People are often confused about the terms “trauma” and “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). What are they? Are they the same thing? Who is affected? How does it develop? Is there any help?
I will try to answer all of the above questions for you so that you may have a better understanding of trauma and the development of PTSD. Our psychophysiological response to trauma is complex, but through an understanding of this response and the new healing modalities available, those living with PTSD can have hope of being healed.
Although the two terms trauma and PTSD are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Trauma is the subjective experience of feeling that your life was endangered in some way or that you were in a situation in which you felt helpless. PTSD is feeling traumatized to such an extent that, among other symptoms, your body remains in a state of hyper-arousal, even after a traumatic incident has ended. The more threatened or helpless an individual feels in a situation, the higher the likelihood that they will develop symptoms of PTSD after the event has ended. An individual does not always have to be a part of the traumatic incident to feel they have been traumatized. Witnessing or even just hearing about violence inflicted upon others can also result in one feeling traumatized. No one situation is experienced in the same way by any two individuals, therefore subjective perception of a traumatic event is a key determinant in the development of PTSD.
PTSD is the outcome of an interaction between trauma intensity and personal vulnerability. Several variables beyond our control can determine whether or not an individual will be susceptible to the development of PTSD after experiencing a traumatizing event or events. If an incident is severe enough, it is likely that all those involved would develop the disorder.
Variables influencing vulnerability to PTSD include:
Now that you have an understanding of the key differences between trauma and PTSD, as well as the mediating factors that influence an individual's vulnerability to developing PTSD, I will touch upon the physiological aspects that are key to its development.
It is commonly known that the initial reaction to a stressful event is the fight, flight or freeze response. The body alarms us that we are not safe, that there is a threat in our environment. Once the threat has passed, the body returns to a state of balance. What is different in individuals that develop PTSD is that their alarm response continues even after the threat has passed. After being exposed to what is perceived as an extreme stressor initiating the fight, flight or freeze response, the body remains in a chronic state of arousal instead of returning to a state of balance. The continued flood of stress hormones to the body then results in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that helps us put our continual flow of life events into storage) going offline. With the hippocampus virtually dormant, traumatic incidents are not anchored to the events of the past, as they should be. Instead these incidents continue to present as if they were still part of the present. Events therefore continue to be perceived as if in the present without ending or one feeling they have survived the trauma.
In addition to the hippocampus going offline during traumatic events, the area of the brain known as Broca’s area (responsible for speech production) is also suppressed. At the same time speech production is suppressed, the area of the brain responsible for storing emotional information is activated. The degree of suppression of the hippocampus along with the activation of emotional memory increases with the level of stress. The highly charged emotions around the trauma are readily stored for later retrieval, while the ability to put the trauma into words to fully process the event is limited. Individuals exposed to a traumatic event therefore may be highly emotional in their recall of the event, but unable to fully process the experience as a result of the suppression of both the hippocampus and Broca’s area.
Lastly, human beings have two types of memory systems. For the sake of simplicity, I will only refer to them as unconscious and conscious memory. The conscious memory system partially relies on the hippocampus, which as mentioned earlier, goes offline. In addition, conscious memory also relies on oral or written language, which is also suppressed; therefore conscious memory of a traumatic event is often sketchy at best. The unconscious memory plays the biggest role in memory storage from a traumatic event. Aspects of the trauma that have been stored in the unconscious memory are beyond recall, often causing excessive distress and confusion. A certain smell, colour or other form of sensory input may trigger a distressing unconscious memory. The difficulty arises in not being able to put that distress into context. For example, if the memory of a man in a blue shirt seen during the time of the traumatic incident was stored in the unconscious memory, just seeing a blue shirt hanging in a store window may cause distress; however, since there is no conscious memory of the blue shirt from the traumatic incident, the distress seems to have no grounds, which is distressing in itself. As the number of triggers that arise without context increase, the level of individual distress and anxiety increase as well. Flashbacks often experienced by those suffering from PTSD, occur as a result of a traumatic incident not being stored in memory as a past event.
It is my hope that with this deeper understanding of why and how PTSD develops, you will also understand the difficulty in healing from PTSD and lastly, have a better understanding of the many symptoms experienced by those suffering with PTSD. Although PTSD has been treated successfully in the past with many different therapeutic interventions, it often takes years. The introduction of energy psychology has changed that. Its use to treat PTSD has been proven to be highly successful and in a much shorter period of time. One of the biggest populations suffering from PTSD is that of our war veterans. Those who were willing to be treated using energy psychology experienced a greater than 80% recovery rate from the life-limiting symptoms of PTSD, in as little as six weeks! These are highly successful statistics worth taking note of!
In my next blog, I will explain why energy psychology is proving to be extremely effective in the treatment of PTSD and what it can accomplish that talk therapy cannot.