by Andrea Kapeleris Ph.D
More common than you think! About 20-50% of children and teens who have experienced trauma meet criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and nearly 75% also experience depression and substance use (Elwood, Hahn, Olatunji, & Williams, 2009). Statistics also show that about 14% of people exposed to a major stressor go on to develop PTSD (Terhakopian, Sinaii, Engel, Schnurr, & Hoge, 2008), and women are about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD after a trauma (Kessler, Berglund, & Demler, 2005). Stressors can be one-time events that cause actual or threatened death or harm to yourself or a loved one (such as, a car accident, sexual assault, mugging, natural disaster), or they can include on-going negative and damaging experiences – such as, chronic stress resulting from military service, or childhood experiences in which there was repeated damage to the attachment relationship between you and your caregiver. These chronic experiences can shatter a child’s sense that the world is benign, the world is meaningful, and the self is worthy, and often results in avoidance coping and an increase in overall level of arousal and anxiety (Roth et al., 1997).
Symptoms of PTSD are Normal Reactions to a Non-Normal Experience
- Re-experiencing the event in a number of ways including, flashbacks, nightmares, or vivid memories that come to you unexpectedly
- Avoiding any reminders of the event (people, places, or things associated with the event), and a feeling of numbness
- Increased feelings of anxiety or emotional arousal
Overstuffed Cupboard MetaphorThe mind is like a pantry cupboard. When a traumatic event occurs, it is as if very large and oddly-shaped boxes were hurriedly stuffed into the pantry. Since there was no time to properly place the boxes in the pantry in an organized fashion, each time you open the pantry to get something you need, a box suddenly and unexpectedly falls on you – startling you and possibly hurting you! The same thing happens when our mind experiences trauma. Due to the sudden and overwhelming nature of the traumatic event, the mind doesn’t have the opportunity to process all of the emotions associated with it, and as a result, unpleasant memories or emotions may come to us when we least expect them too. For example, you may become startled by an unsettling memory or emotion when you are relaxing at home, watching TV, or spending time with friends. As a result, you may begin to avoid things you previously enjoyed.
The purpose of therapy is to help you organize this pantry. We need to take each box out of the pantry slowly and carefully, examine its contents, and then place it in its proper place. Once all of the boxes are organized accordingly, you will be able to enter the pantry without fear, and will no longer need to avoid that part of your home. Similarly, the goal is to slowly process the trauma and place events and their accompanying emotions into sequential order. In this way, your mind will be able to integrate the trauma and make sense of it. You will be able to think more freely and move forward with your life.
Fight or Flight modeWhen we encounter a traumatic event (something that threatens our physical or psychological integrity) our bodies enter a process called the “Fight or Flight” mode. This mode is evolutionarily necessary and served an important purpose – in the times of cavemen and women, when our ancestors were being chased by predators (e.g., a tiger) all of the resources in their bodies left the frontal cortex (the part of our brain used to reflect on our thoughts and feelings, and make decisions) and automatically went to their muscles (to prepare them to flee or fight the predator), and also went to pump up their heart rate, breathing, and overall adrenaline (again, to make it easier for them to flee or fight predators). In modern times, when we are faced with a trauma, our bodies go into ‘Fight or Flight’ mode in order to protect us. Later, any experiences, people, places, or things that remind us of the trauma stimulate our body to again go into this fight/flight mode in case we need to be protected again. Part of our work in therapy is to help your body and mind recognize that this threat occurred in the past and that you are no longer in danger. We foster this safety on many different levels:
1) Physiologically. We must help the physical body itself feel safe, and come down from overarousal. This may partly be achieved through learning relaxation strategies or overcoming avoidance-coping strategies that maintain and intensify anxiety.
2) Emotionally. We must help the mind itself feel safe, and come down from overarousal. This is achieved through:
a) processing the trauma as described above in ‘the cupboard metaphor’;
b) learning Emotion Regulation strategies
Emotion regulation is a process of 1) identifying and increasing awareness of your feelings (e.g., what are the names/labels for the vague and sometimes uncomfortable sensations that happen inside?), and 2) ‘sitting with’ the sensations that go on inside and experiencing the waxing and waning of your feelings – all feelings do wax/wane, come and go – the only thing we can be certain of is change from moment to moment. Physiologically, our bodies experience of any emotion follows a bell-shaped curve (i.e., it must come down from it’s peak) – our bodies can not maintain the high emotional arousal indefinitely – but sometimes, our feelings about our feelings (feeling angry that we are sad, for example) may intensify our original emotion. In therapy, we help to disentangle this, and in effect, help you to regulate your emotions. Importantly, we also begin to look at your feelings as an important signal that there is something inside that needs our attention.
Read more about our Trauma Psychology & PTSD Treatment Service.