By Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC
Chronic PTSD results from prolonged exposure to traumatic events and an inability to manage the symptoms of PTSD. PTSD does not get better with time alone and medication has shown limited positive impact on resolving trauma.
- A traumatic event is unchangeable.
- The event can be large or small.
- It can be one incident or many incidents.
- It can happen at any point in your life.
- It can happen to you or a loved one.
- Trauma forms an imprint on the brain.
- You can’t change the trauma but you can change the impact of trauma in your life.
So what does all this mean to you? Is there hope for a “normal” life and healthy relationships? The answer is a resounding YES.
Living with PTSD involves managing a number of symptoms including, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and memories, nightmares, irrational thought processes, hyper-reactivity, hyper-vigilance, and avoidance of any triggers such as persons, places, or things. Further information is available in the article PTSD Criteria.
Although the trauma has happened in the past, the disruptive physical, emotional and cognitive consequences are happening in the present. You may find yourself experiencing a fear of your own feelings due to an inability to regulate emotions. This side effect of trauma leads to either shutting your feelings down and becoming numb in the face of strong emotions or becoming hyper-aroused and physically overwhelmed by them. The expression of complex PTSD symptoms becomes automatic and can include intense emotional reactions, numbness, and distorted belief systems. The goal in trauma treatment is to regain a balance between your rational brain (the pre-frontal cortex) and your emotional brain (the amygdala).
Why Does Trauma Cause so Much Disruption in Our Lives?
When you cross your threshold for emotional tolerance, the frontal cortex “shuts down” and the amygdala “takes over”. The frontal cortex acts as your brains CEO. It is in charge of managing your thinking, memory, concentration, planning, execution, all those functions we identify as “human”. Trauma hijacks your frontal cortex by over-activating your emotional center, the amygdala. When this happens you have difficulty with memory, verbal communication, problem solving, concentration, attention, reasoning, planning, goal achievement, amongst many other functions. This affects our lives tremendously at work, in relationships and in our personal development. It can have a global effect on our ability to stay present and function in our lives.
All this said, we have a number of very effective strategies to manage and resolve the symptoms of PTSD. The tasks for recovery are aimed at reducing the over-activity of the emotional, fight or flight center of the brain and allowing the thinking center or CEO to come back online.
To manage your PTSD symptoms, you must learn to employ coping skills such as mindfulness, emotional regulation, stress management, grounding skills, self-care, social scaffolding, and body awareness. This will result in being able to remain calm, focused and grounded consistently, engage in the present, and establish strong connections with people in your life.
What is Emotional Regulation?
Emotional regulation activities such as mindfulness techniques help you come back to the present when your brain shuts down. These coping skills increase your ability to self-soothe and regulate emotions. Mindfulness exercises focus on the here and now in the present moment, encouraging awareness and acceptance of the present reality. It serves to deactivate the amygdala, the “fight of flight” center of the brain by increasing our ability to regulate emotions. Mentally rehearsing self- soothing activities allows our brains to form new neural pathways allowing the prefrontal cortex to “come back online”. Practicing mindfulness calms the sympathetic nervous system and decreases the activity of the amygdala. Remember, the prefrontal cortex acts as our CEO and is in charge of problem solving, planning, attention, emotional regulation, and reasoning. Rehearsing positive coping techniques regularly, increases your ability to experience feelings without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down. This ensures that you can be in charge of your body and mind again.
PTSD and Relationships
Unresolved trauma impedes your ability to fully open yourself emotionally to another. Intimate relationships are intense emotional experiences. They are supposed to be! Loving another person increases your vulnerability. It can be hard for a person experiencing symptoms of PTSD to regulate the intense emotional responses they have to another. Emotional regulation is greatly affected by PTSD. It is important to involve significant others as allies to your healing. Family members and friends can be great co-facilitators to healing. They can support your courage, provide physical and emotional safety, practice coping skills with you, and encourage you to focus on self-care during this process.
Body centered treatments such as EMDR, yoga therapy, sensorimotor psychotherapy, are widely used by mental health professionals in the treatment of trauma. Other strategies such as mindfulness training, stress inoculation training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and narrative therapies have also shown significant positive results in managing the symptoms of PTSD. Enter your email and receive access to a workshop, “Change your Story, Change Your Life”, which will walk you through an important strategy to overcome your trauma and reestablish a sense of purpose. Also refer to the article, “What is Resilience?” and learn more about resilience factors that we can build to improve our responses to stressful life events.