PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Getting Stuck in Getting Well)

PTSD is a psychological “disorder” that occurs when the mind is trying to recover from a significant life-threatening event (e.g., motor vehicle accident, combat, rape, sexual assault, child abuse, invasive surgery, life threatening illness, to name a few) for our self or a loved one. The typical responses to these events include re-experiencing the event, avoiding the event, or hyper-arousal for the event. Examples of re-experiencing are flashbacks, intrusive thoughts/memories/images, nightmares, and strong emotional/physical reactions when reminded of the event. Examples of avoidance are trying to not think of it, not doing things that remind you of the event, not remembering important parts, loss of interest in past activities, drinking/drugging, withdrawing from partner/family/friends, and feeling numb about things we really liked. Hyperarousal stems from feeling in danger and not feeling safe; behaviors include sleep disturbance, irritability, concentration difficulties, jumpy, easily startled, and hypervigilant.

Healing from trauma involves the adaptive process of coming to a meaningful understanding of the event without the horrific emotions. It is not “just forgetting it” but involves changing the experience of the event. Post-traumatic growth occurs when we come to a new awareness from going through the experience and results in change in our personal strength, relating to others, spiritual growth, appreciation of life and seeing new possibilities. (See CPFS Mental Health Notes on “Post-Traumatic Growth”.)

But, how do we get from here to there. Our minds, like our bodies, have an innate adaptive drive to survive. With our bodies, white blood cells go to the site to fight infections, and swelling stiffens a sprained joint. Our minds work in a similar way. The mind helps us avoid until we are in a safe enough place to think and experience the event. Re-experiencing an event with reduced emotions and physical arousal (i.e., slow breathing, normal heart rate, calm and relaxed) allows us to make sense and process the event. So, these are really the mind’s attempt to set the stage for healing. Many spontaneously recover from events in this healing way with the help and support of family, friends, faith, early interventions, etc.

However, if we are in the fight/flight state, we can’t feel safe, and cannot process the trauma. As one patient told me, “I get in such a state I can’t think state.” You can’t make sense of something if you are still scared to death, and consequently stay “stuck.”

Treatment restores the natural progression of the healing process, allowing for the traumatic event to be safely part of one’s past, through which they have survived, and become a better person than they were before the event. The shorter the interval between trauma and treatment, the less disruption to our life. But, clearly, PTSD can be treated, and treated very successfully.

If you or a loved one are stuck in progressing toward healing, give us a call to facilitate getting on with your life!!

Richard “Rick” Murphy, Jr., Ph.D. has worked with trauma survivors since 1978. He has been a guest speaker on trauma treatment to psychologist, law enforment, school personnel, veterans, and clergy. He is a Charter Member of EMDRIA (1996) and Certified EMDR Therapist.

All the psychologists at CPFS have extensive experience working with trauma.

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