Did you know June is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) month? When Choice Theory and Dr. Glassser’s views on mental health, I often use PTS as an example. No, that wasn’t a typo—I will never refer to PTS as a disorder. When people experience a seriously traumatic event in their lives without undergoing stress, I am more concerned about their mental health than when they do.
Persons experiencing Post Traumatic Stress have gone through a trauma: an extraordinary event that people are not equipped to handle, yet they do. They live through it somehow, even if there are times they would rather be dead. The insidious thing about trauma is that those involved in it often experience guilt and shame for being the victim. The guilt and shame are not theirs to own. Although they may believe they are at fault, the fault belongs with the perpetrator or the uncontrollable circumstances.
After the trauma is over in the real world, it often lives on the hearts and minds of the person experiencing Post Traumatic Stress. Their minds are not broken, they are simply working overtime to make sense of their experience. It was an event that doesn’t make sense. No matter how hard they try to find answers, there are none. Why does someone’s house get destroyed in a fire, hurricane or flood? Why are some children and adults subjected to abuse at the hands of people who are supposed to love them? Why are some people victims of violent crimes? Why do first responders have to see the horror of what happens to people? Why do service members suffer from the things they have seen and been ordered to do? None of these things are shameful and yet the victim bears the shame anyway.
In their attempts to make sense of what happened, there are nightmares and flashbacks. Their mind is searching for understanding, sometimes while making a futile attempt to create a different outcome of the trauma. They may not know that is what they are doing, but the brain is an amazing organ. It works on our behalf even when we are not consciously directing it. Our mind is our friend, but if we don’t understand how it is attempting to help us, we can think it’s an enemy.
If you are experiencing Post Traumatic Stress, the first step on the road to recovery is to understand your symptoms are designed for your protection. You are not broken. Post Traumatic Stress is an ordinary response to an extraordinary situation. It has nothing to do with a person’s strength.
That’s the funny thing about our brains. Memories are solidified when there is a strong emotional component to a situation, unless your brain is extremely efficient at protecting you. In which case, you may experience blanks in your memory, or amnesia, designed to block out the trauma so you don’t have to remember it. Pleasant memories are solidified, as well. Remembering your trauma is similar to remembering your favorite pet who died. You may encounter “triggers” that remind of your pet. Whenever I do certain things, I tend to remember the last person I did them with. For people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress, a sound, a smell, or a sight has the potential to transport you right back to the middle of that memory. When that happens, try to remember it isn’t real and focus on the present moment with all your senses. Check out what you are really seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling. That kind of mindful attention to your senses will ground you in the present, helping the memory to dissipate and fall away.
Rather than spending precious time focused on the trauma, I most prefer to work on Post Traumatic Growth. This is known as the process of uncovering what I have come to call the GLO—the gift, lesson or opportunity in the trauma. Our brains are hardwired for negativity, so when we experience a trauma, we tend to feel completely victimized without any power to help ourselves or change our situation. However, the reverse is actually true.
Just as the naturally occurring elements in our world have equal positive and negative charge—an equal number of protons and electrons—the same is true for our life experiences. When we experience a horrific event, we only experience the negative by default; we need to learn how to seek the GLO. It’s excruciatingly painful to be victimized by trauma, but you don’t have to stay a victim. You become empowered when you understand that if the trauma you experienced was a 14 on a scale of 1-10, there is an equal 14-positive associated with that event. If you are not ready to look at that, it’s okay, but if you are tired of remaining the victim and you want to take control of your life again, then start looking for the GLO.
What are the gifts you received from the experience? How are you different in a positive way? What lessons did you learn from the experience? And what opportunities did the experience afford you? If you can’t see any of that right now, know that, once you’ve healed, you have the opportunity to reach behind you, take the hand of someone else who is suffering through a similar situation and pull them forward by showing them the light of what is possible. You don’t have to take that opportunity, but it is there nonetheless.
This is the therapeutic value in meaning-making and benefit-finding. Post Traumatic Stress is normal when you’ve experienced trauma. Post Traumatic Growth is available to you when you are ready to heal and engage and grow your resilience. There is nothing you can do to change the trauma, but there is much you can do to minimize its long-term effects on your life.