My friend’s words stung, but they didn’t surprise me. For several years I’d been trying to sort out my PTS symptoms–fear, psychological/emotional paralysis, numbness, triggers, and the confusion that had overtaken my life– and explain my struggles to a small group of friends.
Unfortunately, my they didn’t understand a critical fact about trauma and post-traumatic stress (PTS):
Over the course of several years, I’d worked with a number of mental health practitioners to alleviate my anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, and other PTS symptoms. Most of my therapists used talk therapy, which did not have an influence on my symptoms. Friends became frustrated with my emotional withdrawal and offered well-intentioned advice and recommendations about the changes they believed I needed to make.
I needed a safe environment to talk to people who understood or were willing to learn about the realities of post-traumatic stress. I didn’t need answers , I needed compassionate listeners.
My trauma history was substantial. I didn’t realize this until a trauma therapist asked me to create a trauma timeline during a PTSD intensive that effectively recoded my traumatic experiences. My childhood traumas included saving an adult from electrocution and sexual assault; as a teenager I was pursued and threatened by a man armed with a knife, witnessed a violent death, and was sexually assaulted; as an adult I experienced the traumatic birth of my first child, numerous potentially deadly accidents involving my children, life-threatening personal illnesses that required multiple hospitalizations and brain surgery; caring for loved ones with terminal illness as well as a friend with volatile complex post-traumatic stress (CPTS).
My friends did not understand the chaos inside my head from decades of compounding, untreated trauma. They also could not understand the daily realities implications of living with brain stem illness and the after-effects of brain surgery. Although they wanted to help me, they offered advice based upon their experience and what to them appeared to be solutions.
So why don’t people respond to and heal from trauma the same way?
The more “big T” trauma experiences in a person’s past, the greater the likelihood they may
develop post-traumatic symptoms if they are confronted with a new trauma.
Research demonstrates that there is a wide range of recoverability from traumatic events. Not everyone has the same reaction to trauma or recovers in the same way, or in a set time frame. Various factors influence how individuals recover from a traumatic event. For instance, a person’s coping strategies are vitally important:
Negative coping responses can include
These negative responses can lead to increased negative symptoms, such as depression, emotional numbing, anger and rage, insomnia, and even abusive behavior.