Spouses want to know: Physical Symptoms of PTSD

Hello again!

Our next question is, “Does PTSD have physical side effects?”

The answer is, yes, absolutely.

Now – before I get any further into this topic – I want to check in with how you’re doing reading this.

If you didn’t know about physical side effects, you might be thinking, “Great. As if PTSD wasn’t bad enough, now I’ve got a whole laundry list of physical issues to worry about too…

Hey – I hear you. What can I say – I’m not pretending to be the bearer of good news here.

But – you know what? This is your body we’re talking about. Knowing this means you’ll know what to expect, what to talk to your family doctor about. That gives you more control of your health than not knowing.

Also – knowing that it’s related to your PTSD can actually be a relief. Otherwise, you’re left thinking you have this laundry list of stuff going on and you don’t know why.

We’ve talked before about how PTSD is basically a threat-response reflex gone into overdrive. So, the physical symptoms of PTSD come from this reflex being cranked into overdrive all the time.

When your body responds to threat, your heart rate goes up. When you have PTSD, your ticker’s working harder all the time. This puts you at higher risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Your threat-response reflex makes your muscles tense up, to help you either fight off a threat or run away. When your muscles are tense all the time, you can develop chronic pain, especially in areas like your shoulders and back. Tension also makes us clench our teeth; that can lead you to grind your teeth, meaning you might have chronic headaches and jaw pain.

Since your threat-response reflex directs all available energy towards survival, it shuts down functions that are not essential to dealing with an immediate threat. So, it will suppress your digestive system and your immune system, because these are not immediately essential when your survival is being threatened.

What this means is that PTSD can lower your immune system. You might be more likely to get infections and get sick more often.

The impact on your digestive system can mean chronic cramps or indigestion; changes to your appetite; chronic heartburn or Irritable Bowel Syndrome can also occur with PTSD.

Your threat-response reflex also leads your body to release more sugar and cholesterol into your bloodstream to feed your muscles; so, with PTSD you may have high cholesterol. Also, there is a link between blood sugar and insulin. So, there’s a link between PTSD and insulin resistance, as well as PTSD and diabetes.

How’re you doing with all this? I know… It’s quite the list of potential physical symptoms. It might be a good idea to make an appointment with your family doctor to get checked out for some of these risks.

Also, keep in mind that learning to manage your PTSD symptoms will help to lessen some of all these other concerns as well – so please keep in mind that things can get better.

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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 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.

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Spouses want to know: “Where does the anger come from?”

I have a few more questions from spouses, and this is a really important one.

The answer is pretty straight forward: PTSD is basically the fight/flight/freeze reflex gone into overdrive, and anger is part of  the “fight” part of that reflex. You might remember that we discussed anger in this post.

Well then… that would make for a really short blog post, wouldn’t it?

If you’re reading this, then anger has probably had an impact on your life. I’m going to talk about it in more detail below, and that might be hard to read.

So – don’t go any further if you’re having a bad day and don’t need to be reminded of how anger has made life worse. Save it for another day. Otherwise, find a nice quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed. Set aside time to do a relaxation exercise when you’re done reading this – here‘s one that I’ve posted previously. Here‘s another.

Gee, I’m being a little bossy today, aren’t I?

If you’re just waiting for me to tell you to go pee before you read on, don’t worry. I’ll restrain myself.

 

Ready?

Okay.

If you’re a spouse, then you need to know where the anger does NOT come from: it doesn’t come from you, or what you said, or because you’re making the wrong thing for dinner. It’s not coming from the kids playing too loudly. It isn’t your fault. It’s easy to lose your confidence and start to blame yourself.

It’s also easy to get frustrated and blame your spouse – the anger is not coming from him/her either.

Look – you didn’t marry an idiot. (Well – if you did, then, this blog can’t help you with that…)

But – if you didn’t marry an idiot, then your spouse didn’t just magically become an angry jackass overnight for the fun of getting under your skin. PTSD makes a person feel like they’re under attack all the time, and anger is part of the reflex of reacting to threat.

PTSD is an injury. Anger is one of the ways that this injury hurts. It hurts anyone who might be on the receiving end of that anger – spouse, kids, random clerk at the grocery store.

