What is PTSD?
What is PTSD? Or, in my case, what is C-PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as: “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”
Medical News Today explains: “PTSD is generally related to a single event, while complex PTSD is related to a series of events, or one prolonged event.”Health Direct defines it as: “Complex PTSD describes a more severe and long-term condition that can occur after prolonged and repeated trauma, particularly in childhood. Trauma can cause problems with memory and disrupt the development of a person’s identity and their ability to control emotions and form relationships with others.”
For over twenty-five years, I battled severe panic attacks. These initially appeared when driving, brought on by a benign and unknown trigger. Flashbacks started haunting me and soon I was waking from my sleep in the throes of full-blown panic. I started to close in on myself and became agoraphobic over a period of time, afraid to leave my house for “fear of my fear”.
When I started EMDR therapy at Cincinnati Trauma Connection in 2013, it was there I first learned of dissociation and my having compartmentalized my trauma incidents in order to survive and cope. It was also within the safe confines of my therapist’s office where I started to sift through those old storage boxes of horrors and confront the negative energy attached to them. Trauma by trauma, memory by memory, I took my power back from the ghosts who had been haunting my mind and soul. I released long-stored trauma energy and learned coping skills to regulate my symptoms when triggered.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD which I experienced were:
- Hyper-arousal – I was living in a constant state of being on high-alert for imminent danger (whether real or imagined). That “tiger in the bushes” feeling was my norm. I still occasionally find myself in defense mode, however, I am now cognizant of it (my shoulders will be pulled up by my ears and my eyes will be scanning my surroundings) and can bring myself back into a centered, grounded, and calm state rather quickly.
- Panic attacks – These symptoms would arise at benign triggers (a loud noise, seeing a violent movie scene, being stuck in traffic, during restless sleep, and more): sweating palms, racing heart, tunnel vision, tingles in my legs and head, inability to formulate words, overwhelming need to escape/run or hide/curl into a ball, and feeling faint. It has been years since I have experienced a full-blown panic attack. If I feel the beginnings of one start to emerge, I am able to quickly disarm it with an onslaught of coping skills, mindfulness exercises, and grounding practices. Download my FREE anxiety coping guide above for more detailed info.
- Flashbacks – These first appeared soon after the second bank robbery and murder of my co-worker, when I awoke from a deep sleep to the terror of having the dark shadow of the murderer standing over me in my bedroom. While he was not really there, thankfully, my mind and body were reacting as if he was there with an intention to hurt me. The adrenaline coursed my veins as I fought my way back to reality. These flashback occurrences have diminished over the years and are now non-existent.
- Nightmares – Similar to flashbacks, except the haunting happens within the dream itself, but ends upon waking. I have been known to howl in my sleep, run and kick (having even received a restless leg syndrome diagnosis at one point), and, on rare occasion, flail in my sleep. Most times I woke up in the midst of a severe panic attack and would fall immediately to the floor and curl into a ball or dart from my bed and begin to pace and shake. Again, it has been years since I have experienced this and only once have I awoken from a frightening dream state during that time and was able to calm my aroused state within seconds.
- Avoidance behaviors – This entails avoiding situations and places which have caused a panic attack or anxiety in the past, or trying to avoid feeling scared, resulting in avoidance behaviors. Honestly, this one still lingers. Even after four years of EMDR therapy and utilizing other various therapy modalities and coping skills, I cannot yet drive on highways or over most bridges, sometimes experiencing heightened anxiety while a passenger in a vehicle in these spaces, as well. We have been unable to pinpoint the reason driving is a trigger. I have attempted exposure therapy and “making myself” drive over bridges and on small highway jaunts, however, the success is short-lived and avoidance behaviors quickly fall back into place. I will never give up and strive to find a solution to this lingering effect of my C-PTSD.
- Trust issues – This can be directed at intimate relationships (partners, friends, family members) or the general public (open spaces, crowds, someone sitting behind you). Because of the violation of personal safety experienced during traumatic events, trauma survivors will, at times, put up walls of defense as a protective measure. Because the large majority of my transgressors were male, I had to make concerted efforts to be aware of my responses to men in general. I also found myself having to sit at the end of an aisle while attending concerts or theater events so as to not be trapped and unable to escape quickly. I now honor my needs and trauma-history and plan accordingly.
- Anxiety – Here I am referring to a general state of anxious feelings. I would spend my days nervous about how I was coming across to someone, if so-and-so liked me, whether I was being a good enough mom, how I was going to travel across town for my son’s baseball game, was I going to randomly fall off of the earth (for real!), when my next panic attack was going to hit, how to keep all of the kids toys organized and not chaotic (you see a pattern here? . . . afraid to feel out of control). I now live my life in a regularly calm state, practicing mindfulness, and living in “the now” as much as possible. I am aware of my body/mind/soul state and take steps to center myself if I am feeling off-kilter.
- Racing thoughts – The scariest of all of my symptoms. I wasn’t sure how to even describe what was happening in my brain when I first tried explaining this to my EMDR therapist. I felt as if I was standing on the brink of insanity, one stumble away from going over the edge into madness. My brain was trying to grab at hope. That’s the best way I can describe it. Once I learned to be comfortable in my own body, with all of its quirks and sometimes interfering symptoms, I was able to stop a racing thought dead in its tracks. I was standing in the shower a few months ago when I was quickly overwhelmed by racing thoughts, and, just as quickly, I re-directed my thought pattern through mindfulness techniques and calming strategies and ended up smiling and saying aloud to myself, “You rock, T! I am so proud of you!”