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…


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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7 thoughts on “PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 1: How reflex works

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  2. “PTSD is kinda like a reflex on steroids.”
    Great line, Dr. Dee. I never thought about it like that before. My question: does the reflex get weaker over time?

    Looking forward to following your blog!

    1. Hi Richard!
      Thanks so much for stopping by!
      To answer your question – the “reflex on steroids” can actually get stronger over time – we get “scared of getting scared”, we start to avoid all the stuff that makes the reflex go off, we blame ourselves, and tell ourselves we need to “suck it up”. It turns into a vicious cycle.
      This is why it’s important to get informed, get support, and get help.

  3. Great site and I come here when I’m feeling down and need some “pick me up” – I have a dilemma. What if I’, attending therapy (EMDR) but the methods used (frigging pulsating things) are triggering my PTSD? I’ve been with my therapist for over 3 years now and I think the therapist feels its helping and I really don’t know how to tell her that its worst now then when we began. Simply taking for me is far better and more engaging. It has helped some (confidence) and I don’t want to hurt the feelings of my therapist so I’ve said nothing but this EMDR shit is getting too me. Would appreciate your astute advice.

    1. Hi GR.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts – I’m glad you’re finding the blog helpful.

      EMDR Therapy is a well-validated treatment for trauma, but if it’s not working for you, then it’s not working for you. It could just be that the “pulsating things” aren’t working for you, and using something different (like tapping or eye movements) might be better for you. Only you and your therapist can figure out what to change to make it work for you.

      PLEASE don’t let worry about hurting your therapist’s feelings hold you back from letting her know that you’re not finding it helpful. Your therapist may have lots of other ideas about things you could try, but as long as she thinks that what you’re doing is working for you, she has no reason to try something different. Therapy is teamwork; your job is to show up, do your best, and let your therapist know how it’s working for you.

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