It hurts the person with PTSD; they don’t choose to act like this, and a moment after they say something hurtful, scream at someone, or put their fist through the wall – they feel terrible about it.

As the spouse, you feel caught between trying to understand that this is an injury, but also feeling frustrated and angry that they can’t just cut it out.

Understanding is the first tool in making things better: the person with PTSD needs to understand that their anger is coming from their PTSD, and not from anything you did. So the solution is to manage their anger, not manage you. And as the spouse, you also need to know that their anger is coming from their PTSD, and not from them being a jerk. So the solution is to help them manage their anger, and to take care of yourself, because this is a lot for you to deal with too.

 

How’re ya doing? I warned you – it got a little heavy. If you feel a bit like this post punched you in the gut today, please take a minute to look after yourself. You don’t even have to scroll back up to find the hyperlinks to the relaxation exercises – here‘s the woods. Here‘s the water.

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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 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 Murray Chappell, 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.

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Spouses want to know: “Will he always have PTSD?”

You may have gathered from the title of today’s post that I’m throwing something new into the mix. A few days ago, a support group for spouses asked me to answer a few questions about PTSD. I’m grateful for their permission to post the answers here, so everyone who might be wondering about this stuff can jump into the discussion.

Of all the questions they asked, I wanted to address this one first because I get asked some form of it almost every day – people ask, “Will I ever get better?”, or “Will I always be like this?”

I’d love to give you a money-back guarantee that everything will be just fine.

The honest answer though, is that how much better you will get (or your spouse or loved one will get) depends on a number of factors. Some of them we can predict; others, we can’t.

Single trauma events in an otherwise mentally healthy person, treated quickly after the event, tend to have the best outcomes. In many cases, people can make a full recovery from these types of injuries.

On the other hand, if you’ve had decades of trauma, and it’s taken several years to find a knowledgeable practitioner that you feel comfortable working with – it’s gonna be a longer, steeper, more grueling climb uphill for you. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, and no one has a crystal ball that can predict your specific outcome. In fact, my personal experience is that some of the patients who came to me in the worst shape are the ones who have made progress in leaps and bounds, once they’re given the right tools to do so.

Most importantly – even if you can’t be fully cured, you can get better. In many cases, you can get a lot better.

Nothing we do in therapy can take the awful thing(s) that happened to you and make them unhappen. However – how those experiences impact you now, is something we can work on. If you have a lengthy trauma history, and it’s hard for you to trust or hope, then that work might need to happen very slowly and very gently, so it doesn’t overwhelm you. If you’re a spouse trying to be supportive, it may be hard to be patient, because for the first while it might seem like therapy isn’t making any difference.

Here’s your best bet for trying to get better: find a skilled, patient, knowledgeable therapist whom you feel comfortable working with, who won’t give up on you. Let them know when the tools they give you don’t work for you – getting better is a partnership, and finding what works for you can take some trial and error.

Good therapy has two parts: tools that help you manage your symptoms, and ways to try and heal your trauma. If you and your therapist have a good partnership and you are willing to work hard on your recovery, then you will start to see a difference.

It might take a long time and a lot of hard work to get a lot better. But, “a lot better” might mean that you can manage your symptoms most of the time, and the stuff that happened might not bother you as much anymore. Worth a try, no?

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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 free 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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More on Depression: The Bully Inside Your Head

So – last week, we talked a bit about depression.

(Well okay – I talked about depression; I seem to do most of the talking around here. You know I welcome your comments, right? Feel free to start a discussion…)

Anyhow – I was saying that your brain runs on juice, and that depression sucks out all the juice that makes your brain run.

Basically – depression is like a big bully inside your head. It sits there and calls you names. It tells you stuff like “you’re useless”, or “you’re worthless”, or “you’re not good enough”. It compares the person you are now to the “old you”. It tells you to feel guilty and ashamed of who you are now.

Depression is so good at messing with you because not only does it tell you all that stuff – it also makes you believe that nonsense.

Don’t get sucked in!!!

