Post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD for short, is a mental illness that results in the improper processing and storage of traumatic events. PTSD develops because the trauma experience was so distressing that we want to avoid any reminder of it (ironic really), our brains don’t process the experience into a memory, so the experience stays as a current problem instead of becoming a memory of a past event. Each time we are reminded of the event, the ‘flashbacks’ mean we experience the trauma again, as though it is happening again, right now in this moment which obviously puts us in a lot of distress (to say the least), so we do our utmost to stop the flashback and avoid any further reminder of the event, therefore the event remains un-processed.
My PTSD started when I was around 6 years old. I had never heard of PTSD and because of my age, I didn’t really understand the trauma and I considered the after effects to be normal, just something that happens, like with any memory. For the following 6 years I just carried on with my normal life and then after my dads death everything plummeted. My PTSD got even worse but again, I still hadn’t heard about PTSD and I just thought the reoccurring memory was part of the grieving process and well I still thought it was normal, like with any memory. When my PTSD would be triggered, I would end up going into a hole of depression afterwards and again, I thought that was normal.
It wasn’t until I was in college when I realised that I could have PTSD (this was around 12 years after my PTSD actually started). I’d had a mental breakdown and one of my college tutors referred me to the college counsellors but it wasn’t until we were a few sessions in and she asked me if I had heard about PTSD. By this point I had heard of it, but not enough to tell you what each individual letter stood for or what it even meant. She informed me about PTSD and gave me a leaflet to read, she recommended that I try Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR for short) but nothing ever came of this.
I carried on with my life, reliving the traumas as though it was normal because in a way, it had become normal for me. I knew what was happening to me, I didn’t know how to cope or deal with it, but I knew what was happening but I never did any of my own research about PTSD, I didn’t really want to know much more about it as I was still uncertain as to whether I actually had it or not, by this point I only thought PTSD was something war veterans had because that’s what everyone seemed to associate it with. Well my memories weren’t as traumatic as those so maybe I didn’t have PTSD?
My symptoms of PTSD got a lot worse between the ages of 18-21 years old. My sleep pattern was fucked because I was scared to fall asleep, then I’d be woken up by my nightmares which then made it harder for me to fall back asleep and then because of the lack of sleep at night and my depression, if I wasn’t in lessons or at work, I was asleep, it sometimes became harder to control my emotions and thoughts whilst out in public or even around my friends. I reached a point where I was honestly just so fed up of the awful, uncontrollable repeat of my traumas going on every day, I didn’t want to carry on living my life that.
How does PTSD happen?
When you experience a trauma (a trauma can be anything from witnessing it, experiencing it or even just hearing about an unexpected trauma) our bodies will respond to the threat by going into fight/flight mode and how we react to those traumas is normal, PTSD is a human response to an uncommon trauma/event we have witnessed/experienced. Traumas undermine our sense that life is fair and that we are safe and secure, a trauma makes it very clear to us that we or someone close to us could die at any minute. PTSD causes our brains to get stuck in danger mode (even when you are no longer in danger) which is another reason why PTSD can be so easily triggered as your body continues to send out stress signals and its these stress signals that cause PTSD symptoms.
Like all mental illnesses, PTSD affects everyone differently. My PTSD symptoms were:
- Nightmares. The nightmares were sometimes worse than the flashbacks. The flashbacks I got used to and it was always the same thing, but the nightmares could be anything. Sometimes they were flashback nightmares, sometimes they were nightmares relating to the traumas and sometimes they were just awful nightmares altogether, I also had quite a few reoccurring ones. The one I will always remember is the vampire nightmare. This was a nightmare I had every few months or so and each nightmare was different but in the same setting. The nightmare usually started off with me walking through a secluded wooded area to a caravan and whilst walking to the caravan I’d be able to feel something watching me and I’d try to run but my legs wouldn’t go any faster than a walk, so I’d begin to panic. Sometimes I’d see the vampire watching me panic, sometimes it would attack me and sometimes it would wait till I got in the caravan and it would watch me through the windows.
