Understanding PTSD

Today is national PTSD Awareness Day, and I think it is something that we may be "aware" of as a society, in the vein of pop-psychology, but many don't understand the extensive and life-altering conditions that can be triggered as a result of the body's reaction to extreme trauma.  In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Van der Kolk says that: "[d]issociation is the essence of trauma.  The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own.  The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived.  As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed."

Basically, the brain has turned off the trauma, but the body continues to experience it- all the time.  This amount of stress can break down your system, cause severe mental and physical stress, cause heart issues, and can contribute to auto-immune disorders.  And that is the trauma that the brain has dissociated from, not the trauma it is constantly reliving, in the form of flash backs, triggers, and hallucinations or nightmares.  Trauma is no joke, and PTSD is very real.

 It is also important to understand that, although it is the source of much data and research on PTSD, the military does not have a corner on the trauma market.  I have seen PTSD caused by everything from military service, childhood abuse, sexual assault, and witnessing extreme violence, such as a shooting.  I had a brief bout of PTSD myself, diagnosed by my OBGYN after the particularly traumatic birth of my second child.  It took time to get back from, it removed me from my body, and took my mind away from important family moments- but that was only fleeting.  I recovered, with the help of a supportive family and great therapist.  Others are not so fortunate- trauma can literally hijack a person's entire life.  And if we don't start to really understand the broad impacts of trauma on our society, and the lives that people with PTSD have to struggle with every day, then we cannot understand our human brains. 

Even though what started as "battle fatigue" is now taken seriously, we need to move further towards the acceptance and understanding of PTSD, its roots, and its consequences to people's everyday lives.  Don't hide your trauma- re-associate, talk about it, end the stigma, and support those around you struggling with the very real consequences of trauma in their lives.

Jennifer Longtin