Unless this is the first post that you’ve read on this blog, then you probably realize by now that I repeat myself when I have something important to say. I said this last week, but I’m saying it again: Depression is an illness; it would be great if there was a “juice gauge” on the side of your head, like a gas gauge in your car, so you could actually see when your brain is running low on juice – then it would be easier to accept that depression is real.

Sadly, there’s no juice gauge. Instead, you’ll just have to trust me. (I’m some chick you met on the internet, so trusting me has got to be a good idea, right?)

Depression is an illness, not a choice. Here’s a couple of ways to fight back:

– “if it were a physical illness“: Ask yourself this: If you were physically ill and not able to get stuff done, would you be saying nasty stuff to yourself about it? No, of course not. You’d be annoyed and frustrated that you’re sick, but you wouldn’t blame yourself. Well, depression is a physical illness – it’s a juice deficiency, and that part is physical. You didn’t ask for this. So try to quit beating up on yourself about it.

– “if it were happening to a friend“: Ask yourself this: If one of your friends were struggling with this, would you be telling them that they’re useless and worthless? If you have peer support, you probably know some buddies who struggle with this stuff. When they do, you probably tell them you’ve been there too, to take it one day at a time, and to do their best and take it easy on themselves.

You say the nice stuff to your buddies because that’s supportive; you say that mean stuff to yourself because that’s depression.  Talking to yourself like you’re talking to a buddy is a way to cheat depression and offer yourself some support. If you can offer yourself some support, you might be able to put some juice back in your tank, so you feel up to doing more stuff, and slowly digging your way out of depression.

Sounds so simple, right? Yeah, well simple and easy are two different things, and this is going to be a LOT of work. For a lot of folks – too much to do on your own. If you’re struggling to get better on your own, don’t just sit there and tell yourself you should be able to do this alone – that’s your depression bullying you again. Most folks can’t do this on their own, and you don’t have to. Get some peer support, and then get yourself to therapy. It’ll help you get better.

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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 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 Murray Chappell, 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.

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On the Importance of Peer Support

Hi again!

Last post, I was talking about depression; so, you might think with peer support, I’m sort of jumping all over the place. I’m not; peer support is actually an important part of coping with depression. Here’s why:

As soldiers, you’re used to being part of a unit, and working closely with a group of other people to whom you can relate. That’s one of the things that makes a psychological injury all the more difficult: it’s such a lonely, isolating experience. Often, you feel like you failed somehow, and like you’re the only one who ever felt this way. You might tell yourself that you’re supposed to be stronger than this. Beating up on yourself like this is the downward spiral of depression that we were just talking about in the last post.

Dealing with this stuff on your own is like trying to fight a war all by yourself, against an enemy you’ve never been trained to fight. As a psychologist, and even as a blogger, I can try to help you understand this new enemy, and help you learn to fight back. What I can’t do as effectively, as a civi who’s never been there, is convince you that your symptoms are not about weakness or failure, it’s about what happened to you. Don’t get me wrong – I try. I repeat that stuff all the time. And you know what happens? You roll your eyes at me. (Yeah, I saw you. It’s okay.)

As far as you’re concerned, my job is to make you feel better, so when I start saying all that nice fluffy that it’s not your fault, it’s sort of like your Momma telling you that you’re handsome – you figure it’s just my job to say nice stuff to make you feel better…

It’s easier to win a war if you have buddies fighting alongside you; and that’s what peer support does. Getting together with a bunch of other folks who have been there and gone through it accomplishes what I can’t: You meet others who have been through the same kind of stuff and have had the same kind of reactions.

Depression makes you blame yourself unfairly, but when you can be understanding to someone else who’s going through the same sort of stuff, it suddenly starts to get real that, hey – it you think their symptoms aren’t their fault, then maybe yours aren’t your fault, either. Psychological injury, whether depression, PTSD, or whatever else you’ve got on your plate – it happens when you go through the kind of stuff you went through, and it happens no matter who you are.

Peer support gives you a chance to let go of the feelings of shame and guilt. And it gives you a chance to fight back as a team, which is what you’re used to doing as a soldier.

If you’re in Canada, you can find a peer support community through http://www.osiss.ca/ They provide some great services and supports, and I hope you check them out.

