What is PTSD?

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!”
If you have experienced a single traumatic event, multiple or prolonged trauma, or exposure to toxic stress, and are experiencing these or other frightening symptoms, please reach out for guidance  – talk to your doctor, a therapist, anxiety coach, or expert in the field of trauma recovery and resilience. Healing is possible and you are so very worthy of that gift! 

Trauma-Informed Care

First I will offer a definition of trauma-informed care, then explain what it means to me, as a trauma-warrior. The feedback I receive from those who hear my “story of hope” is that they connect with my story because of it’s rawness, realness, and relatability, I want to use that here with the concept of trauma-informed care.

As defined by The Tristate Trauma Network: “Trauma-informed care (TIC) is an approach that takes into account the prevalence of trauma, acknowledges the role trauma plays in people’s lives, and uses this knowledge to respond in appropriate ways to those affected by trauma.”

Beautiful! ♥

With that, I will share a story of trauma-informed care in action, outside of the mental health arena:

I had decided to attend a writers’ workshop in Orlando, FL. This was going to require a flight and some highway travel. Both of which normally result in increased anxiety for me (one of my triggers, resulting from two different bank robberies I was in, is a sensation of feeling trapped with panic attack symptoms surfacing). Therefore, my senses were heightened as I made my travel plans.

Upon contacting The Omni Championsgate Resort, I was advised that they could not guarantee me a lower level floor. The young woman on the phone stated she would put it in the notes and if anything was available upon check-in then I could have it. Yeah, that was not going to work for me. The idea of traveling up fourteen floors brought on more increased anxiety symptoms as thoughts of a busy elevator and heights beyond my comfort level started surfacing.

So, I did what I do best and reached out to management via email, sharing my “story of hope” along with a request for help. I stayed polite, yet truthful to my needs. The response I received was a perfect example of trauma-informed care in action!

“Good morning, Ms. Wellbrock,Thank you for the additional information, and what an amazing woman you are! I am happy to assist and have taken the liberty of blocking your reservation into a room on a lower floor and barring any unforeseen circumstances, there should be no problem honoring your request. Though a hug is not necessary, it’s always welcome! If you know your approximate arrival time, I’ll add to your reservation and hopefully will have a chance to meet you on arrival. Please let me know if there is anything else I may do to assist you, and thank you for your loyalty.”

Again . . . beautiful! ♥

Falling in line with the definition of trauma-informed care, this organization recognized the prevalence of trauma in a guest’s life, acknowledged the role it plays in my life (as well as my anxiety-inducing triggers), and used that knowledge to respond in an appropriate way to my trauma needs.

P.S. I utilized coping skills on my trip and had a panic-free, low anxiety trip filled with laughter, enlightenment and grace. I colored with gel pens on the flight, meditated and talked to a newfound trauma therapist friend on the highway shuttle ride, and enjoyed my third floor view of the scenic lazy river at the gorgeous resort.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

Following is an excerpt from my upcoming September newsletter. This month I cover: Step 3 in the Defining Resilience series – Utilize Self-Care Strategies; a video on anxiety and panic attack coping skills; information on EMDR therapy; and creating a safe space as a coping mechanism. I would love to have you (or anyone you know who could benefit from my insights) subscribe to this and future newsletters at Hope for Healing Newsletter, as I work to grow my audience.
What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR Therapy has been life-altering for me. In 2013 I experienced what I reference in my presentations as a “shift”. I was struggling in a toxic relationship, trying to come to terms with my trauma history, and attempting to juggle various personal issues. It was within the confines of Dr. Barb Hensley’s office, at Cincinnati Trauma Connection, where I finally confronted the dark spaces of my traumas and learned to process them, releasing the stored up energy which had been surfacing as severe panic attacks for the previous twenty-five years.

So, what is EMDR Therapy? EMDR is the acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was initially developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro as a method for helping soldiers, returning from war, combat their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. However, it has since been utilized to help hundreds of thousands of patients process traumatic experiences.

More information about the therapeutic technique can be found at the American Psychological Association’s Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

My personal experience during sessions included the following:

Sometimes I would use a light bar in my therapist’s office, keeping my head still and allowing my eyes to move back and forth, following a flowing green light stream from left to right and back again. Other times, I would close my eyes (as I was being distracted peripherally) and focus on the vibrating paddles I held in my hands. Those would alternate vibrations, left, right, left, right, left, right, and so on. My eye movements would naturally fall into a rhythmic back and forth movement, similar to the movement experienced during REM sleep.

While following the light bar or hand vibration pattern, I would be prompted to return to one of my traumatic experiences. The vast majority of the time something would instantaneously surface. A body memory. A flashback. A sensation. Something would appear. Sometimes it would be a snippet I had remembered outside of therapy, other times a memory would appear from an unconscious space. It would be filled with specifics I had long forgotten (such as the blue oval-shaped rug, sprawled across the floor next to my black metal-framed bunk beds, in my bedroom in our home in Park Hills, Kentucky- a memory from age four).

Sobbing, shaking, overwhelming emotions, and sometimes the symptoms of a panic attack would arise. The soothing voice of my counselor would be there to assure me that I was safe. It was there I would first learn to “just notice”.

