Mental Health

Life is a PTSD Event

Life is a PTSD Event

There’s a lot of talk these days about post-traumatic stress (PTSD) – veterans returning from war who can’t sleep because of nightmares, who feel vulnerable and on-edge just walking into a crowded McDonald’s. Or people who have been in terrible car accidents that make them now shiver while waiting at a red light, or trigger them into road rage when a car suddenly weaves in their direction.

Life is a PTSD Event

By Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W.
Created Aug 28 2011 – 12:19pm
 
There’s a lot of talk these days about post-traumatic stress (PTSD) – veterans returning from war who can’t sleep because of nightmares, who feel vulnerable and on-edge just walking into a crowded McDonald’s. Or people who have been in terrible car accidents that make them now shiver while waiting at a red light, or trigger them into road rage when a car suddenly weaves in their direction.
It’s the body’s over-protective way of protecting us – by assuming that what happened in the past, not might, but will happen again. It’s survival, reptilian brain stuff. The neurons fire and we move into action, expecting the worst, making sure that it – a roadside bomb, a reckless driver – won’t do it to us again. When the past is constantly replayed in the present – for the veterans, the accident victims, for those exposed to tragic events – it also often ruptures their futures.

But in smaller, less tragic, but often powerful ways, we all are PTSD victims. We may not have the terrifying nightmares, the depression, the sense of constant anxiety, but we all have moments when our pasts over-ride the present: Your husband comments that you are home late, and you suddenly feel chastised, like a 10 year-old who has screwed up. You are at a party, chatting away, doing your best social you, and you see other person’s eyes begin to wander around the room, and then he drifts away. You immediately become 16, the gawky teen rejected at the dance.

These moments may not incapacitate us, but they do sting, can linger, and shake our self- confidence. They cause us to lie in bed at 3 am worrying about what we have done wrong and how we have been wronged, or obsessing about what we need to do differently next time. But it’s all old wiring, a social form of phantom limb, where a situation close enough to an old wound of the past triggers that old wound, and we are pulled back and feel devastated or hopeless.

So what can you do to keep from becoming emotionally derailed by the past? A few suggestions:

Know your triggers and vulnerabilities. What type of comments or situations make you feel particularly vulnerable, less adult, more childlike – a disapproving comment by your spouse or boss, the awkwardness you feel at large party? You can usually tell by your own after-the-fact-realization that you were over-reacting, or by that 10-year-old feeling that leaves you with queasy legs, sweating, frightened or embarrassed. Sit down with yourself, reflect on those difficult or embarrassing times. Sort out what made them so, what in particular emotionally stirred you up. Or, work in the present – take notes for a few weeks and see what sets you off.

Label these reactions as the past. By thinking through and writing down your list, you’re sensitizing yourself to those situations. The next step is doing the adult voice-over and telling yourself as soon as the old feelings come up that THIS IS THE PAST! You can do this whenever the old feelings come up. If you have a large party coming up on Saturday night, and are feeling that anticipatory angst in your stomach on Thursday, say to yourself over and over that this is simply phantom limb emotions. If your boss looked at you cross-eyed while walking down the hall and you are in dithers, say that this is not Now, but the past the is being stirred up.

By saying to yourself that you are not 10 years-old but an adult, you can over-ride some of the chatter that comes with the emotions.  Expect to still feel some of the sting of situations – the bolt of the worry that your boss is angry, that 16 year-old awkwardness – but your voice-over will help keep your head from running on auto and making it worse.

Do the opposite of your instincts.  While labeling the past as past helps keeps it where it belongs, real healing comes through action, and against-the-grain action at that. If you do feel overwhelmed and stupid at the party, scolded by your boss, resist that familiar urge to cut out early or slink into the corner.  Instead pump yourself up and “fake it till you make it.” Move forward and introduce yourself to others, approach, rather than retreat, from your boss.

By doing the opposite of your instincts, you are doing now, in the present, as an adult, what you couldn’t do as a kid – namely, being proactive rather than reactive, letting people know what you feel and need, clarifying and approaching problems, rather than hoping that they will magically go away. Instead of reigniting those old wounds and childhood fears, you are replacing and repairing them with adult action.

Practice. Your emotions always lag behind your thoughts and actions. But if you keep it up, if you practice these reality-based voice-overs enough, the emotions will catch up. You’ll literally update your neurological software, feel less fearful, more self-confident, and be able to handle stressful situations with an up-to-date adult brain.

Rather than constantly bleeding into the present, the past will become… well, the past.

 

Source URL: http://www.psychologytoday.com/node/72371

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