Online, there’s a number of peer support communities on Facebook – if you’re interested, you can link to many of these through my Facebook profile.  Scroll down to “groups”, on the left-hand side.

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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 free 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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The Downward Spiral of Depression

We’re going to switch gears a little bit today.

So far, we’ve talked a lot about PTSD. But PTSD and depression often go together like peanut butter and jelly; so, we need to talk about depression.

Here’s how it works it a nutshell: your brain runs on juice. (Geeks might throw around big fancy words like dopamine and serotonin, but it’s juice, and it makes your brain run).

When you’re well, your brain has enough juice to make you feel like doing stuff. You might feel like going for a bike ride, having coffee with a friend, or picking up your guitar and strumming it. Hey – you might even feel like doing some chores around the house. (This last one doesn’t happen to me personally very often, but I’m just saying – it might happen to you). When you get stuff done, you feel proud or satisfied; those good feelings make more juice, so tomorrow and the next day, your brain has the juice to do it all over again.

When you have depression, this all comes to a screeching halt. Depression means your brain doesn’t have enough juice to feel like doing anything. So, it might be a gorgeous day out, but you just can’t bring yourself to go out for a ride. You stare at your guitar; it stares back at you. You just can’t get the “oomph” to pick it up and strum the darn thing.

But – while you sit there not having enough juice to actually do anything, your head keeps making lists of all the stuff you should be doing right now. So – instead of doing stuff and feeling good about it, you’re just sitting there, feeling like guilt and shame that you aren’t getting anything done.

These feelings of guilt and shame are part of depression, and they just suck more juice out of your brain. So tomorrow, you wake up having even less energy to do anything. And, you wake up kicking yourself over having wasted the whole day today not getting anything done. And it gets worse the next day, and the next day, and next. That, in a nutshell, is the downward spiral of depression.

Okay – so here’s how we begin to turn it around:

First, understand that it is a real illness; one of depression’s strongest weapons against you is that it convinces you that you there’s nothing wrong with you, and that you’re just being lazy. So – first off, please know that depression is not laziness.

How do I know? Simple – if you were lazy you wouldn’t care that you’re not getting stuff done, you’d be happy to leave it for someone else to do. If it’s eating you up that you can’t seem to get moving, then you’re not lazy.

Look – if you broke your leg and fell behind on getting stuff done, you’d get it that this is not your fault. Depression’s more tricky than a broken leg for two reasons: one, because you can’t see it; and two, because it makes you more self-critical, so you blame yourself unfairly. But you’re not lazy, you’re sick. Beating up on yourself about it doesn’t fix anything, it just makes you more sick.

Easier said than done, I know. But, understanding is the first step to fixing. So read through this post a couple of times, soak it in, and we’ll get started on standing up to your depression.

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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. It’s 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.

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Strategies for Coping with Nightmares

Unfortunately, nightmares are part of PTSD for many people. They aren’t easy to get rid of. However, if you get nightmares, here is a list of things that you can do to try to make them a little easier on yourself:

– Did I mention that relaxation is really good for you? I did actually; so many times that you might be getting tired of hearing it. I even posted a relaxation exercise here. Some people felt triggered by that one (and I thank them for telling me), so I posted a different one here. I keep talking about relaxation because it’s good for you. Try to do some every night before you go to bed. It will make you less tense, and if you’re less tense you’re less likely to have nightmares.

– Anniversaries of your trauma events are likely to be particularly difficult. But, any days when you’ve been triggered, upset, stressed, or even excited (in a happy way), you’re more likely to have nightmares. Knowing this, you can work to compensate: on days like that, try to do more to relax before going to bed than you normally would. Then, as you lie in bed, take some time to look around the room, and remind yourself that you’re home, and that you’re not in danger. Putting this thought in your head right before you fall asleep will make it easier to bring yourself back into the here-and-now if you do wake up with a nightmare.

There’s a couple of things you can do to set up your bedroom to make it easier to cope with nightmares:

– Keep the room dark enough to sleep, but leave a small nightlight on to make it easier and quicker to orient yourself if you wake up from a nightmare.