When I was between the ages of 18-21 I was in a relationship with a guy who probably signed on for more than he bargained for. The relationship didn’t work out for many reasons but he was always there for me when I had my nightmares and comforted me as best as he could considering it was sometimes scary for him as well. The morning after I had a rough nights sleep he would tell me what I was doing which could be any (or all) of the following;
– Grinding my teeth
– Distressed chatter
– Making sobbing noises
– Excessively tossing and turning
– Panic attacks (Sometimes if he woke me up mid-way through a nightmare I would instantly be in panic mode)
– Difficulty breathing (I used to make weezy noises and breathe very heavily and very loudly. This was the hardest one for him to deal with as he found it distressing hearing me struggle to breathe. If he woke me up I’d either take a huge inhale and regulate my breathing or I would go into panic mode).
- Flashbacks. Anywhere, anytime and no matter who you are with or what you are doing, the flashbacks can pop up whenever the fuck they want to. The flashbacks are like a reoccurring waking nightmare (they feel more like a nightmare than a memory as it can be hard to distinguish what is reality and what is a flashback). My flashbacks were the worst when I was going through high school and college, when you’re sat in a classroom it’s normal for your mind to wander elsewhere, my mind usually wandered to my traumas. Sometimes I would realise it was happening and I’d try to quickly think about something else but that didn’t often work. It was like I was getting sucked up a tornado and no matter how hard I tried to walk, run or crawl away from it, it always managed to suck me in and fuck me up.
- Hypervigilance. When I had PTSD I was very easily startled as I was always on high alert. It was hard to relax and take a break because I felt as though if I did that, I would potentially be in even more danger. I still startle fairly easy now but I feel that is more to do with my anxiety as I haven’t suffered from any PTSD symptoms since finishing my therapy (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
- Avoidance. There used to be a shit load of triggers outside of the house that I tried to avoid (my triggers are mentioned a little further down). The triggers could be anything. If anyone said the word ‘dad’ well fuck, I would just spiral rapidly, if it happened whilst I was out in public, I’d try my best to carry on as normal (it didn’t always work out that way) and as soon as I was on my own I would just collapse in my tears. Fathers day used to be absolute torture.
- Depression. PTSD and depression are a match made in hell, they go together perfectly. My depression didn’t really start till after the second trauma (my dads death) but even if I had a flashback of my first trauma, the depression would still impact me. After I had a flashback and I had returned back into the present moment, I would be thrown into that depressive hole. The flashbacks affected me emotionally, physically and mentally, so when I returned back to the present, I would usually be absolutely drained, so mentally I couldn’t switch on, emotionally I was waiting to be on my own so I could break down and physically my whole body was sore and aching, then because of the after effects of the flashbacks, I would need to have a nap or get some alone time which only fuelled my depression more. It was a vicious cycle that just kept repeating.
- Anxiety. Of course anxiety is included as well. My anxiety started after my first trauma and began to get worse as the years went on. To be anxious is normal, it’s a way for your body to tell you that something isn’t quite right, but when you suffer from anxiety it’s persistent, overwhelming and irrational, mix that with the hypervigilance and the flashbacks and you have one hell of a tricky situation to try and deal with. At some points I was constantly aware that there were triggers around and I could spiral into a flashback at any time, but then I was also constantly aware that there were potential dangers around me all the time so I had to remain alert in case something popped up whilst I was out walking, in lessons, talking to people etc.
- Anger. Holy fuck, I used to be such an aggressive person sometimes. It wouldn’t take much for me to see red and flip my switch and I was always extremely self-defensive. I’ve always been someone who is easy to wind up and I get pissed off fairly quickly (I try not to hold onto any negativity though, as that isn’t going to give me any benefits). My anger got worse when I was around 17/18 years old and the intensity fluctuated till I was around 21 years old (this was during a time where I was in a unhealthy relationship which I believe made more of an impact on my temper). Alcohol fuelled my anger as well, I was drinking heavily during this time and I created a lot of shit for sober Emma to deal with, I mean…a lot of shit. I’d sometimes get very drunk, get angry and then have a break down or I’d get very drunk, have a break down and then get angry.
What are triggers?
