Death I Grapple at Thee, Trauma I Stab at Thee…
I have heard it said the death begets death. Put another way, when you’re grieving or helping someone who is grieving; passed deaths, funerals and aftermaths come flooding forward.
This is also the case for severe trauma. Experiences with other’s traumas provoke strong memories and features of one’s own trauma. For this reason, I often tell my clients who are dealing with severe traumas, to avoid news broadcasts and closely monitor television shows and movies before watching (if possible). This helps prevent suddenly finding themselves in a virtual situation similar enough to what they experienced to cause problems.
Until you know what your trauma triggers are this is shaky ground. It would be easy to say, I experienced child abuse; therefore, I won’t watch things that show or discus this topic. Since the mind is like a 4-D movie camera recording during a traumatic event, the obvious might not be so obvious.
For example: The well groomed newscaster presented three horrific events; the remains of 11 dead bodies found in Ohio killed by a serial killer; a Toyota’s accelerator got stuck and the car accelerated to 100 miles an hour, killing the driver when it hit a tree; a woman was thrown from a roller coaster at Six Flags Amusement Park in Texas and died on impact.
In which of these stories would a person with severe trauma experience the most triggers? It’s a person by person answer. It may not be the most heinous which grabs the person. It will be the one that elicits the most triggers from that 4-D movie reel in their head.
In my own case, as I have PTSD, the story that grabbed me was the story at the amusement park. I’ve never been thrown from a roller coaster, in fact I love coasters. So why would this story grab me?
In my case, it had to do with something I and many people with PTDS develop. It’s the fear or guilt of having a good time. In my case, it is fear. My life experiences have taught my brain that as soon as life calms down and starts to look normal, something horrific is coming around the corner. It’s something I’ve had to actively evaluate and be aware of for many years.
So, who in those news stories was having the most fun when something horrible happened? Yep, it was the woman, vacationing with her family and then ejected from the coaster to her death. What made this situation worse, the news reporter stated when the coaster pulled out of the platform the woman realized her lap bar wasn’t closed properly and there was nothing anyone did or could do once the coaster left the platform to help her.
This brings about three more common traits of people with PTSD. These are the feelings of helplessness, inability to escape and sudden realization of impending serious harm or death. The other two news stories probably contained these elements as well; however, this third story compounded all three elements. If the woman had been my age, that might add a fourth component. If instead of on a coaster, she was in a situation similar to what I experienced, that would add another component. The more components are involved than the stronger the reaction tends to be.
So you see it’s complicated when you or a loved one is learning to live with PTSD. Part of this learning is in understanding how the brain processes trauma and what triggers are hard wired to respond. As the person and their family learn these, the next steps are learning to compensate for reactions, lesson reactions and know your limitations. Most of all never stop exploring and never give up.
If you do get triggered, this protocol will be useful.
- Ground yourself. Do a mental check. Where are you? Who is with you? Are you safe? Your brain needs some external impute from you to circumvent the need to protect you from the danger it perceives you are currently under or about to experience. Telling yourself things like, I’m in my living room, there are green curtains on the window, I’m drinking Lemon Zinger tea may seem silly, but they tell your brain you are not in that place where trauma originally occurred.
- It’s okay to be triggered. Being triggered is a horrendous feeling, especially if it leads to physical, emotional or visual flashbacks. Once you have calmed your mind and body down. Do not, I repeat, do not chastise yourself for having been triggered in the first place. What you experienced was strong enough to provoke the same response in you everyone experiences when they try to put their hand in fire. The brain knows how to keep you safe. Triggers are the mechanisms the brain uses to screen for fires.
- Be an investigative reporter. Logging down what you were doing or watching when you were triggered, any information about how you reacted feelings after the fact are invaluable. Over time, you will see patterns. Perhaps, it’s anything that sounds like explosions or the smell of curry. Even if you and another person experienced the exact same trauma at the same time, your log will be as unique to you as your finger print. Don’t be afraid of finding the patterns.
- Bring your information to someone who can help you. It is typically best to work with someone knowledgeable about trauma reactions when processing and learning to live with triggering events and information. Take your log and your insight with you. You know you and your traumatic event(s) better than anyone. No counselor or therapist is a savior. They are only another human being with training that is there to help. Find someone you trust and become partners in your quest to living healthily with PTSD.
When Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick wrote the lines: To the last, I grapple with thee; from the hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee, he was writing about a man’s obsessive pursuit to concur an internal demon triggered by an external sea monster. Is living with PTSD any different?