Finding Solid Ground When You’re Triggered

Hi!

Today, I want to tell you about grounding skills – the kind that you use when you’re being triggered, and you’re starting to feel sucked into an ugly old memory. Those of you who are getting help probably have a few of these already; for everyone else, these are your life jacket when you feel that you’re drowning. Learning to use these is an important investment in your well-being.

The key in this type of a situation is to use whatever tricks or strategies you can, in order to remind yourself that you are here in the present and the danger is over.

Some ideas for doing that include:

– look around the room; notice and name some of the things that you see. Becoming more aware of where you are now helps you fight off being sucked back into the past.

– rub the palms of your hands together. Pay attention to the sensation of warmth that this creates in your hands. Usually, our hands get cold and clammy when we’re nervous – so this little trick makes you feel calmer by changing how your hands feel.

– listen to music. You can pick either soothing, calming music to relax you, or you can pick something loud that you can sing along to, something that reminds you of a pleasant memory. (Singing out loud also makes you breathe deeper – and since we often hyperventilate when we’re triggered, this helps too).

– do any kind of physical activity that your pain and/or physical ability allows. Focus on how it makes your body feel. Your muscle tension will go down as you do this, and that will make you feel calmer.

– if you have a pet – touch your pet’s fur, talk to your pet, and/or hug your pet.

– carry something meaningful in your pocket, something that reminds you that you are here now, and that the danger is over. Touch it to re-orient yourself. If you didn’t have your current car or home when the trauma happened, your car or house keys will do: touch them to remind yourself that you are here now, and that event was in the past.

– remind yourself of today’s date. If you carry a cell phone, looking at your phone can be a good trick for this – look at today’s date, remind yourself of the date when the bad memory happened, and then firmly tell yourself, This is now, that was then; I am here now. Feeling scared is not the same as being in danger;  I may be reminded of back then, but I am here now and the danger is over.

(Of course, if the anniversary of the trauma is what’s triggering you – looking at the date is NOT the way to calm yourself. Here‘s some tips on how to get through it).

These are skills – so the more you practice, the better you get at using them…

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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 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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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.

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PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 3: Reflex has values

Hi again!

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve discussed so far: reflex learns as a result of your experiences; but reflex isn’t very smart, so what it learns as “predictors of danger” is a mixed bag of good predictors and random stuff that was going on at the time that the danger happened.

Today we’ll discuss why reflex doesn’t bother filtering good from bad predictors of danger before learning them: because reflex values speed over accuracy.

To illustrate, let’s revisit our old friend, Dave the zebra.

Dave and his zebra friends are out enjoying some delicious pasture.

(I know – last we saw Dave, he was avoiding pasture, because of what happened to George. But he got help for that, and now he’s doing much better. He says thanks for asking.)

Dave catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye that might be a furry tail, like the lion’s. But he only got a glimpse, and he’s not sure.

What should he do – raise the alarm, or try to get a better look?

On the one hand, he didn’t get a good look, it could be nothing, and those other zebras can be pretty snooty if he gets it wrong.

On the other hand, taking a closer look wastes precious seconds that could be better spent getting everyone to safety.

Folks – from the viewpoint of your survival reflex, the only thing that matters is survival. Your survival reflex assumes that it’s better to make a fool of yourself by overreacting, than to hesitate and waste a second.

So – reflex learns by the principle of “better safe than sorry”, and reacts by that same principle.

This will lead to a lot of situations where your survival reflex will be convinced that you’re in life-threatening danger, even though you’re not. It’s reacting to a reminder, even if that reminder doesn’t make any sense to your “thinking” brain.

We’ve discussed how you can have a reaction to a trigger even when you understand that there’s no real danger; we’ve covered how important it is to NOT beat yourself up over this, because it’s an injury and not a personal failing or character flaw.

What you can do instead is use this knowledge to help yourself regain a sense of calm: when you’re triggered, the reaction can make it feel like the danger is very real. So it becomes really important to understand that being triggered does not mean being in danger: you can be triggered when there’s no danger.

It helps to understand that your survival reflex sometimes acts like a kid pulling the fire alarm at school when there’s no fire, but because he doesn’t want to write the math test.

Use this knowledge: when you’re triggered, remind yourself of where you are, and what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you’re safe, and it’s just your survival reflex going off, pulling the fire alarm at a faint reminder of danger. Reminding yourself of where you are and that you’re safe is a way of grounding yourself – and knowing how to ground yourself is an important coping skill.

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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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PTSD Triggers: Coping with Thunderstorms

Hi there!

How’s everyone doing? Didya make it through the fireworks okay?

