Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Occurs Due to Overwhelm
Sometimes there are things that happen to us that are so overwhelming that we simply can’t cope with them. Our minds has some incredible resources that allow us to handle the ups and downs of life, but sometimes these resources are insufficient for the challenge we are facing. When we are unable to effectively process what is happening, it creates emotional trauma. This emotional trauma can have long-term consequences for us that we refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Trauma happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected”
Peter A. Levine - Trauma Through a Child's Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
In his book, ‘Walking the Tiger’, the psychologist Peter Levine describes how animals in the wild deal with a dangerous situation. Their first impulse is fight or flight, but if neither of these options are available, they will just freeze. This freezing turns out to be a clever response for animals to engage in because it will sometimes save their life.
Imagine if a gazelle is being chased by a tiger until it becomes cornered so that there is no escape. The option of flight is now gone, and it is highly unlikely that the gazelle is going to win in a fight against the tiger. So, the only option is to freeze (or play dead). Sometimes tigers chase animals more out of instinct rather than hunger, so it may lose interest as soon as there is nothing to chase. If this is the case, the gazelle gets to live another day. As soon as the danger passes, the gazelle will unfreeze and start trembling uncontrollably– it is literally shaking off the adrenalin that was released as part of the fight or flight response.
Peter Levine suggests that just like other animals, we humans go into a freeze mode when things become overwhelming. Unlike other animals though, we fail to ‘shake it off’ once the danger has passed, so this stress response remains in our body as unresolved trauma.
Symptoms of PTSD
Some of common symptoms (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-203559670 )associated with PTSD include:
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event – these are vivid memories where it feels like the event is happening again.
- Being easily startled.
- Feeling uncomfortable around other people (always keeping your guard up.
- Nightmares that involve content related to the traumatic event.
- Physical or emotional distress when you are reminded of the past trauma.
- Using alcohol or other drug to help you ‘cope with the past’.
- Emotional numbness.
- Feeling disconnected from other people.
- Feelings of guilt or shame.
- Feeling trapped by the past and unable to move on.
- Easily triggered into anger or other emotional outbursts.
Treating PTSD and the Danger of Re-Traumatization
A dangerous misconception when it comes to treating PTSD is that the best approach is to just face our past. The problem here is that unless we have developed sufficient resilience, this approach is likely to re-traumatize us. This just increases our emotional suffering. We have to be very careful when it comes to dealing with PTSD, and anything that returns us to a situation where we feel overwhelmed is not helping.
There are plenty of options out there that can be of great benefit to those of us dealing with PTSD. It is important to choose approaches that are trauma-informed. For example, meditation can be a powerful ally when it comes to healing trauma, but you need to find a teacher who understands your situation. This is because some common meditation instructions (such as ‘just allow whatever comes to come’) could lead to a situation where you feel overwhelmed. A teacher who is trauma-informed will be able to guide you using instructions specific to your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask about the teacher’s understanding of PTSD and run a mile if your concerns are just dismissed.
The Importance of Self-Compassion When Facing PTSD
Self-c0mpassion is an approach to ourselves that allows us to not only face what is difficult but to also do so in a way that is healing. We could say that it is made up of two key elements; acceptance and the ability to self-soothe. Unless both of these elements are present, it is not considered to be self-compassion. The other important thing to understand is that this way of relating to ourselves is a skill that we need to practice to get better at.
One of the reasons life can be so hard for us is we lack self-compassion. This can mean that when things go wrong, instead of being able to self-soothe, we experience shame and self-loathing. Self-compassion is a type of resilience and without it life can be incredibly tough and traumatic. One of the unfortunate things about events that wound us deeply is that they often happen long before we’ve had an opportunity to develop self-compassion.
“The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are both experienced simultaneously.”
Kristin Neff - Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind
Because self-compassion is a skill, it will be something that we can develop. Meditation approaches such as Tonglen can allow us to build this skill up over time (just be sure to work with a meditation teacher that is trauma-informed). We can also increase this ability just by facing our discomforts in daily life. It is important to start off with small things until you are ready for the bigger things. Otherwise, you end up like the person who goes to the gym for the first time and immediately starts pumping the heaviest weights!
Effective Tools for Dealing with PTSD
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps clients challenge the cognitive distortions (e.g. expecting bad things to happen) that makes living with PTSD so difficult. It also provides techniques for management of symptoms.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has also been shown to reduce the symptoms associated with PTSD (https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/emdr-what-is-it ). It makes use of specific eye movements that weaken the impact of negative emotions that are triggered disturbing memories.
- Yoga Nidra (sleep yoga) is a type of meditation that is done lying down, and it appears to be particularly helpful for people dealing with issues such as PTSD. It involves entering a particularly deep state of relaxation where it becomes possible to let go of stress that is normally held in the body.
- Post Induction Therapy (PIT) can be used to treat trauma that originated in childhood. The aim is to identify old wounds so the healing process can begin. Ultimately, the goal is to help the client develop a healthy relationship with life now rather than being controlled by the past.
- Trauma-Informed Mindfulness (aka Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness) is a way of relating to your experience that is more objective and insightful. This makes it possible to connect with the symptoms of PTSD in a less intense way and use them as a springboard to wisdom – this way past-trauma can become a teacher rather than a tormentor.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an approach that focuses on the regulation of emotions and improving interpersonal relationships. It combines tools from mindfulness and CBT to help clients experience a better quality of life.
- Exposure Therapy can allow clients to regain freedoms they have lost due to their PTSD. One of the ways people cope with their symptoms is to avoid potential triggers, but this can severely limit their ability to enjoy life (e.g. avoiding crowds). Exposure therapy gently guides the client so that they are eventually able to face the things they have been avoiding.
The Trauma Recovery Program at 180 Sanctuary
The trauma recovery program at 180 Sanctuary makes use of the most effective tools for dealing with PTSD. This client-centered approach is trauma-informed and specific to your needs. During your stay with us you can benefit from approaches such as CBT, mindfulness, DBT, EMDR, PIT, and exposure therapy. Our community is based in Northern Thailand, and this idyllic environment provides the type of peace and natural beauty that promotes healing from trauma. Contact us now to find out more.