The Brain & Reminders

Recently, I had the police come to retrieve ammunition and a gun that had belonged to my late husband. It was part of an amnesty initiative and something I felt was about time for me to do. You see, I’d been avoiding it.

I’d essentially been avoiding my basement. Each time I went down there I was acutely aware of the location of that weapon and the ammunition. A gun killed him. Nothing gets my guard up more than a firearm with live ammunition now.

I even detest seeing pictures of guns now. I don’t know if I’m always going to be that way, but I can exist without firearms in my life; I always had before. This is why I decided to do this – it was time.

Now, let me tell you a little about this interaction. It was a simple process, the officer was courteous and professional, everything seemed fine, I was “in control”.

But I wasn’t really, especially when asked if my husband had passed away. In my mind I thought, “Why yes, 2 years, 1 month and 23 days ago…he shot himself with his other gun, the shotgun that belonged with this ammunition.” On the outside, I simply nodded, maybe actually said, “Yeah”.

On the outside everything was fine, the smile was pasted in place and nothing was wrong.

But on the inside, I started to shake. It was like a tiny vibration that started in the very pit of my stomach. Anxiety? Fear? Adrenalin?

Even though I was there in my kitchen with this strapping young man, part of my brain had slid back in time to a horrific day and was telling my body to be afraid, to mount a defense reaction; activate – fight, flight, freeze.

I wasn’t conscious of any of it, so no one was in any danger, but adrenalin started to course through me, because this is what happens during sympathetic activation within the body. The “triggered” brain prepares the body for fight/flight/freeze by releasing hormones, increasing the heart and respiratory rates, and pumping more blood to the muscles. My insides began to tense up and shake.

After the nice young officer had left, my body started to shake more and my teeth began to chatter – every one of us first responders was once that FNG who did their first “hot call” and afterward couldn’t, for the life of them, stop their teeth from chattering. It’s called an adrenalin surge and it’s perfectly normal.

So, here I was, sitting on my couch, teeth chattering, hands shaking and wondering why in hell I was reacting this way. I’d just gotten rid of a huge source of anxiety for me and taken a huge step toward reclaiming my freedom from the past.

What I didn’t know was that my subconscious brain had taken a stroll down the darkest memory lane available. The day he died.

In this way, I guess I wasn’t completely prepared to take this big a step yet, but with the insidious nature of complicated grief and PTSD, can you ever really be fully prepared for these things?

I began analyzing my short interaction with the officer to the Nth detail, trying to understand why I was feeling so charged up. His face was familiar to me,so I was actually comfortable with him, unlike other, more intimidating officers I’d met over the years. My mind crawled over every minute detail, scouring for reasons for my current predicament.

“Sorry for your loss.”

It was only then I became conscious of an image. My brain was showing me dark clothes, a vest, hands up trying to stop me. The scene on the day my husband died. People trying to contain me. Police officers.

“Did he pass away?” It’s an innocent question, certainly unavoidable but combined with other things my brain was latching onto, enough to cause a panic attack, albeit, a subtle one.

The good in this story is that I recognized the panic symptoms for what they were. I discovered the cause and was able to initiate action to diffuse and de-escalate the reaction. It took a few hours to fully restore my body to normal but I managed.

Also, with the cause identified, the grief attacks I also experienced afterward were not fully unexpected. Bouts of seemingly bottomless pain and sadness racked through my body reducing me to a tear stained lump. It was exhausting.

None of this was anyone’s fault, just merely a normal reaction to a subconscious trigger in my brain. Such is the nature of navigating the world in the wake of a suicide loss. I hear that even decades afterward you can still experience these types of reactions.

Everyone’s brain is unique to them and what triggers our survival mechanisms and emotional reactions, as well as the extent to which we react to those triggers, is also unique to the traumatic experience the brain is currently grappling with in that moment.

In this case, my brain is pre-traumatized and so, will react from a threat standpoint much quicker than it would were I not already grappling with PTSD. Even without the PTSD, I may have reacted this way because suicide and sudden loss are also trauma experiences.

Over the course of a lifetime, everyone in the world will accrue a certain repository of traumatic experiences. The reactions experienced to reminders of those traumas will vary from superficial emotional to deeply visceral. It’s not completely uncommon to have vivid images, experience tastes, smells, hyperventilate, shiver, shake or break down emotionally. Some people have been known to faint. Those are normal reactions to being reminded of trauma, all trauma leaves its mark on a brain. All trauma triggers our basic survival instincts.

But remember, not every reaction is necessarily PTSD.

Since the experience of trauma is actually an unavoidable occurrence over the course of everyone’s life, what makes it PTSD is the inordinate extent to which the survival reaction feels out of context and abnormal given the innocence of the situation you’re in or the conscious reminder you’ve encountered.

In trauma memory, the brain will naturally extinguish it’s reactions; this doesn’t happen in PTSD and it’s a very disempowering experience. With PTSD, you may react completely out of context given an everyday innocent situation.

For this particular interaction, I reacted as one would to a significant trauma experience, followed by intense grief. The reaction was in context with what my brain was remembering and a “lesser trauma reaction” than I’d get from a PTSD trigger. I was still reacting to trauma but not to the immediately overwhelming extent I would to a reminder of my workplace trauma. Our brains are truly fascinating organs.

So the next time you find yourself inordinately anxious, agitated or, angry and impatient, stop and ask yourself, what’s really going on below the surface here that is triggering my brain to react this way? You may actually find some trauma that needs processing.

Until next time, here’s hoping we each become a little more brain conscious and little less self blaming.

In solidarity.

PS. A special thank you going out to our “boys in blue”; be courteous, be professional, but most importantly, be safe.

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Your Brain & PTSD

I think I’ve gone on many times about how Bessel van der Kolk took PTSD and made it far more understandable for me.

I spent years asking, “Why me?” and no therapist I saw could explain it, instead the message inadvertently reinforced, was that it was somehow a failing of how I was behaving and reacting.

Certainly, the workers compensation people’s exasperation with my not getting better, completely exacerbated those secondary psychological issues like depression and anxiety, thus locking me in a viscous Catch-22 situation.

I was repeatedly coached to try to think differently about a disruptive image, to try to control my reactions and the more I failed to conform to what was expected of me, the more I saw myself as defective and the greater my depression became.

In Van der Kolk I found an explanation that, as a medic, appealed to my knowledge of my organic nature as a human being. Again, I’ve said this a million times over the last decade, “It felt like something went wrong in my brain, not my mind.” This degree of incapacity was not just simply a function of my psychology; I always held fast that what was happening in my brain was affecting my psychology, so in that way, psychological therapy was beneficial to treat the secondary symptoms but it never cleared up the cause, only seeming to scratch the surface of the “Why?”

Bessel’s research has helped me to shift and dissolve the self blame cycle I was stuck in. This is merely a failing of my “on board computer”, it’s not me, it’s not my fault and over time (a bloody long time) the brain will work to repair itself.

Your symptoms will abate and by using techniques that target, reinforce and build up “strength” in (and this is a very loose description) your “calming neural pathways” you can combat the hyperactivity in the “excitatory neural pathways”.

You can find a greater sense of control in your life again. The scar may stay for life, it may trigger symptoms at random times now and again but at least you will now know and understand that it’s not your failing.

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