PTSD: Reflex, Roses, and Zebras

Hi there!

Today we’re going to put together what we’ve learned so far. To help us do that, we’re going to re-visit our new friend from last week, the zebra who was triggered by the red roses because his friend George got eaten by a lion while stopping to sniff red flowers.

Well – last week, his survival reflex learned that red flowers are dangerous (because reflex sometimes “learns” to mistake random things for signs of danger). So, his survival reflex sees the roses as a threat, and reacts automatically: before he has a chance to think, his reflex tells him to RUN!!!

Because reflex is automatic, it’s not his choice to feel this way. In fact, the conscious, rational part of his brain might be telling him, “WTF!!! Why am I freaking out? What’s wrong with me? I need to get it together!!!”

He might start worrying that he’s going crazy. He might blame himself, and think that if only he had tried harder, trained harder, or if he was a better, tougher zebra, this wouldn’t have happened to him. He might even tell himself that other zebras have been through worse and seem to be coping better, so he should just suck it up.

So next thing you know, he’s struggling not just with fear, but also with shame and guilt; that’s the foundation of not just PTSD, but depression too.

Look – the point of the story is – don’t be that zebra!!!

When you react to your own version of “red flowers”, by feeling fear – remember, fear is a reflex, and reflex is not a choice. It is not a sign of weakness or failure, any more than not preventing your toenails from growing would be a failure: reflex is not something that we can control by being stronger, by training harder, or by using willpower. Reflex has a mind of its own; it will see something as a danger, even when your rational brain can tell that there’s no risk. Conscious, rational thought is controlled by a different part of your brain than reflex, so it’s entirely possible to be reacting with fear to a trigger, while at the same time being able to realize that it’s harmless.

Knowing this information, you can start to help manage your fear: when your survival reflex goes off, rather than feeling embarrassed or angry with yourself, try to remind yourself that (1) you do not control your survival reflex, and (2) it often sets off false alarms.  These two reminders become the starting point for two important coping tools: one is acceptance, which is learning not to blame yourself. The other is a thought-based grounding skill – a habit of reminding yourself that feeling fear is not a good indicator of danger, and that the fear is just a false alarm.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

 

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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11 thoughts on “PTSD: Reflex, Roses, and Zebras

  1. you are so right. it took a long time before I had to seek help. I was only getting 3-5 hours of sleep at night, and I wasn’t until I became psychotic and was about to kill a guy for no reason I thought I better get some help, because things are looking pretty crazy. I didn’t think my little bit of stress really amount to much, but it was really messing with my sleep. and after about 7 years of going go counselling I am finally able to put a finger on what is wrong, and how to start dealing with things.

    1. Hi Tim!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for sharing your story – in particular, thank you for sharing that “I didn’t think my little bit of stress really amount to much”.
      Soldiers like to “suck it up and soldier on”, and you tend to think you’ll get over it if you just try harder to suck it up. You compare your trauma to the next guy, and figure yours isn’t bad enough to need help.
      I’m really glad things are looking up for you, Tim. 🙂

  2. I love your blog, and trying to learn what this illness is and why I have it and how it happened gives me hope that this will get better. Question, what about inability to focus, concentrate, ability to learn, memory…when will these come back? Will they come back?

    1. Hi Jen!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      To answer your question briefly – all of the things you listed are part of PTSD, and are related to that survival reflex being on steroids. As for when these will come back – when you have the opportunity to address them, however long that might take. Using grounding skills, relaxation, meditation, other ways of addressing your PTSD will help with these symptoms as well.

      There is hope, but for most people, getting better does require hard work and learning to manage your symptoms.

      I plan to get into a lot more detail about this stuff in future blog posts – but if you are struggling with serious symptoms, I urge you not to rely solely on my blog to get better. Please consider seeking qualified help.

      1. I am under Drs care and have received counselling…finished ccbt and still waiting for life to begin again…..thanks for the reply.

        1. Thanks for another great post Dr. Dee. If I may reflect on some of the above responses…With regards to PTSD treatment CBT is a great approach for some. However, it can be limited in its effectiveness as trauma is a sensory experience and as a result safety needs to be established and experienced at a sensory level. Once this has occurred arousal (and fight or flight) begins to reduce which allows for return of higher cognitive functions such as memory, concentration, emotional regulation etc. it is amazing how much better one can function when not on high alert every second!

          1. Hi Lori,

            Thanks so much for chiming in here and sharing some of your expertise.
            You are 100% correct of course, that CBT is far from the be-all and end-all to treatment for PTSD. I’m hoping to cover broader, more diverse topics such as these in future blog posts.

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