People can have PTSD and not know it. They may wonder why they’re so anxious, have trouble sleeping, are hounded by nightmares, get nervous in certain situations, have emotions that careen out of control, never feel safe, have physical symptoms that do not easily resolve, have holes in their memory… The list goes on. (See Am I Suffering From Trauma?)
Many people either do not know the symptoms of PTSD or do not recognize that they suffered a stressor sufficient to create a trauma disorder. There are, for instance, what I’ve called “hidden traumas.” These include something like an accident or natural disaster in which you were not badly hurt. What we forget is that at some point in that event, we didn’t know we (or a loved one) were going to make it. Especially if others do not consider that we’re still dealing with trauma, we may overlook it as well.
Then there is the issue of traumatic stressors that have been pushed out of mind, because they are too horrific to face. Childhood sexual abuse is the most common example here, although other kinds of childhood abuse also fit. These traumas may stay hidden for a lifetime.
What is PTSD?
For a detailed description of PTSD, read my earlier article. Here I’m going to boil it down to the underlying essence, which is that we don’t fully get that the traumatic event is over.
Our nervous system is still responding to danger, although what that danger is may not be conscious. Yes, the war veteran who dives for the ground when a car backfires may know where this comes from, but in many cases (with unrecognized trauma and repressed trauma), we are clueless.
It takes a detective to follow the footprints of trauma and discover what is responsible for them. Why do we suddenly feel nausea at a particular smell or get a headache out of nowhere or not want to visit Uncle Harry?
With unresolved trauma, our unexpressed and unprocessed reactions are stuck inside. More specifically, in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) we are still defending against the earlier threat at the same time we are reliving it.
Trying to Stay Safe
In PTSD, we keep our guard up. We are always scanning our environment for danger and making sure we’re not in a vulnerable position. I have clients who don’t like their back to the door.
It can take a lot of attention to maintain this hyper-vigilance and involves considerable muscle tension as well. You may not realize how much work your muscles are doing until those muscles relax, often through something like bodywork. Sometimes that relaxation is accompanied by a feeling of danger or a memory surfacing. The muscle tension becomes an unconscious bracing.
We also defend against the felt danger when we (often unconsciously) constrict our lives. We stop going places or doing things associated with the earlier threat. That might mean avoiding parties if you were raped at one, the seashore if there was a drowning or near-drowning, the snowy mountains if caught in an earlier avalanche. Although this may appear as sensible caution, buried feelings make it more intense than that. Many times we aren’t fully aware of how small our world has become. In my book, Healing From Trauma, I have a section called “Living in a Broom Closet,” a reference based on my own work in therapy as a trauma survivor where I felt my life as that closed in.
Monitor, control, avoid, contract–we do everything we can to feel safe.
Why is it, then, that deep down we don’t feel safe?
It’s because the trauma lives on inside us. It is as if, somewhere in our body and psyche, the trauma is still happening. (It is amazing to experience this directly. Even when our logical mind has no question that past has passed, the felt sense deep in the unconscious is that it’s not over.)
You can think of it as freezing a movie right as the scary part begins. What you did is freeze the situation, and very likely your body as well.
This frozen movie does not just go dark. It is as if it is still trying to play through, the projector working overtime and the film at times lurching forward. While I am making an analogy to something mechanical, please remember that this is a powerful, dynamic force inside, more like a huge wave.
In PTSD, as I said, we are both defending against trauma and reliving it. One way we relive it is through flashbacks, vivid experiences that feel as if we are back there. It doesn’t matter if it was 50 years ago. In a flashback, it’s happening now.
We may also experience memory fragments that are not as if present time, and body memories in which there are body sensations devoid of any context or with a hazy context only. Or you might feel a body reaction that is unconsciously trying to prevent something traumatic, whether chronically contracted muscles or something like the gag reflex.
We relive trauma in more disguised form in nightmares. Or when we get all riled up at something that reminds us of the trauma, but we aren’t aware of what is fueling our over-reaction. (We refer to this as “reactivity.”)
We also relive through what psychology calls “reenactments,” in which we find ourselves facing a similar threat again and again. This is generally explained as the psyche unconsciously trying to work something out and reach a different conclusion, but could also be explained energetically either in terms of areas of ruptured boundaries and blind spots or holding trauma in our energetic field where it may draw similar energy.
Unresolved trauma is like a creature with many heads, each tormenting us. PTSD is the classic trauma disorder, but it seldom appears alone. Depression, panic attacks, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, numbing….There are many heads to this monster.
It helps us not blame ourselves so much if we recognize that it’s not that we are weak but that our system is trying to deal with a threat, which in it’s original occurrence was completely overwhelming.
Often in these situations we were alone, or we felt alone, even in the midst of throngs of people. It is hard to heal trauma without the presence of others who can break through that aloneness and be with us as we stand and let that wave break over us, let the movie play through and come to an end.
We already survived it. We just don’t know it.