On Overcoming PTSD

Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a reaction to a traumatic event that disrupts to a person’s life. By definition, the trauma is life threatening, however, people do develop the disorder from situations that others may not consider life threatening. Anyone experiencing PTSD symptoms should seek professional help since the symptoms are very disruptive to many areas of the person’s life (often in ways they do not recognize) and it can be very difficult to overcome PTSD.

This article could be a good first step towards, or an augment to, competent psychological help. A person can work to minimize the impact of the symptoms on their life and may overcome them without professional help, but it will take longer and the effects of the symptoms will continue to damage important areas of their life over this longer period.

The primary job of the human brain is to solve problems and make sense of all experience in life. The symptoms of PTSD come from an inability to properly process and integrate the traumatic experience into the person’s understanding of life. The brain will either continue to think about the event to try to find some way for it to make sense, or attempt to dismiss the event all together. This results in these symptoms:

-Re-experinecing the traumatic event, usually manifest as nightmares, flashbacks, etc.

-Avoiding things that remind the person (or might remind the person) of the event which could include activities, certain types of people, certain types of places, situations that may have certain sights, smells, or other sensations that, maybe very abstractly, relate to the traumatic event.

– A change to more negative outlook regarding themselves (such as survival guilt, feeling worthless, feeling hopeless about the future, not wanting to enter, be invested in, or continue in relationships.) This lack of involvement in relationships may be a form of avoidance, depending on the type of traumatic event in question. This negative outlook could also be about things like the fate of the world, people in general, the stability of the government, dissatisfaction with religion, etc.

-Hyperarousal. This includes experiences like difficulty sleeping or concentrating, an increased startle response, and increased scanning and fear in crowds, public places, or while driving.

The primary problem of PTSD comes from not having a sufficiently robust understanding of the world to make sense of the traumatic event. A person’s understanding of the world is developed over their lifespan by adopting the attitudes of caregivers, embracing belief systems, and developing personal philosophies. These are strengthened as they are used to interpret their experiences. A person may not develop this understanding consciously, so when a traumatic event makes it evident their understanding is inadequate, they do not know how to enhance or alter it to accommodate the traumatic event. Traumatic events that are causing PTSD require the person to consciously augment their understanding of the world to sufficiently explain the experience. Once the person’s world view is adequately modified, they can allow the event to be a part of their life experience. This is important since it actually is a part of their life and denying this fact causes some of the symptoms of PTSD. This allows the person to essentially be in control of the event, instead of attempts to guard against the event controlling them.

In attempting to forget the traumatic event, the person actually enhances the negative effects of the event. It makes sense a person wants to dismiss, attempt to ignore, and therefore forget the traumatic event; a method which works well with events that have no emotional component and did not significantly affect the person. However, because of the nature of the traumatic event, it has an undeniable emotional component and actually changed the person. Therefore, the traumatic event must be remembered completely and accepted as part of their life. As the person allows the traumatic event to be a part of their memories in full form, understanding how it shaped them, and identifying how they emerged from the trauma more purely themselves, it can safely be a part of their memory, and when it is recalled, it does not invoke symptoms because the person understands they are no longer negatively affected by it.

Overcoming PTSD requires the person to alter a lot about how they see the world while wading through painful experiences again; this takes a lot of effort and persistence. This is why it is easier to have a professional to guide them through the process. Once the traumatic event is properly integrated into their understanding of the world and their experience in life, the symptoms abate and the person can function much better in their life and be more resilient for future experiences.