It’s the planning for every scenario. It’s the fear. It’s the hypervigilance. It’s the jumpiness. It’s the dread that she may leave too. It’s the overwhelming feeling of emptiness, like you are a shell of a human being. It’s the self-blame. It’s the shame over what happened and what that means about you. It’s the relentless replaying of the situation over and over in your mind, desperately trying to figure out what you could have done differently that could have resulted in an outcome that hurt less. It’s wishing you could have switched places with that person and wanting to do anything to take away the pain they experienced. It’s the fear of men who look like him. It’s the need to numb in order to feel some semblance of peace through work, substances, food, exercise, Netflix, and anything that will keep your mind busy. It’s the frequent pursuit of high intensity situations because adrenaline feels familiar and turns off your emotions, and you know how to function in that space. It’s the way your body and mind respond during intimate experiences. It’s engaging in high risk situations to prove that you can keep yourself safe. It’s doing things to try to make sure you are not at risk of getting hurt again…and it’s also feeling hopeless and not caring what happens. It’s the sleepless nights filled with obsessive thoughts about how you are going to keep those you love safe. It’s the nightmares. It’s the intrusive thoughts. It’s the little things around you that remind you of what happened and flood your body with sensations. It’s avoidance. It’s cutting off your emotions because your experience has reinforced that emotions aren’t safe, helpful, welcome, or productive. It’s the felt need to control your environment to feel safe. It’s the feelings of unworthiness, and it’s the reason your body viscerally responds when someone shows you they care.
This consistent war waged on your body and mind is exhausting, and it’s called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Trauma occurs whenever our life as we know it is threatened, physically or emotionally or we witness a life-threatening event happen to someone else. This could be from physical life threats like war, unwanted sexual experiences, car accidents, fires, natural disasters, stalking, physical violence, shootings, robberies, health crises, physical neglect of a child or person who is not able to care for themselves, etc. It could also be from emotional life threats like intense family discord or divorce, emotional neglect, having a loved one with a mental illness or substance use disorder, emotional and/or verbal abuse (bullying), harassment, loss of someone or something you loved, and/or loving someone who has experienced a life-threatening situation.
When we experience threats to our life as we know it, we lose our ability to make decisions for ourselves while the threat is still active, and our amygdalas (which are the parts of our brains that are responsible for our fight, flight, freeze, submit, and attachment cry responses) take over to make a millisecond decision about what is going to keep us safest in that moment given circumstances. Is fighting an option? If the answer is no or if fighting might put us at greater risk, our brains move on to the next survival response. Can we run or get out of the situation somehow? If the answer is that physically escaping is not a safe possibility in the moment or may put us in greater danger, our systems will freeze to see if not moving makes us less of a threat or offers our system less distress. If our distress continues or our freeze response is not reducing the threat of the situation, our systems move into a submission response while disconnecting us from emotional and physical responses to reduce the amount of pain experienced in the moment. All of these things happen within seconds and are outside of our cognitive control.
If you have experienced trauma, and you are reading this, your system was effective at helping you survive. Since survival is your brain’s top priority, your brain did its job well.
For some of us, we experience so many or such intense perceived threats that our brains learn that keeping us on high alert at all times is what is going to keep us and the people we love safest. However, when our environment becomes safer, sometimes our brains still feel like we are in danger of getting hurt. It’s like our brains become overachievers and workaholics in their efforts to keep us safe by working incredibly hard to constantly assess for and prevent threats from manifesting in our immediate environments. But just like for workaholics, this constant work comes with some costs of high levels of distress, physical consequences, emotional exhaustion, and losing the ability to know when it may be okay and safe enough to rest.
To help us find some relief, sometimes we find things that help alleviate some of the distress, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, fear, and/or physical challenges we are experiencing. It is common for people to turn to behaviors like substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, sex, and/or overexercising to help them cope. But here’s the thing…these behaviors may help us feel better in the moment because of the chemical changes they elicit in our brains, but they don’t help our brain actually feel any safer when we they are over, so our distress persists (and usually increases in intensity).
Here’s the good news: there are ways to honor your body’s processes and help it re-establish a sense of safety. There are ways to help your system release the tension it has been holding for years. There are ways to stop the intrusive thoughts and the nightmares. And there are ways your body and brain can find sustained relief without turning to temporary numbing agents. Things can get better. I promise. Your brain and body just need an opportunity to find that safety and experience proof that safety is possible. Your body needs an opportunity to allow that energy that has been stored to be released, and your entire being needs support in learning how to regulate so emotions don’t feel so terrifying anymore. You don’t have to live in overwhelming fear or in numbness. You deserve to be able to fully engage in your life, your relationships, and your environment, and we can help.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, you don’t have to navigate this alone. There are therapists who specialize in trauma recovery and supporting individuals in restoring a sense of safety. Because research supports that trauma manifests in both our brains and our bodies, at Water’s Edge Counseling & Healing Center we offer a variety of trauma-specific mind and body integrative therapies like Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). We also offer multiple levels of care to support people in restoring their bodies and reclaiming their lives. We would be happy to connect you with care with us or help find support locally near you. You can reach one of our support staff by calling 952-898-5020.