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Trauma and PTSD: More Common Than You Think

Direct and indirect exposure to traumatic events can have a lasting effect

Various Forms of Traumatic Events

Many people think of PTSD as something that exclusively affects soldiers returning from war, or people who have been through a terrorist attack. However, it is important to know that anyone who experiences a traumatic event can suffer from PTSD.

Traumatic events come in many forms. Trauma can be caused by sudden loss of a loved one, rape, abuse, neglect, loss of your home, auto accident, domestic violence, natural disasters, personal tragedy/illness, or any other type of disturbing event.

Pexels/used with permission
Source: Pexels/used with permission

Experiencing a traumatic event can take an emotional toll, not only on those directly involved, but also those exposed to it after that fact. With breaking news coverage and social media we are constantly being bombarded with tragic stories and disturbing images from school shootings, natural disasters like the Alabama tornadoes, the massive flooding in the Midwest following the recent bomb cyclone, and from devastation from the raging California wildfires to the recent 131-car pileup in Wisconsin.

Constant exposure to these types of events can also cause people to experience symptoms of trauma.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is something out of the ordinary for you. Everyone experiences trauma differently, and something that may be traumatic for you, may be normal everyday life for someone else. For example, if you work in a meat slaughterhouse and need to break the neck of a chicken, your reaction to seeing this would be extremely different to someone who has never witnessed this before. I distinctly remember my sister-in-law breaking the neck of a chicken in her barn. I totally freaked out, while she looked confused and asked what I was so upset about.

The key factor of trauma is if the event is common in your everyday life. If not, your brain triggers a sensor called the Amygdala in the middle of your brain, also called the Limbic System.

What Happens to Your Brain During a Traumatic Event?

When your Amygdala is triggered, your brain activates a fight-or-flight survival response. This reaction, which is all emotional, sends a message to your adrenal gland to send cortisol to get you out of danger, which activates your autonomic nervous system. Your mouth will suddenly get dry, your heart will start racing, your stomach will be upset, and you’ll feel like you are going to pass out.

In addition to your Limbic System, this same message also gets sent to your frontal lobe, which is where you think and have rational thoughts. The frontal lobe is your reactive “brakes”, and lets you know that you are safe, and all those symptoms of fight-or-flight survival gradually disappear. However, the memory of this experience is recorded as “Flashbulb Memory”.

Anyone over the age of 50 distinctly remembers where they were at the time President John F. Kennedy got shot. This is also true for people who recall the spaceship “Challenger” blowing up in the sky, or when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers during 911. This “Flashbulb Memory” can bring back intellectual thoughts and visuals of the event, which is called a traumatic experience.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Many people think of PTSD as something that exclusively affects soldiers returning from war, or people who have been through a terrorist attack. However, it is also possible to suffer PTSD from other forms of trauma such as sudden loss of a loved one, rape, incest, abuse, neglect, loss of your home from hurricane/tornado, auto accident, and domestic violence.

Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. It is not unusual for people who have experienced trauma to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Symptoms may not appear until several months or even years after the traumatic event. People who suffer PTSD may feel stressed or anxious even when they are not in danger.

The main difference between a traumatic experience and PTSD is that your frontal lobe gets hijacked by the trauma, activating the autonomic system and causing a loss of control over your feelings.

PTSD symptoms can be frightening and can affect all aspects of one’s life, interfering with school, work, relationships, and everyday activities.

PTSD is characterized by three main types of symptoms.

Flashbacks: Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event and nightmares, and experiencing the same bad feelings you felt when the traumatic event took place. Flashbacks are sometimes caused by a trigger.

Avoidance: Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma. Avoiding talking or thinking about the event, and even isolation from other people altogether.

Hyperarousal: Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered. Being on high alert or on guard without being in any danger.

Physical symptoms of PTSD can include but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Helplessness
  • Fatigue
  • Hypervigilance
  • Restlessness
  • Shakiness
  • Heart palpitations

Notable Authors in the Field of Trauma

There are many notable authors who specialize in trauma, and I’ve been blessed during my training to either have trained with them, worked with them, or have been able to share their knowledge with you in previous and forthcoming book reviews. To name just a few, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. – "The Body Keeps the Score", Babette Rothschild – "The Body Remembers", Deb Shapiro – "Your Body Speaks your Mind", and Michelle Rosenthal – "Your Life After Trauma". Each of these books has in-depth explanations of how your body has reacted to trauma and offers great suggestions on how to help.

PTSD Treatment

Here are some suggested methods for treating PTSD:

  • Heart Rate Variability Breathing (HRVB): This method prevents reactivity of autonomic reaction and allows time to respond.
  • Emotional Freedom Therapy (EFT)/ Thought Field Therapy (TFT): This works with the “Chi,” or subtle energy in your body. By thinking of an event and tapping specific acupuncture points, it immediately stops the feeling.
  • Meditation and Visualization: These methods help reduce PTSD symptoms, but do not change the neural connections.
  • Medication
  • Acupuncture
  • Talk Therapy- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
  • Cranial Electro Stimulation (CES): This is an FDA medical device for the various symptoms and is highly effective.
  • Energy Work- Reiki, Polarity, Quantum Touch
  • Brain Spotting: Developed by David Grand, Ph.D., this method deals with eye gaze and fixation, helping resolve the area in the brain that is stuck from the trauma.
  • Hypnosis: There is extensive research that has proven Hypnosis highly effective in reducing or eliminating PTSD.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, this method is used by most of the leading trauma centers in the U.S.
  • Biofeedback/Neurofeedback

Trauma Won’t Go Away, But There is Help and Hope

As mentioned above, traumatic events form a flashbulb memory that will stay with you for life. However, working with the various methods suggested above, you can retrain or rewire the frontal lobe to help you respond, rather than react.

There is a Way!®

- Dr. Diane


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