I became aware of my triggers and realized the body memories were there to help me instead of scare me. I started to look forward to the sessions so I could dive headfirst into the chaos in order to find more answers. There was light within the darkness.

We touched upon every known traumatic experience, sometimes returning to an event repeatedly as something would surface later down the road. At first these visits into the past were seen as if I was watching a movie, from a dissociated space. I was watching someone do horrific things to a little girl from outside of myself.

I knew the day I returned to a trauma and saw it happening from within my body, through my own eyes, that I had reached a place of healing. To feel safe within my body as I relived a moment of terror during an EMDR therapy session was truly empowering.

EMDR allowed me the opportunity to process a massively complex history of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violent crimes, and addiction in my family. I am now panic attack free. While I still experience heightened anxiety in certain situations, I am better equipped to calm my physiological responses, being mindful of my needs and triggers and the coping skills I can utilize to help myself overcome the fear.

Coming next month: What is PTSD?

Freeze & Free

I normally avoid reading anything that might trigger a symptomatic C-PTSD response. Nothing violent, especially incidents involving guns. However, I felt compelled to read an article I found re-posted in my ACEs Connection community, titled:

The tender, terrifying truth about what happened inside the Trader Joe’s hostage siege

This article, published in the Los Angeles Times, recounts the recent Trader Joe’s murder scene from the eyes of those held hostage inside the store. I am sharing my “gut reaction” response to that article, as shared on the ACEs Connection post:

Wow. Tears streaming. I just had a conversation last night with friends over dinner about fight/flight/freeze responses in moments of terror. It came up as a topic as our dogs were recently attacked by another dog while hiking in a nature preserve and our friends chiming in about their dog being attacked while walking in our neighborhood. We all responded differently: I froze in terror, unable to move. Meanwhile, my partner sprung immediately into action and lifted our little dog above her head, using her body to shield and block our labradoodle, while screaming at the owner of the attacking animal to grab his. Of the other couple, the wife dove on her dog, trying to protect it. Her husband used violence to try to stop the attack. 

I have survived two armed bank robberies, both resulting in bloodshed, both perpetrated by the same gunmen (they were not caught after the first robbery of our branch office and returned three months later to rob our main office – I had just transferred from the branch to the main office). In both instances I came face-to-face with the assailants. Robbery one – held hostage with a gun to my left temple while watching my coworker bleed profusely from three stab wounds to his back. The second robbery – as a coworker was shot and murdered (by the same gunman and gun that had been held to my head only three months prior), I was hiding after fleeing the bank and heard approaching footsteps, running hard and fast, when I looked to my right, only to be staring down the barrel of a semi-automatic Luger. Fortunately, a K-9 unit was in hot pursuit, the Luger misfired, and my life was spared. Yet again.

Reading this story, something I normally do not do as I avoid anything that may trigger my C-PTSD symptoms, I was moved to tears. Not tears of fear or sadness. I sat staring at my computer screen, as those tears cascaded, and said out lout, “That was beautiful.” 

The compassion shown by a hostage toward the gunman was truly magnificent. As I have come to a place of forgiveness for my transgressors (including both bank robbers/murderers), I realized I had no idea what had transpired in their lives. Had they been abused, neglected, terrorized in some way as children? Where had they turned away from innocence and started down a dark road of hopelessness? In a way, I connected with Moss, this calm and gentle soul, who grounded the gunman, connecting with him on a heart level. I have done that with my own gun-toting ghosts, in forgiving them. 

I froze in terror during those bank robberies/murder scenes. 

This woman, a hero in my eyes, did not fight or flee or freeze. She felt. She connected. She empathized. She calmed. She empowered. And in doing so, she saved lives. Including the life of a lost-soul gun-wielding perpetrator. 

Beautiful.

Podcast Episode 26: Suicide Awareness

Episode 26: Suicide Awareness

During this podcast, I sat down with Stephanie Potter and her granddaughter, Emma, co-founders of the non-profit agency Rob’s Kids. The motto of this organization is:

rob's kids 4

As described on their website:

“Over 98% of the funds we raise go directly to programs that promote and improve children’s mental health.  Programs we support include: Mentoring programs, after school programs, food assistance programs, scholarship programs, various community projects through out the year.”

Emma & Sammie
Therapy Dog, Sammie, mid-smooches with Emma Potter during podcast recording session

The traumatic impact of Emma’s father’s suicide on her older sister, Sam, resulted in her sister spending time at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital with a diagnosis of depression and also post-traumatic stress disorder.

Listen in on iTunesBlubrry, or directly from my website as Emma & Stephanie discuss Rob’s Kids, the impact of suicide on their lives, their healing journey thus far, art therapy, signs of depression, seeking help, their heroes, and so much more.

As I say in my podcast closings, “remember to be gentle with yourself.”

* Every few days I will be posting links to various episodes from The Healing Place Podcast from 2018 thus far. I am excited to have more therapists, trauma-gurus, and ACES experts lined up over the next few weeks for interviews. I would love to have YOU join me, as well. If you are interested, please send me a private messages through this site and I will send you my podcast interview questions for you to review.

I am a huge fan of lifting one another up as beacons of light for those who are struggling, looking for guidance, or lost in the dark. I would love to offer my podcast as a platform for your voice about your mission and passion. My goal is to provide motivational, inspirational, and healing stories for my listeners.