disclaimer: just a reminder that I am not a doctor, I just read a cool book that gave me some good insights
Have you ever done something, or reacted a certain way to something, that to others seemed unreasonable or uncalled for? Do you have a really short fuse? Do you feel overwhelmed in a crowded loud place?
Now, you may not be, but you could be experiencing a trauma response. This is something I wasn’t consciously aware I was doing until I recently read a book called “The Body Keeps Score” by Bessel van der Kolk and I put the pieces together. For the longest time, pretty much since the attack, I’ve gotten snappy and angry if ever I am in a position where I can’t be fully aware of my surroundings. This might be when my partner playfully puts his fingers in my ear and suddenly I can’t hear, or when I’m being tickled and physically over stimulated, or when I’m in a crowded bar and everything is so loud that I can’t hear the person yelling right in front of me. The snappiness, to the untrained eye, might seem irrational, rude even, but what goes unseen is that there was something getting in the way of me and my ability to escape if something were to go wrong, and often that is just too much to bear.
Trauma responses are triggered by different things depending on what the trauma was, but the reaction is often the same. Anger. Usually sudden, explosive anger. It may only be for a short time, but the angry person is likely unable to explain why they got as angry as they did. At least, that’s how it was for me for a long time, so let me try to explain what happens.
The book talks about this reaction to seemingly small things in a number of places and what the author says is interesting. He says there is a section of the brain which is responsible for determining whether some input represents a threat, it’s called the amygdala. The amygdala depends largely on the amount of serotonin available in that part of the brain and that apparently, there has been research that shows animals with low serotonin are more hyperactive to stimuli and those with higher serotonin had a dampened fear system, making them less likely to react explosively to a small threat. This had an impact on PTSD research because like the low serotonin animals in this study, PTSD sufferers were hyperactive to their surroundings. This sparked research into drugs that might help increase serotonin levels and therefore reduce this hyperactivity, effectively treating a symptom rather than tackling the underlying issues.
After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous systemBessel van der Kolk – the body keeps score
Van der Kolk goes on to explain that when a traumatised person has a flashback or a reliving of the trauma, the executive functions of their brain shut down completely, meaning they are unable to rationalise their way out of the episode and unable to realise that they are in fact in the present, rather than stuck in the past. They experience what is known as the flight/flight/freeze response and it is this same response that is responsible for the outbursts of rage or irritability.
The outbursts stem from being constantly vigilant and ready to escape a threat, which leads to irritability and impatience. In a normal circumstance (that is, in an un-traumatised person) the flight/flight/freeze response is a good thing because it can get us out of danger should we get into trouble but in a person with PTSD, this response is occurring around the clock and BOY! is it exhausting (leading to further irritability). It’s important that as support people, we are aware of this reaction in our friends and family and we try not to take things personally. It is almost never intended as an attack on the person on the receiving end, and most likely the person having the outburst feels a little afraid.
Another thing in this book that I found interesting (while I’m here!) was the following quote.
Being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor in determining whether or not a horrible experience will leave long-lasting scars.Bessel van der Kolk
I found this interesting because it insinuates that people who feel trapped, held down or helpless are more likely to develop a condition like PTSD following a traumatic event than those who are able to help themselves and/or others get out of the dangerous situation. In my case, I was most definitely trapped. I was stuck inside a burning bus and it felt as though no amount of intervention from me would do anything to change the situation. Still, I got lucky. A stranger saved my life but that feeling of being trapped, that has never left the back of my mind and now I am always conscious of an exit strategy. If anything gets in the way of that exit strategy I react with anger and distress. I thought I had gotten over my PTSD, but the fact I was unaware of these reactions until recently leads me to think I have simply adjusted to it, and learned how to live in it’s presence. I will be keeping an eye on what triggers my trauma response from here on out so that I can better inform my loved ones of what to look for.
If you are also a survivor of trauma, no matter how great or seemingly small (trauma is trauma!), you might also have these reactions. I encourage you to ask yourself the questions at the top of this article and try to identify what your triggers are so that you too can work through this.
If you have an experience with PTSD that is similar or different to mine and you would like the public to know about it, I would love to hear from you and perhaps have you write an article for Lamey, Ed, Pete and Po (which you can do anonymously if you like). Just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are seeking help, follow the link below for a list of Australian resources
For more information on PTSD you can visit the black dog institute https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/resources-support/post-traumatic-stress-order/ and if you think you might be struggling with PTSD or suicidal thoughts then there are some helpful numbers here https://ptsd.org.au/
If you would like to support my mission to get people talking about mental health and combat stigma, please consider donating to my beyond blue fundraiser
Stay safe, everyone.