Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is mental health problem that develops after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event.
This could be war, a violent act, a natural disaster, a serious accident or sexual assault. It's normal - after the event - to have distressing memories, feel anxious or have trouble sleeping.
If symptoms last for more than a few months, it’s probably PTSD.
Although PTSD is often associated with war veterans or survivors of an event that was traumatic, it’s now acknowledged that children raised in severely dysfunctional families can also suffer from PTSD. This can continue well into adulthood.
PTSD events can produce a high ‘state of threat’ which can change the body chemistry. Consequently, many of us who were raised in a dysfunctional family continue to act out the PTSD well into adulthood.
This reveals itself when we become hyper vigilant of other people and our environment as a result of being ‘on guard’ throughout much of our childhood. We’d learnt to incessantly study everything around us and watch out for situations that might have led us to either feel shame or fear criticism.
As adults, although it’s long after the threat had passed, we are still on alert.
What Are The Main Symptoms Of PTSD?
There are three main types of symptoms that make up PTSD:
Re-experiencing the trauma through invasive distressing memories of the event, flashbacks, and bad dreams.
This may happen on an anniversary of the traumatic event and survivors may have an increase in distress. However, they can also occur randomly. These reactions can range from feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction with severe mental health or medical symptoms.
It’s interesting to note that people who have been through a trauma may be more likely, than those who don’t suffer PTSD, to be affected by new traumatic events.
Disassociation is an emotional numbness or escape tactic to avoid places, people, and activities that remind us of the trauma.
Disassociation is a way to cope with too much stress and usually describes an experience where we feel in some way disconnected from the world around us, or, from our self.
Disassociation is the perfect mind tool to distort or deny a painful reality. It works by rationalizing or denying the effect the trauma has had on us. We do this by using substances or behavior to keep painful feelings away like alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling etc.
3. Increasing arousal or drama
Increased arousal or drama includes things like high anxiety or insomnia or concentration; feeling jittery, being easily irritated or getting angry.
We keep our adrenaline flowing by focusing our attention on negative outcomes or become obsessed or phobic. This enables our bodies to stay in the fight or flight mode which prevents us from feeling the pain of the original trauma.
How PTSD and Anxiety Symptoms Overlap
It stands to reason that if we suffer from PTSD then we will also have a lot of anxiety.
Here’s three ways how anxiety manifests alongside PTSD:
1. The effects of re-experiencing trauma
One of the consequences of experiencing a trauma, and then suffering on-going PTSD, is having invasive and distressing memories of the event. Flashbacks are particularly frightening. We can relive the event as if we are actually still in the past. It can feel as if we’re being confronted with the very realness of the event that can trigger the same feelings that we originally experienced: shock, fear and distress.
Even more frightening, these flashbacks can take place even if we don’t recall the original event. In my case, I had flashbacks about my mother and other people in bed together. When I think rationally, I can’t recall the event that this might refer to. I might have even made up the event but the flashbacks can be so vivid that they seem frighteningly real.
It’s almost more disruptive to have flashbacks that come out of the blue because they seem out of context. In spite of racking my brains, I couldn’t link them to any memory. I became anxious in case I was going crazy. My hyper vigilance stepped up as I anticipated more random and unexpected flashbacks.
Research has shown that if we’ve experienced trauma, and suffered PTSD, we're more likely to be traumatised by new traumatic events even more than people who’ve never experienced trauma. It stands to reason that our alertness, and the consequent anxiety, is going to be a key driver especially if we’ve never healed the on-going PTSD.
If we experience flashbacks, we can suffer unprecedented anxiety for two reasons: one, we become highly anxious due to the randomness of the flashbacks and two, we still feel the damage of the original trauma.
2. How disassociation creates anxiety
We can experience an emotional numbness after a trauma. This is when we’re mentally escaping places, people and activities that remind us of the trauma by disassociating ourselves from them. This is the mechanism by which our mind keeps us safe from painful memories or feelings.
Disassociation, in it’s own way, is our mind trying to look after us. It’s often associated with a way to cope when there’s too much stress. It describes an experience where we feel disconnected from the world around us. Or, indeed, from our self.
Disassociating is the perfect mind tool to distort or deny a painful reality by rationalizing or denying the effect the trauma has had on us.
We can do this by using substances or behavior to keep painful feelings away like compulsively cleaning, exercising or reading; fantasizing about romance and/or sex, indulging in pornography, sex or compulsive masturbation; risk taking as in excessive driving or thrill seeking; spending money, hoarding, cleaning or other such obsessions.
Whilst these behaviours keep us busy and distracted from our PTSD, they also create anxiety by never allowing us to connect with our inner self. When we don’t connect to our inner and real self, we live in our minds. That creates ‘mind racing’ which is when our mind becomes the source of anxiety.
‘Mind racing’ is a tool we use to keep us anxious. This is when we have a compulsion to do nothing but think, think, think. Apparently, we tend to think about the same few things over and over again. It makes no sense because compulsively thinking does nothing but wind up our stress hormones, which then make us extremely anxious. I’ve even found myself feeling guilty even considering not thinking. It’s become an epidemic of our time.
Because of the mind/body connection, we can gauge how anxious we are by how much compulsive mind racing we’re doing. We may find that we’re so stressed we can’t go for more than a few minutes without letting the mind take over and become a bombardment of thoughts.
3. How increasing our arousal gets us anxious
Going on a shopping trip, preparing for a holiday or throwing a party, increases arousal in a pleasant way for most people. But for those of us who’ve suffered PTSD, we need to continually create excitement or drama to keep us feeling alive.
Of course we’re not talking about sexual arousal (although that can be part of it) but about a high energy focus on other people, places and things around us. This helps us feel as if life’s worth living.
However, as with disassociation, this creates a lot of anxiety and is often played out negatively in relationships because constantly look for drama or excitement does not bode well in relationships.
“When you are not honoring the present moment by allowing it to be, you are creating drama.” ~Eckhart Tolle
It’s easy to focus on the past or the future and condemn them as the reasons for being unhappy. Blaming other people for the way we feel puts us into a state of excitement and drama.
By looking outside of ourselves and wanting other people to make us feel good, or wishing we could be magically transported to another country where all our worries would be forgotten, is fantasy. But it makes us feel good for a few minutes by propelling us into an aroused state where we are stimulated and our senses are heightened. Nevertheless, it’s not reality and, at some point, we need to come back to it.
Disassociation is different to arousal. Disassociation is when we try to disconnect from our feelings. Arousal is when we try to intensifying our feelings.
How PTSD And Anxiety Work Together To Make Life Almost Impossible
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is actually an anxiety disorder in itself. It comes as no surprise because it’s the result of something so traumatic happening that it rocks you to the core and makes you think the world isn’t a safe place. Indeed, it’s where bad things can, and do, happen.
Not only does PTSD increase anxiety, it also feeds into the notion that we can’t cope unless we numb ourselves or create excitement to cover up our fear. If we also experience flashbacks, it can feel as if we’re trapped in a nightmare.
The good news is that recovery is possible. I’ve personally recovered from my PTSD and I’m no longer afraid of life. It took time, lots of talking and good people to help me get through the old trauma and put it to bed. With the right help, it is possible and I’m proof of that.