Now that the fireworks are over, a lot of people’s first instinct is to forget about it until next year. If you have a really tough time with fireworks, I can certainly respect that…

But – before you do that, please take a few minutes, and make a mental summary of what strategies worked for you this year and what didn’t. Then, use that information to plan what you’ll do the same way next time, and what you might try differently. Learning to live with this beast called PTSD is sometimes a process of trial and error, and you can get better at managing it by adapting your strategy to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

And while we’re on the topic of coping with sudden loud noises that make you jump, let’s discuss thunderstorms. Chances are, thunderstorms are no longer your favourite thing. Particularly the kinds where a giant clap of thunder right outside your window makes you end up under the bed at 3 am.

Not fun.

Okay – here’s what we’re going to do about it:

– Make a habit of reading the weather forecast. If you know a thunderstorm is coming, then it can’t catch you by surprise. If the weather forecast calls for overnight thunderstorms, your plan is to go to bed reminding yourself, “I’m home. I’m safe. They’re calling for thunderstorms – so I may wake up to the sound of thunder, but I’m not in danger”. Having this little conversation with yourself won’t stop you from reacting, but it will make it easier to re-orient yourself more quickly.

– Invest in a nightlight. Get a couple of pictures of a favourite place, somewhere you go to relax. Put the pictures somewhere you’re likely to see them when you first wake up, like your nightstand. If they’re calling for thunderstorms, turn on the nightlight before you go to bed. Being able to see around the room quickly when you wake up, and seeing an image of a familiar and relaxing place, will help you to orient yourself quickly to the fact that you are home and you are safe.

– Shut the window. I know – it’s nice to sleep with some fresh air. But shutting the window will help you block out some of the noise. If you miss having a breeze in your room, get a fan – as an added bonus, the sound of the fan can help to muffle the noise of the thunderstorm.

These ideas will help you re-orient and calm yourself if you react to the sound of thunder.  However – these tips are not enough to help you stop reacting to the sound of thunder. The best way to do that is a strategy called prolonged exposure.

Disclaimer: If you’re getting treatment, I’d like you to talk to your therapist and get them to help you with this. If you’re not in treatment, and you’re really struggling, I’d like you to get some help from an actual therapist, aside from just reading this blog.

If you’re mostly doing okay, but thunderstorms get to you, then this might be an exercise you can try on your own.

– sit comfortably; stretch; relax.

– set the volume on your computer to where you can barely, barely hear it.

– cue up a clip of thunderstorms on YouTube. Here’s one that I use.

– remind yourself that you are home and you are safe, and this is a sound clip on the computer. Keep doing this through the next step.

– hit play. Keep reminding yourself that you’re safe and this is a clip playing from your computer.

(If it terrifies you, and a minute into listening to the clip at the lowest volume you are still not feeling any calmer, STOP. Get a professional to help you with this.)

– if it’s only mildly unpleasant, keep doing this until it feels boring and pointless, and you’re not reacting to it. The next day, turn up the volume slightly, and repeat again until you are no longer reacting. If you keep doing this, slowly and gently, you will retrain your fear reflex that the sound of a thunderstorm is not dangerous.

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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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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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PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 2: How reflex learns

Hi again!

 

Today, we’re going to talk about how the survival reflex adapts and learns from experience: it learns differently than the conscious part of your brain does.

Conscious memory works kind of like a librarian: it organizes things by time and topic. So, if you think of your senior year of high school, the memories that might come up would be: the part-time job you had; the goofy haircut and silly clothes; your biggest crush that year… And so on. All these memories are neatly organized, like in a filing cabinet.

Reflex learns very differently. Let’s look at an example:

Imagine a small herd of zebras, enjoying some delicious pasture.

(Yes, I’m purposely trying to pick a story that won’t trigger anyone… I’m hoping no one here ever got attacked by an angry zebra?)

Anyway – our zebra friends are enjoying their lunch, when one of them catches sight of a lion sneaking up on them.

He yells, “LION!!!“, and all the zebras take off running.

Unfortunately, there’s this one zebra… Let’s call him George. George is a chubby, clumsy little zebra. He’s got the goofy haircut, thick glasses, asthma. He always gets picked last for the zebra softball team – you get the picture. He’s not the sharpest crayon in the box, but he really loves flowers. So, the zebras are all running, when all of a sudden – George sees some flowers. Red ones – his favourite. So – George stops to take a good whiff.

I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The lion says George tasted just like chicken.

Here’s how reflex memory works differently than normal memory: reflex memory is not a librarian. It doesn’t care what happened the day before, the week before, or earlier that year. All your reflex cares about is:

What was going on at the time that could have predicted this?“,

and

What can I watch for next time to keep safe?

The problem is, reflex is not smart enough to know the difference between good predictors of danger, and just random stuff that was going on at the time. So, what it thinks of as signs of trouble is usually any reminders of what happened.