Triggers are thoughts/feelings/emotions/physical sensations and anything we can sense in the outside world that could set off the PTSD (basically, triggers can literally be anything and everything). When we’re faced with a traumatic event/situation we go into fight/flight mode and our brains stop normal functions to deal with the threat (one of the normal functions it stops is the short-term memory). Triggers are formed when the brain attaches sights/smells/sounds etc to that memory and they become triggers which act as reminders of anything that happened just before the trauma and during. Triggers fall into two different categories which are internal and external. Internal triggers are more to do with yourself, whereas external triggers are more to do with what is around you. Below is a list of just some of what my internal and external triggers used to be.
– Feeling lonely
– Feeling vulnerable
– Rapid heartbeat
– Difficulty breathing
– Trying to talk about the traumas
– Feeling out of control
– Blurred vision
– Sore muscles and aches
– Feeling helpless
– The smell of my dads aftershave
– Someone saying ‘dad’ or anything relating to their dad or a dad
– Crowded places
– The dark
– Groups of people
– Being on my own
– Seeing old pictures
– The smell of his car cleaner
– Hearing certain songs
– Seeing/hearing anyone with breathing difficulties
– The smell of a parka coat
– The smell of toast
– Being in silence
– People looking/staring at me
– Seeing certain people
– Childrens birthday parties
– Being in or near certain places
– Seeing families together
– Fathers day
– Any argument
– Relationship issues
– Boys shouting
– Peoples tone of voice
– Watching a movie or tv show that had a scene relating to a family or a dad
– The anniversary of my dads death and the wedding anniversary of him and my mum
– Seeing the type of car my dad used to drive
– The weather (summer time weather was actually a huge trigger for me as my dad and I used to always be outside together during the warmer months)
– Going to my dads grave (this was something that I wanted to do but avoided doing because I knew how hard it would be. I’ve only ever been a handful of times but when I visit my home in the UK I’m now able to sit by his gravestone without getting triggered)
– Peoples personalities
– Hearing about golf or seeing objects relating to golf
– Someone touching my back
– Hearing certain types of conversations
It’s hard having PTSD but it’s also hard living or caring for someone who suffers from PTSD. Below are some of my personal tips for helping anyone who suffers from PTSD:
– Respect their boundaries but make sure they know you are there to support them.
– Do not pressure them into talking.
– Show that you are willing to listen.
– Do normal things with them that they enjoy (exercise, eating food, watching tv etc).
– Let them take control rather than you telling them what to do.
– Remain calm, focused and relaxed.
– Have patience.
– Do your own research on PTSD.
– Don’t allow your personal opinions to get involved.
– Ride the roller coaster with them.
– Allow them to talk as much as they want (they might repeat the same things over and over again).
– Be aware that they could get triggered.
– Do not break their trust.
If they do happen to get triggered and they experience a flashback try and remember to:
– Tell them that you are there with them in the present moment. What they are currently experiencing is a flashback (try and avoid saying ‘it is not real’ and maybe try saying something along the lines of ‘it isn’t happening again’).
– Avoid sudden movements or making any loud noises.
– Help them regulate their breathing and encourage them to take slow, controlled deep breaths.
– Help them point out their surroundings (for example ask them to touch the chair they are sat on, or to touch your arm, look at a picture/clock on the wall etc. Ask them to say what they can see out loud).
– Ask before touching them, do not go hugging them tightly or putting your arms around them as this could make them feel trapped and it could even be a trigger for them.
– Give the person space. If you can see that their PTSD has triggered an angry response, give them some space to allow them to feel less threatened.
– Ask how you can help. Sometimes all they might want is for you to just sit there with them.
– Look after yourself! This is very important as it will help you to look after them but seeing someone you care for have a flashback can be traumatizing itself and you could be at risk of becoming traumatized. Help them by helping yourself.
PTSD was the hardest for me to process and overcome. It’s left me with some damages but it’s left me alone for 2 years now. The traumas are still in my mind, I still remember them every now and again but they are just memories. I don’t feel how I felt at the time of the traumas, I’m just aware of what happened now, I don’t relive it anymore, it doesn’t affect my present life but I have the freedom to reflect, revisit and learn from the experiences whenever I want.
I wouldn’t wish a traumatic experience upon anyone but if it wasn’t for my traumatic experiences, I wouldn’t be where I am today and I wouldn’t be writing this. This could sound strange but I am grateful for the experiences as they have gotten me to this point and I am extremely happy with that.
Thank you for reading,
Sending my love to you all,