“The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is your own self fully. ” – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Chances are, if you are reading this, you have heard of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) at some point in your life.
While I have a very personal reason for writing this, I wanted to go over what the clinical definition of PTSD is and just how many people in the U.S. are estimated to be affected. According to the American Psychiatry Association, one in every 11 adults are estimated to suffer from PTSD. So think about it this way – if you have 11 people in your office, one out of them is likely to be suffering from PTSD. Chances are you will not know which one it is, because many people suffer in silence. Why you may ask? It can be extremely debilitating and embarrassing to one’s ego to try to explain the range of emotions that come when a “trigger” takes place. I put the word trigger in quotations, because everyone’s trigger is different. PTSD develops after experiencing a traumatic event and rears its ugly head when the person experiences an event or feeling that reminds them of their trauma. The reaction is not a conscious thing because, since the traumatic event, the way the person responds has been altered. Specific symptoms can range in severity, and is often coupled with other conditions such as depression, substance abuse, memory problems, and so on. It also often takes a long time to be diagnosed. Mainly because it is not as black and white as people would think, and connecting the dots on your own can be hard.
This is where my story comes in. Let me start by saying, the term PTSD was not new to me
when I was diagnosed, as I’m sure it isn’t for you who is reading this. However, if you would have asked me if I was suffering from it, I would have denied it. I work for a Veterans organization as an intake specialist so I hear the term “PTSD” on a weekly, if not daily, basis. However, fully understanding it was another thing and associating any of that to me was definitely not on my radar.
It was not until this past weekend when an emergency call to my therapist took place, that I began to connect the dots of my emotions – the traumas of the past – and lastly, how they manifested into that very moment when I was panicking so bad I couldn’t catch my breath.
For those who do not know me, a little background is needed first. Dating back to when I was little, I have always been a sensitive person. I took things harder than most, and wanted to achieve perfection in anything I tried. This is what I consider to be the first layer in which my life was built. Having that as my first layer of skin, did not set me up well for anything that could potentially go wrong in the future. After taking some time to reflect, to date I have experienced two traumatic events in my lifetime – one being my dad’s death (which I personally witnessed) and the other being the verbal abuse I exposed myself to during my
relationship with my ex-husband. While clearly both affected me hard, I said to myself “other people have experienced worse, so stop feeling sorry for yourself.” In hindsight, this was the worst thing I could have ever said to myself because it did not allow myself to process and nor heal from these events. So when I would constantly break down or be triggered by something minor afterward, I thought I was just weak and emotional.
I honestly didn’t even know how to describe it to my therapist, other than in bits and pieces:
- When I felt “stuck” in a situation where I didn’t have control, I would go into a panic attack.
- Other people’s yelling or arguing whether at me or not, often made me cry or hyperventilate.
- I didn’t like leaving home. I got fearful something would happen to my significant other or one of my pets.
- Body-dysmorphia, and overall not feeling “good enough” – which often lead to perfectionist thinking and eating disorder thoughts/actions
- Fear of being cheated on – so much so that I become fixated on it, and again I would circle back to me not being “good enough”
- Constantly felt the need to apologize for everything.
- I would breakdown over small disagreements
I never connected any of these together. I just figured I was a sensitive person and suffer from high anxiety. I never went back to those traumatic events and thought “Oh, these events still affect me and are the reasons why I still react a certain way.” Yes they hurt, but I didn’t realize at what at a large scale they still hurt.
So, let’s flashback to Saturday – I was in a situation where I felt stuck in and thought it could could possibly end badly. I began hyperventilating – crying uncontrollably – wanting to run – and I honestly could not rationalize why I felt that way – only that I felt stuck. As I began describing the situation to my therapist and explaining I don’t understand why I’m reacting this way – she then said “you have endured a lot of trauma in past relationships. What you are experiencing are the same emotions you described to me with how you felt in your marriage.” We talked a little further and I said to her that I did not (in those moments) have any type of flashback or even relive the ten years of verbal abuse. It was instead, just the reaction – and then I got it. I understood what she was saying. The feeling of being stuck in a chaotic situation, in which I had no power, had reappeared and brought back all the same emotions it did every time I wanted to leave the unhealthy relationship I was in a couple years ago. The broken pieces of me were now affecting my current relationship because it was easier to run than to face the emotions head on.
I began processing that a little further and realized the bits and pieces I described to you earlier – were my triggers. The moments that often set me off and had became my new normal was because I had been so broken down from my watching my dad die, and dealing with constant verbal abuse/cheating/lies/etc because my ex-husband was dealing with his own mental illness.
Most people picture hardened war veterans or first responders when they think of PTSD. And yes, they take up a high percentage of those with PTSD. But PTSD can affect ANYONE who has experienced something traumatic. Having anxiety before these events in my life are what most likely made it so I was more predisposed to developing PTSD when these events did occur.
I find it extremely vulnerable and hard to discuss – especially on such a wide scale – but I feel it is important for me to share my story in some aspect, so others realize that anyone can develop PTSD. And more so, that the symptoms are real and cannot always just be stopped through reasoning. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk states, “the big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is your own self fully. ” In other words, with the help of a licensed professional, the person suffering can learn their triggers and begin to understand themselves better and gain a stronger sense of self. While there is no cure nor one specific treatment, deciding to take the journey toward self-discovery is half the battle.
If you or someone you know is experiencing something similar to what I described, I urge you to seek a licensed professional to help sort it out. For more information on PTSD (such as symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment), please see the Mayo Clinic for more details.
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