If the lion snuck up behind a big rock, the zebra’s reflex will now learn that big rocks are potentially dangerous – so checking around big rocks in the future may be a lesson learned that saves the lives of other zebras.

But, the zebra’s reflex may also learn that red flowers are dangerous. Now – the conscious, rational part of the zebra’s brain will realize that a lion won’t jump out of a flower. But reflex doesn’t work that way.

So… fast forward to Valentine’s Day. Our little zebra sees bouquets of red roses in the grocery store.

(What’s a zebra doing in the grocery store, you might ask? Simple – he’s doing groceries. He doesn’t go to the pasture anymore; he learned that pasture is dangerous).

His reflex has learned that “red flowers are dangerous”, so seeing the roses pushes his “danger” button; he panics, and feels an overwhelming urge to abandon his cart in the middle of the store and run away.

That, in a nutshell, is how reflex learns. And that’s how it reacts, even when the part of your brain that’s responsible for rational thinking tells you there’s nothing to be scared of. Understanding this little nugget of information can become an important tool in managing fear, and we’ll get into more about that in the next few posts.

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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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PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 1: How reflex works

Hi again!

Today we’re going to discuss the first ingredient in PTSD, which is your survival reflex.

What I’d like to focus on first is telling you a bit about how reflex works. It’ll be easier to do this with an example… Have you ever accidentally put your hand on a hot surface? If you have, did you notice how, by the time you realized what had happened, you had already yanked your hand off?

This is a great illustration of how reflex works differently than your normal, conscious thought:

Conscious thought is all the stuff that goes through your head, that you’re actually aware of. This includes making decisions, figuring stuff out, noticing things around you – every thought that you actually realize you’re having.

Reflex on the other hand, is sort of like the autopilot; it’s the stuff that the brain does behind the scenes, without your awareness.

To go back to the example of accidentally putting your hand on a hot surface – before your “manual” (conscious) thought has a chance to catch up and realize that you’re burning yourself, your “autopilot” (reflex) is already reacting quickly to yank your hand out of harm’s way. You don’t choose to move your hand – reflex leads you to get it off the stove before you’re even consciously aware of what’s going on. Reflex works much faster than conscious thought; it’s done by a different part of your brain.

The foundation of PTSD is reflex – you do not choose to have reflex (it’s hard-wired into every animal); you do not control when to activate reflex (it just kicks in when it thinks it should).

That last bit – that bit about reflex being outside of your control – get used to hearing that bit. I will go on about that a lot. It’s important.

A lot of suffering comes from people blaming themselves for getting PTSD, and from feeling like it is somehow a weakness, a failure, a character flaw. It’s not something you can actually control, so it’s kinda like beating yourself up because your toenails grew since you clipped them last week. Goofy, right?

PTSD is kind of like a reflex on steroids: you can learn to understand it and manage it, but blaming yourself for it is worse than useless – it’s how you keep yourself stuck feeling awful…

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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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How to Make PTSD: The Recipe

I know, I know… That’s a cheesy title.

I didn’t want to just title this post, “What is PTSD?”, because that would imply that I’m going to rattle off a list of diagnostic criteria. And I’m not doing that in this post. Today, we’ll talk about the different layers of where PTSD comes from and how it develops.

– The first ingredient in PTSD is a survival reflex that is hard-wired into the brain of every animal. This reflex drives our response to perceived threat, both in terms of how our body reacts, as well as by producing specific emotional reactions. We’ll break down the discussion of this instinct into a number of posts, because it’s a bunch of information. Don’t skip over this stuff – it’s important, and it’ll help you understand what makes your PTSD “tick”. Some of these posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

– The second ingredient is one that you don’t get in your average, garden-variety, civilian PTSD. That ingredient is your military training. Although civilians get PTSD, and theirs can be just as severe as yours – the flavour of yours is different because of your training. Since PTSD is based on your response to threat, your training gives you a lot more to work with in that department as compared to the average civi.

– These first two ingredients on their own aren’t enough to cause PTSD. For that to happen, you need the third ingredient – and that’s trauma, or a threat to your safety or that of someone else. Trauma overwhelms your ability to respond. After a trauma has happened, it also changes what we see as a threat (for instance, fireworks or crowds may start to feel threatening after you’ve been exposed to combat).

The icing on the cake as it were – what keeps feeding the PTSD once you have it – includes things like a lack of good information; not having the proper tools for coping with your symptoms;  and blaming yourself for not being able to “just get over it”. This is what keeps you trapped and makes it hard to get a leg up on your PTSD.

Once you know what PTSD is made of, it gets easier to take it apart, and that’s really where we’re going with this: PTSD is an enemy that you weren’t trained to fight. Once you have a good sense of what it’s made of and how it works, you’re in a much better position to defend yourself and to fight back.

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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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