– Keep the space uncluttered; have a couple of objects around the room that will help you to quickly and easily orient you to the here and now. Any object that you didn’t have at the time that the trauma happened can work; that way, if you do wake up with a nightmare, you can quickly scan the room to know where and when you are.

– Use your grounding skills: usually, waking up from a nightmare means waking up drenched in sweat. Lying in bed, drenched in sweat and shivering will do absolutely nothing to help you recover from your nightmare. So get up, run to the bathroom, and splash some water on your face. Get in the shower, and have a nice warm relaxing shower. Lavender-scented soap is also relaxing. Put on warm dry pajamas. Turn on soft, relaxing music. Fix yourself a cup of tea or warm milk (or another beverage that soothes you). The idea at this point is to soothe and comfort yourself, to help yourself recover as quickly as possible, rather than allowing the suffering to continue.

If you tend to have the same nightmare over and over again, there’s a type of therapy for that.

If your nightmare is overwhelming and terrifying to even think about, please don’t try this on your own – find a qualified mental health professional to help you.

The treatment involves writing out your nightmare in detail, with a different (positive) ending. You basically train yourself to re-imagine the nightmare with a positive ending, and then train yourself to take control of the nightmare. This takes a lot of work to do successfully, and it’s hard to do by yourself. So please reach out to get some help if you need it.

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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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Where PTSD comes from, Part 3: How Reflex Messes with Your Thinking

Hi there!

Today we’re going to round out our discussion of what survival reflex does, by going over how it impacts our thinking.

Keep in mind that survival reflex is designed to save our life under circumstances of immediate threat. In those conditions, every moment counts, and every ounce of your energy could make the difference.

We discussed here how your reflex works differently (and much faster) than your usual, everyday thinking; and more recently, here, we talked about how reflex is run by a different part of your brain than conscious thinking. We’ve also covered how, to save energy, the body will interrupt day-to-day functions like the digestive system and the immune system, so it can redirect all available energy toward immediate survival.

When survival mode kicks in, your reflex takes energy away from the part of your brain that’s responsible for complex thinking. It redirects this energy toward your big muscle groups, to make it easier for you to fight or run. So – in the case of Dave the Zebra beating the daylights out of that lion, his survival reflex interferes with his ability to do stuff like: analyze things, think things through, look at a situation from a number of different perspectives, prioritize, look at the big picture, and so on.  And reflex does this on purpose – because complex thinking takes up time and energy, neither of which can be spared in a life-threatening emergency situation.

What your survival reflex does instead is put you on high alert, on the lookout for danger. What that means is, Dave’s attention is constantly darting around looking at everything – paying attention to every sight, every sound, evaluating everything in front of him to see whether it’s a possible threat.

If you’re in danger, taking too much time to look/listen to one thing in specific could lead you to miss a potential threat somewhere else in your environment; so, in an effort to identify a threat and save your life, your survival reflex interferes with your ability to concentrate and sustain attention on any one thing for very long. Once a threat is identified, reflex makes you go into a sort of “tunnel vision”, where all of your energy goes toward just dealing with that lion, and nothing else. Often, in highly dangerous circumstances, you tend to flip back and forth between the tunnel vision and the darting around looking for other sources of danger.

This reflex is designed to work in brief bursts, and to maximize your chances of survival in life-threatening circumstances. Your military training strengthens the “fight” part of the fight/flight/freeze response, and builds on it to help you get through some nasty situations.

In PTSD, this reflex gets stuck in a constant loop, so it’s hard to shut it off.

In learning to control it, step #1 is getting a really good understanding of it.  Once you know how it works, it gets easier to work against it.

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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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Where PTSD comes from, Part 2: Fight/Flight/Freeze Response, Emotional Symptoms

(Disclaimer: This topic can be a little heavy for some people, so to compensate, I’m going to step up the goofiness today. )

Hi!

So – you know what? It occurred to me that I’m trying to explain the fight/flight/freeze response using zebras and lions, and…

Zebras don’t usually fight lions.

So before we go any further, you need to know more about Dave the Zebra. He’s not your ordinary zebra.

Dave’s had it with the lion bullying his friends. (You all remember what happened to George?)

