What Happens To You When You Face Trauma

A professional's view of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it impacts those who suffer

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Trauma is in my wheelhouse. I grew up with trauma. I buried trauma. I finally learned how to deal with trauma when I became a Licensed Professional Counselor at age 37.

For 15 years I have researched trauma, written about it, counseled clients, attended seminars, and written books (my book Renewed and another book soon to be published).

I live in the Columbine High School town, Littleton, CO and almost 50 teens from my church were in the school that day.

I went to NYC after 9/11 and was escorted into the secured area where I ministered to firefighters and police officers.

I’ve been invited to trainings by Las Vegas police officers who speak to police officers across the country.

My specialty as a counselor is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

I’m going to jot down random comments because maybe it will help someone.

I’m not going to cite all the references but I hope you can trust me. This is my gig.

Trauma = anything your brain can’t make sense of.

Three out of four people can witness a horrific event and 25% will get PTSD. 75% will not.

When trauma happens, people fight, flight, or freeze. Most people fight or flight (flee), but if they can’t do those, they freeze. They dissociate. They space out. Zone out.

Most people’s brains know how to heal. Most people know what they need.

Some of the best treatments are being with others, singing in a church choir (oddly), taking time, talking and repeating the story over and over to your safe people, doing yoga, getting a massage, and using a type of therapy called EMDR (Look for the Youtube video called “EMDR Channel 2”)

The number one link for folks who get PTSD is helplessness.

If you felt like you could do something proactive—immediately after the trauma—your chance of getting PTSD is lessened, especially if it involves some type of physical activity.

For instance, if you ran and helped others hide.

If instead you were stuck and forced into the “freeze state” your chance for PTSD is increased.

Most times you don’t get to choose. That’s because the part of your brain that does thinking (the prefrontal cortex) shuts down so that your body can do what it needs to do.

The “thinking” part of your brain goes offline.

The amygdala (“emotional” brain) takes over. Your emotional brain decides whether or not to fight, flight, or freeze. Later on you can’t blame it for what it did.

PTSD is made up of three broad set of symptoms: Hyper-vigelance, Avoidance, and Re-experiencing.

Hypervigelance: You’re on the lookout for the event to reoccur. You jump at sounds. You’re scanning your world for it to happen again.

Avoidance: You try to avoid reminders of the situation. You isolate from yourself and others. Most times you try to numb out with alcohol or other substances.

Re-experiencing: Nightmares, flashbacks, dreams, daydreams.

PTSD symptoms are paradoxical: Your brain is trying to avoid thinking about the event while at the same time it’s trying to process it.

A helpful metaphor is a person who eats too much dinner at Thanksgiving: Your body is trying to digest the trauma so it belches and burps (flashbacks and re-experiencing).

PTSD is too much trauma. Your brain and body are trying to digest what happened. Trying to integrate it into your real life.

If it’s been less than four weeks you can’t be diagnosed with PTSD. (It’s called Acute Stress Disorder if you have the above set of symptoms for less than four weeks.)

Some situations make people “ripe” for PTSD: poverty, growing up with lots of trauma and violence, and some types of traumas are worse (like rape and natural disasters).

Some of the most helpful things you can do are try to tell your story to safe people. You’ll probably want to tell it over and over. Avoid those TV cameras. Research says that’s one of the worst things you can do.

Try to eat right, sleep right, get massages, do yoga, and consider EMDR therapy. You can find trained counselors at EMDRIA.org

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