This question is important, and it comes up a lot.
Okay – for me to explain this, you’ll have to imagine that your brain is a grapefruit.
(Hey – it’s either that, or this becomes a hard-core neurobiology lesson where I start throwing around Latin words that are harder to pronounce than my last name…)
…So – we’ll go with the grapefruit then?
The peel of the grapefruit is the “gray matter”, or cortex. It’s got all your smarts – this is where you analyze, make decisions, set priorities, and so on. You’re conscious only of the stuff that the gray matter does: the other parts of your brain do their thing behind the scenes, like an autopilot.
The fruit part of the grapefruit is the “white matter”. It’s a messenger – it sends ideas back and forth and makes your brain work quickly to translate a thought into an action.
The grapefruit’s got a few seeds in it. One of these seeds is a little thing called the amygdala. (This will be the only Latin word I’m throwing out there today, promise.) The amygdala sets off your fight/flight/freeze reaction, in response to anything that reminds it of a threat. It’s a reflex, so it doesn’t ask your permission before it goes off.
So – how is it that you can realize that everything’s okay, but still find your body reacting like you’re in danger?
Simple – the realizing that there’s no threat is coming from the peel of your grapefruit. But, at the same time, one of the seeds (your amygdala) is reminded of a threat, so it’s reacting as if you were in danger. Two different parts of your brain are doing two different things, at the same time.
It’s really important to know that this is how your brain works. If you don’t know, you might end up doing one of two things:
1. Telling yourself, “I should just suck it up and stop being so (bleep)ing scared, and what the (bleep) is wrong with me?”.
Yeah… Cause that’ll help, right? Fear is part of a reflex; beating up on yourself for it is sort of like blaming yourself for letting your toenails grow; you didn’t have a choice, so quit blaming yourself, it’s not your fault. Plus – talking to yourself this way just makes you feel shame and guilt, which feeds your depression. Do yourself a favour, and remind yourself that you are not to blame for your reflex.
2. The other option is that you start thinking, “I’m feeling so nervous that there must be something to be scared of and I’m just not seeing it”.
…If you want a quick, easy recipe for freaking yourself right out, then telling yourself that there are invisible dangers that you cannot sense is a good way to do it…
However, if you want to help yourself relax instead – then remind yourself that you’re feeling nervous because a very primitive part of your brain is being triggered to think of a threat; it’s not very smart, so it can’t tell the difference between real and imagined threats.
So, how do you try to stop it? You tell yourself that it’s just your threat reflex sounding a false alarm; then use your relaxation skills to help yourself to relax. (Yes, this is exactly why I keep droning on about how important it is to practice relaxation regularly…)
It’s simple – but simple and easy are two very different things. You’ll need a lot of practice to make it a habit to think this way, but once you’re successful, it will be a helpful tool.
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…
~ 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 free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.