Dave’s been learning karate. He’s gotten pretty good. The next time that lion messes with any of his friends, Dave’s going to unleash some zebra fury.

When the lion comes along, Dave’s reflex takes over. He feels the adrenaline rush; he hears the theme music from Rocky playing in his head…

He feels fear. Fear is not a choice – it’s part of reflex. Fear is a signal of possible danger.

And then he feels… anger. Rage. Maybe even vicious, blind rage, like he’s never felt before.

(How are you doing? Remember – if this is uncomfortable, take a moment to breathe and remind yourself that we’re talking about a zebra, a little horse in striped pajamas…)

Like fear, feeling rage in a potentially life-threatening situation is also reflex. Rage helps Dave summon every ounce of bad-ass that he’s got, and to focus on neutralizing the threat.

(Hey – if you’re a zebra pulling karate moves on a lion, every bit of help counts, right?)

And aside from that – he feels a whole lot of… nothing. Feeling numb is also part of reflex; you see, when an animal is in danger, it may be cold, tired, weak, hungry, or injured (or arguing with its wife). All of that stuff just gets in the way when you have to focus on survival. So, numbing everything out is important to survival – it helps you focus on the danger and nothing else.

The last emotion involved in the survival reflex results from adrenaline. Adrenaline is basically a drug that the body produces itself. It’s a painkiller, so it allows Dave to keep beating up on the lion, even if Dave is exhausted or injured himself. To help do that, adrenaline makes you feel a little loopy/drunk/happy. This is part of how the body protects itself from stuff like pain or fatigue getting in the way of survival.

Later, Dave might feel ashamed and even horrified that he felt pleasure at beating the crap out of the lion. That’s why it’s really important for him to know that these feelings are a hard-wired part of reflex; they are not a choice, and he is not to blame for how he felt at the time. Shame and guilt don’t help him heal – they just feed depression and keep him stuck.

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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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Where PTSD comes from, Part 1: Fight/Flight/Freeze Response, Physical Symptoms

We’ve spent a couple of months talking about how your survival reflex works. Well, today we’re going to talk about what it actually does.

The fight/flight/freeze response is a basic survival reflex that is built into every animal. The part of your brain that powers is is called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh. ) It’s a very primitive brain part, and we’re not consciously aware of what it does (ie., reflex is not a choice). Look at your thumbnail – that’s roughly the size of your amygdala.

When the amygdala spots what it thinks is a sign of danger, it goes into survival mode, and activates your fight/flight/freeze response.

Think of our friend that we talked about earlier – Dave the Zebra.

Although I’m sure this might seem goofy to some of you, I want you to use him as a grounding skill: anytime the discussion starts to hit too close to home, just remind yourself – we’re talking about zebras.

ZEBRAS.

Cute little horsies dressed in black-and-white striped pajamas…

So – Dave the zebra and his buddies are out enjoying some pasture. Suddenly, Dave spots that lion hiding behind the big rock.

Dave’s amygdala goes into gear. His adrenal glands kick in, so he feels an adrenaline rush. His breathing gets faster and his heart rate speeds up. His large muscle groups tense up: the idea here is to get as much muscle strength as possible, to give Dave the best chances of survival.

When blood flow is focused on feeding your big muscle groups so you can run or fight, your extremities are not a priority. That’s why your hands and feet might get cold and clammy: they’re not getting a lot of blood flow.

You sweat because sweating is the body’s way of cooling off. Survival reflex expects you to have to run or fight, which heats the body up. So, reflex thinks that breaking out in a cold sweat is a nice, helpful little detail.

Since the survival reflex directs all available energy towards survival, it shuts down functions that are not essential to dealing with the immediate threat. So, your survival reflex will suppress your digestive system and your immune system, because these seem like a waste of energy when your survival is being threatened.

That, in a nutshell, are the main physical symptoms of the survival reflex. When you have PTSD, these symptoms can become chronic: that’s how you end up with chronic muscle pain, (and jaw pain from clenching your teeth); as well as chronic indigestion in some cases.

Next up – the emotional impact of the fight/flight/freeze response.

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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.

Share