolt of terror running through my veins. Literally, one day without my off the chart startle response would be heavenly. And, it’s so unexpected ... a soft knock on my office door or my husband’s gentle kiss to wake me in the morning can cause me to jump a mile high and send my heart rate into orbit.
But no one would ever guess this ... that I startle so quickly, so entirely. No one can understand the pervasive power of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and its effects on the body and mind unless they have endured hard trauma. Hard trauma ... an event, experience, or ongoing circumstances that are or appear to be life-threatening. Additionally, the event or events are overwhelming; beyond developed coping mechanisms or one’s ability to process the adversity in a constructive manner.
The term has become more common due to studies of war veterans. However, an overwhelming number of people with PTSD are not war veterans; they are people...children, mothers and fathers, lovers and friends who have survived the worst evils of this world. In other words, they are also heroes.
So ... what does PTSD include? On the grand scale, PTSD is a diagnosed anxiety disorder birthed from a perceived or actual life-threatening event or series of events. Three factors seem to most greatly affect PTSD’s severity:
1) Age of onset
2) Intensity of trauma experience
3) Duration of trauma endured
What was originally considered a diagnosis limited to war vets is now considered by specialists across the board as an astounding mental health concern for all trauma survivors. Events such as natural disasters, accidents, child and domestic abuse, rape, torture, or witnessing any of the above. Further, depending on the age and developmental coping strengths, some specialists have studied the fear/perceived threat response in relation to extreme gaming and trauma shown in movies and on Television.
It sounds clinical until you live with someone who has PTSD. Since my son and I are both diagnosed with PTSD, my husband is our champion. He loves us through our nightmares, flashbacks, intense hyper-vigilance, isolation, depression and mood dysregulation challenges. The physical struggles with chronic pain, chemical imbalances, concentration, and auto-immune disorders require a patient tenderness and grace beyond measure. Because of his support and care, we are healing.
That isn’t always the case for everyone.
Often, those who have little support systems to turn to may choose alternative coping mechanisms that numb but don’t heal their wounds. Substances such as alcohol, drugs, illegal medication, and risk taking behavior are a few examples of those trying to cope with symptoms that may seem effective in the immediate but are more harming in the long run.
To be most helpful in healing, it’s important to keep these things in mind...
1) Regardless of how irrational the thoughts and anxiety symptoms may be to a typical person, those with PTSD need empathetic listening for them to trust your care over time.
2) PTSD triggers may happen at any moment. Don’t invalidate the trigger by saying “it’s no big deal” or “what’s your problem”. Instead, ask “what can I do to help you through this?”.
3) Emotions are difficult to regulate for PTSD survivors. We may seem angry, frustrated, annoyed, irritated at the smallest thing. Instead of blowing off the urgent trigger, communicate your commitment to the relationship and ask what you can do to help at any given time.
4) Don’t take personally our over or under reactions to the environment or behavior. Remember, we are doing our best to live in a world that appears frightening. It would help if you became more knowledgeable about PTSD and how to respond to out of the ordinary responses.
5) Know that we long to be happy and free of our triggers, pain, history, flashbacks, nightmares. Your concern and love means more than trying to talk out or fix us.
6) Sometimes when we are quiet, we are trying to process an event or are in circumstances we cognitively know are okay but emotionally are threatened. Don’t dismiss our fear; enter it with us and help us see the truth rather than the lies we may be believing.
7) Know that our anxiety has a voice...it’s usually critical, accusatory, assumptive, and often irrational. Don’t take it personally; know we are fighting shadows of our past that appear very real.
8) Some days, we don’t desire to get out and play. Play is difficult. By being patient, offering to be available for play and fun means more than you know.
9) Examining and extreme vigilance is exhausting but also remember, it was possibly life-saving. When one is stuck in a pattern of thinking, offer a distraction like playing a game, going for a walk, and communicating your present without fear of rejection.
10) Never tell us we are “crazy” or “to get over it”; we long to be over it but can’t in an instant. Patience is a virtue we need from others to heal.
11) When we say...” I can’t handle this”, “This is terrifying”, “I can’t do this” ...offer respect for how far we have come and help us with breathing and meditating. Providing strength helps us become more strong.
12) Remember, everything you say will be examined, questioned, and contextualized. Obsessing over things may last a long time; your constant reassurance is more healing than you know.
13) Instead of dismissing our struggles, offer to help get us to people trained in PTSD healing. We want to be whole but have been deeply wounded; your presence and the help of trained professionals may change our world...we need YOU!