I denied having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for years. I refused to even consider it. I had heard about PTSD only in the context of military veterans, and I didn’t think the abusive relationship I suffered was tantamount to combat such that it could cause PTSD. I also didn’t want to entertain the possibility that I had a verifiable mental illness.
About a year ago, thanks to circumstances so compelling that they could only have been divinely orchestrated, I wound up in the psychology section of the library. Hungry for answers to help me make sense of my experiences, I pored over books about trauma and ended up checking out several texts about PTSD.
Reading these books was like reading my journal. Intrusive flashbacks. Recurring nightmares. Anxious, frightened thoughts. Avoidance. Bulimia. Numbness, guilt, self-blame, depression, withdrawal. Hypervigilance and restlessness. I was floored to realize that I was a PTSD poster child.
I was also relieved. Finally I could put a name to my internal turmoil. I could address it. I got myself into therapy (better late than never), confirmed the PTSD, and have been learning to manage it since.
I don’t tend to advertise the fact that I have PTSD, much less go into detail about what it looks like in the day-to-day. It’s not exactly what people want to hear when they ask how you’re doing. But the fact of the matter is that PTSD can and does rear its ugly head at unanticipated times, sometimes in bewildering ways, which can be difficult for those around me to deal with.
I’m absolutely sure I’m not the only Christian with PTSD. I’m equally certain that we as a community can stand to grow in our understanding of this disorder. If you’re willing to make that journey, here are three points to get you started.
1. A variety of traumatic experiences can cause PTSD.
PTSD is caused by trauma—a scary or dangerous situation that causes feelings of extreme fear and powerlessness, usually because a person believes that he or she is at risk of serious bodily harm or death. There’s no bright-line categorization method to predict what will or won’t cause PTSD because the perception of the threat is a subjective experience.
In short, trauma comes in many forms. Military combat is a widely known cause, and PTSD also frequently results when a people experience violent crime, abuse or neglect, natural disasters and even car crashes.
If someone tells you that he or she has PTSD, resist any temptation to doubt it or be skeptical on account of the cause. It doesn’t matter if the situation doesn’t seem highly traumatic to you, or even to most people. What matters is how the individual himself or herself experienced it.
2. Responding well to symptoms means expecting the unexpected.
When PTSD symptoms present, they generally manifest as a reaction of fear and anxiety that is disproportionately exaggerated in view of the immediate causative circumstances. What’s happening is that some trigger in the present is causing a person to relive the past traumatic experience emotionally, mentally and physiologically.
Triggers are different for each person, and virtually anything can be a trigger: a person, a place, a date or time of year, an object, music, a sight, a smell, a sound, a taste. Talking, watching, listening or reading about situations similar to one’s initial traumatic event are common triggers. Emotions themselves can be triggers, which may turn a PTSD reaction into a frustrating self-feeding fire.
The only common thread among a person’s triggers is that something about them harkens back to the original trauma. Unfortunately, this means triggers are hard to anticipate. People with PTSD often learn by experience what triggers them, which is why PTSD reactions tend to be unexpected.
When a person is triggered, those overwhelming feelings of powerlessness and trepidation come rushing back. The body deploys its biochemical survival mechanisms to respond to the perceived stress. The sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear, initiating the “fight, flight or freeze” response.
If you know someone with PTSD, he or she may have seemingly inexplicable amplified reactions to everyday circumstances or situations unrelated to the initial trauma. Don’t be surprised by this. There’s far more going on than meets the eye.
3. Even if the perceived threat isn’t real, PTSD-induced emotions are.
More often than not, when a person’s PTSD is triggered, the situation is actually benign. That is, something caused him or her to recall and relive the past traumatic event, but the danger itself is only perceived, not actually present. Just because the threat isn’t real, however, doesn’t mean that a person’s feelings aren’t real. Quite the contrary, they can be all-consuming.
The glut of emotions caused by PTSD cannot be “thought” away. Believe me, I’ve tried. Many times. I can recognize with clarity on a cognitive level that I’m not in danger, but despite my best efforts, every cell of my body remains on high alert. It feels like the world is spinning wildly out of control and my insides are frantic, crumbling. Sometimes all I can do is curl up into a ball and cry, and I can’t even articulate why.
In a similar vein, a person can’t just “get over” PTSD or otherwise shrug it off. By definition, PTSD is not a person’s fault or within his or her control. We’re talking about a primal, deeply hardwired self-preservation reaction. It cannot be cured, only managed. Often it’s a long learning process because new triggers are discovered over time.
Nothing makes me feel weaker or more panicked than when my PTSD is triggered. The last thing a person needs when he or she is in the middle of a PTSD-related breakdown is to be berated and told to quickly bounce back. Instead, offering someone space, patience and a genuine willingness to listen will make a world of difference.
I’ve reached a point of acceptance with my PTSD. It affects me, yes, and on some days it’s worse than others. But it doesn’t define me, and the more I learn about it and myself, the less it controls me.
My hope is that the Church would be willing to engage in discussion about PTSD and other mental illnesses so that we can dismantle the shame associated with these labels. And I hope that people would be willing to step into that uncomfortable place of learning how to support one another so that nobody has to struggle alone.