My chest is tight. It feels sort of like my breath is shaking. I sense a pressure at the back of my throat. I’m anxious – but I’m sitting here watching a comedy on television. There is no one else around. The rest of the house is silent. So why am I anxious?
I’m anxious because this is how my body reacts to situations that trigger a fear response in me, and in the post-trauma years, that can be just about anything however small.
My mind just loves to take things and falsely turn them into threats. The phone rings or the doorbell chimes…”Who is that? What do they want? What if….” It’s an automatic response, a thinking error that is quite difficult to get a hold of and can lead down a rough path of several thinking errors strung together revving up the anxiety machine and leading to fear reactions.
Fight, Flight or Freeze. In my world, the phone rings, I freeze. My breath catches in my throat and if I don’t recognize the number, I won’t pick up the line for fear of getting into a situation where I have to defend myself.
On the surface it seems pretty ridiculous, but when we examine the reasons, it all makes perfect sense. During the worst of my struggles, I was often placed on the defensive and made to feel invalidated and insignificant several times on the telephone – secondary wounding events, thus, generalization of the traumatic fear reaction to include answering a telephone. I am no longer a “telephone person” and I will usually ask people to give me a heads up via text if they’re going to call.
I do not like surprises, well, really, my body does not like surprises. I try to schedule my days and prepare ahead of time for social outings and public tasks. Spontaneity is actually an enemy to my brain because it unleashes anxiety.
Oddly, if there is a sudden change in my plans during the course of execution, it’s almost feels like my brain begins to fibrillate. I lose my ability to logically make decisions (which is scary when you’re driving), I struggle to mentally sequence my next moves, I become anxious and put on the defensive, that often erupts in bursts of temper.
When an average person changes a plan, or by unforeseen means, is forced to change a plan halfway through, their brain understands and makes the necessary alterations in their thinking patterns, thus calmly adjusting to the new situation, perhaps with a mild anxiety reaction.
When a person with PTSD is placed in that same situation and there is a sudden unexpected alteration to a mentally pre-mapped plan, their brain reacts in threat mode. It’s not a simple matter of taking a different route or traveling to a different location or doing a whole new event; to their brain it’s a threat to their safety, it’s an unknown and for many PTSDers an unknown is what caused the traumatic response to begin with.
But you see, the worst thing about living every day with PTSD is actually the inconsistency; the unpredictability of the whole reaction, especially as you start to cope and are able to manage it to some degree.
I can have good days, mentally strong days where I can handle more than I usually do. I can face some of my triggers and not react, I can be spontaneous and go with it, I can face new situations head on and think dynamically through them…all the time knowing that there is a limit to that ability. All the time knowing that I have to keep a running tab on my brain’s functioning that day so I’m not suddenly overwhelmed and overloaded. It can be different from day to day or week to week or even month to month.
Sometimes I may be having a good time, I may be coping, navigating foreign territory, experiencing a strange new situation and suddenly my brain reaches the limit or encounters a trigger subconsciously. Often I won’t even realize it because my conscious focus was on the task at hand but people around me will notice as I start to get agitated, frustrated, or angry. Not being PTSDers, they won’t understand.
Living with PTSD means constantly monitoring how you are reacting in your environment and allowing further interaction or scaling things back to a tolerable level for your nervous system. In times of overwhelm it really depends on the cause (and sometimes we can’t identify it), in determining what level of scale back you need. Sometimes all you need is a quiet, safe spot to just breathe and return your nervous system to a manageable level, other times, you may need to put some distance between you and the situation and sometimes, you may need to come all the way home to your safe place for some quiet. It’s up to you to know what you need. The other task is effectively communicating that need without getting into a fight.
For all those non-PTSDers and supporters out there, imagine you’re watching a boiler steaming and about to explode. If you can help to slowly and passively cool it, it won’t explode. The same theory applies here. Try not to add more pressure, we cannot make proper decisions in this mode, so asking questions gently, without being condescending, is extremely important. No shouting, no criticism.
If you notice your PTSDer suddenly short-tempered, frustrated or angry, try not to take it personally, don’t react with the same anger or frustration, instead, try to gently steer the situation, pause the action/event, get to a comfortable or quiet zone and sensitively communicate to your person that they may be overwhelmed. And this does not mean taking control away from them and telling them what they need or forcefully removing them from a situation. It means learning how to sensitively communicate non-threateningly with your PTSDer.
PTSDers, this also applies to you. PTSD can turn you into a monster but it never fully removes your ability to regain control of your emotional response. You too need to learn to first, recognize when you’re losing control (or have lost it) and then communicate effectively what you need to de-escalate your reaction. (Supporters, you may get yelled at, just a warning, it comes from a place of triggered emotion, nothing personal).
Back Off! Shut Up! Go Away! I Need Out! I Can’t Think! These are signs you’re overloading. I’ve shouted these many times over the years. These are extremes. These happen just before the bodily reactions (hyperventilating, crying, running, fighting or freezing) occur. I can usually sense the overwhelm happening before this point now, but it can still happen in situations of sudden extreme pressure. Don’t tell me to calm down, don’t grab me, just give me an exit or back away (stop talking, stop asking questions, stop applying pressure). Allow the breathing space.
What’s it like living with the chronic intrusion of PTSD reactions? It can be mentally exhausting because it requires constant conscious monitoring of how your brain is reacting to your environment; from watching television to navigating the daily grind, your brain’s resources are constantly being tapped as it tries to turn everything into a threat and you try to keep it calm and functional.
It’s not you, it’s your brain. Keep fighting.