Talk About It: Healing PTSD

Keeping secrets can be dangerous.

Posted Oct 02, 2013

Freaking out

Freaking out (from "The Happy Introvert")

When I was around 9 years old I didn’t feel safe talking about the rising flute-like tone that recurred in my head. I dreaded telling my parents lest they would think I was crazy, disregard my experience, or be ashamed of me. I kept it a secret, continued to feel frightened, and wondered what was wrong with me.

In my 40s, recurring sensations of an explosion in my head occurred almost every day. My heart raced, breathing was difficult, and I’d want to run out of the room. I contemplated suicide to end the torture. Keeping this a secret prolonged my agony until I saw a therapist who urged me to see a neurologist. I learned I had been trying to cope with temporal lobe epilepsy. With treatment, the symptoms went away.

Experiences like these, as well as abuse, and violence, including horrors soldiers experience on the battlefield, can produce Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“The Return” by David Finkel in the 9-9-13 New Yorker cites a program called Haven Behavioral for mentally wounded soldiers. Their most effective therapy for PTSD is for soldiers to read from their journals and talk together about their experiences until they no longer avoid the subject of what has happened to them.

One session leader told the group, “Think about going to see a scary movie. The first time, for me, it sucks. I get home, and I have nightmares, I don’t sleep well, and just whatever, because I’m a wuss at scary movies. If I see the same movie over and over, by the third day it’s still a little scary, but not as bad. The tenth time, the cheerleader gets her neck cut off, here’s the blood, and now the chainsaw, and I’m getting bored. It’s the same principle with explosions for you guys. If you stay with the experience repeatedly until it starts to dissipate, the explosion starts to be less impactful. It’s called habituation.”

Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence writes: “Vivid, terrifying moments become memories emblazoned in the emotional circuitry. The symptoms are signs of an over-aroused amygdala impelling vivid memories of a traumatic moment to intrude on awareness… These memories sound an alarm at the least hint the dread moment is about to happen again…. Hundred of thousands of people each year endure disasters, and many come away with emotional wounding that leaves its imprint on the brain.

“…Victims of violence feel they have been intentionally selected as the target of malevolence… Within an instant, the social world becomes a dangerous place, where people are potential threats to your safety… The neural basis for these memories appears to be alterations in the chemistry of the brain set in motion by overwhelming terror… similar results can come from cruelties inflicted over a period of years.” Retelling what happened (every sordid detail, including what the person saw, heard, smelled, and felt) is crucial in healing. The memory is put into words and brought under the control of the neo-cortex. This calms the amygdala, the emotional center, where fight or flight reactions take place.

Making a taboo of mentioning the strange experiences in my head, which may have been related, allowed my fear to fester. Talking about them neutralized them. Talking with someone you trust about trauma, whether caused by war, abuse, or something else, is one of the best things you can do.

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Enneagram of Death

About the Author

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.

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