Trauma, PTSD, and Self-Sabotage

Why do we take the advice of some, and denounce the advice of others? Who is the ultimate authority on how to face life, as we know it? I am not a trauma expert nor am I a professional therapist. I am simply a thinker, sharing some thoughts on the topic of trauma.

Oh no, here comes the “T” word: TRAUMA. I am not entirely sure when this word gained momentum in our modern vernacular. As a word, I have heard it used more in recent years than ever before. Perhaps this is because there are now more resources available to heal traumatic injuries of all kinds. Regardless, its presence in popular culture comes from the psychological term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” (PTSD, for short) is often deemed an inadequate description for what it attempts to encompass: a natural, biological phenomenon of conscious organisms after exposure to trauma. Some professionals believe a better name for PTSD would be, “Post Traumatic Stress Response,” because the condition is not always a disorder. Rather, it is a measurable, biological change to a traumatized individual.

When any organism survives catastrophically stressful events, an immediate and dramatic change in its behavior is to be expected. As we in the first-world continue to accrue “micro-stressors” to the nth degree (media notifications, traffic, life in cities, etc.), we all carry some trauma with us in our everyday interactions, to one degree or another. These mini traumas may not make lasting marks on our physiologies the way major traumatic events do. Traumatic responses boil over into biological disorders when the nervous system’s “survival” mode stays turned on long after the threat has been removed. So, whether our trauma is minor or major, we can take action to calm ourselves, encouraging the body to recover.

How do we return the body to its baseline state after major or minor traumas? Yoga helps, temporarily. Exercise helps, temporarily. Eating organic helps, temporarily. Meditation helps, temporarily. Reading helps, temporarily. Shopping helps, temporarily. Making plans for the future helps, temporarily. Any action we take in response to a highly stressful event (whether it is a traumatic car accident or a toxic argument with a loved one) provides relief, but only temporarily.

If we’ve experienced deep psychological trauma, these tools cannot fix a hyper-aroused nervous system. We remain in a state of fight-or-flight, unable to find a state of inner peace. The parasympathetic system can and will settle only when it believes long-term healing is possible.

If we are lucky, we will get the chance to do the one thing that provides deep, lasting healing. We will get to rest.

We all claim that we want to rest. One day at the office brings you a barrage of “I could use a nap,” “I’m so stressed,” or “I’d kill for a vacation” comments from your peers (at least in many high-stress careers). While these statements are based in some truth, they are simultaneously lies. If you actually rested, and truly allowed yourself to fall deeply into a state of sympathetic nervous system downshifting, you’d find the pain you’ve been avoiding. Nobody wants to do that.

That’s the tricky thing with pain caused by trauma: we can only face it when we are calm, relaxed, and safe.

In many cases, this is the reason those who have experienced major traumas in their relationships continue to seek out high-risk/reward circumstances where they allow the thrill of drama to consume them. There cannot be safety or certainty in these relationships, because security feels foreign to a person so accustomed to chaos. However unfortunate it may be, the truth is that many traumatized people cannot settle themselves, nor can they allow themselves to be settled. They remain hyper-vigilant and hyper-aroused because their bodies are prepared to flee from or flight perceived threats at any moment. They were injured the last time they were at peace. They subconsciously refuse to experience peace ever again.

This may be difficult to understand if you have no personal experience with deep trauma. Consider this:

You once were happy, whole, loved, and safe. Then, you were separated from your loved ones and ended up in a war. You spent every day of the past 20 years in this war zone. Your physical, mental, and spiritual self is now accustomed to the experience. Your hormones and attention span are wired in a hyperactive way that supports your existence in the stressful environment. You have a certain disposition about you that makes you threatening to potential attackers. You trust very few people and to risk trusting anybody outside of your immediate circle means risking your life. It is both logical and reproductively sound for you to continue living the way you have been, because it is the way you as an organism have learned to survive. If you were to rest, relax, and find calm, you would quickly lose your status as a predator and become potential prey.

Then, one day, the war is over. You are sent home after spending two decades fighting for your life. When you return home, you find more money than you ever hoped to have. You have the love of the one person you’ve always wanted. Despite all the stress you’ve endured, you are in perfect physical health and could literally go anywhere you’d like to live happily ever after. So you move to Hawaii with your lover to find the peace you always wanted. Unfortunately, you cannot settle down. Everything startles you, scares you, or threatens you. To escape your own physiology, you take matters into your own hands to change your cognition. You drink. You do drugs. Nothing helps. Six months later you’re addicted to painkillers and every gift you’ve been given is threatened by your behavior.

Why would you do this? Why would you sabotage the good? Why would you throw away the gifts you’ve been given only to create more stress in your life? Why do we return to the war zones of our past?

We return to stress because stress is familiar. Even though trauma precedes pain, we have learned to successfully navigate the landscapes of our internal “war zones.” To leave the devil we know presents us the opportunity to find a devil we’ve yet to meet. We can succeed in the world of chaos, because we’ve done it our whole lives. We do not know, however, how to move forward when we are at peace.

No matter how miserable we may have been, we return to our “war zones” because there is comfort there. It’s a remarkable thing; humans have adapted to find comfort in hell. We’re almost like groundhogs. Why explore the outside world when we could dig ourselves deep into a safe hole? We’d never experience anything other than loneliness and isolation. We’d live in a state of fantasy, never knowing how sweet reality can be. We stay in the hole, because it is better than dying because we never learned how to function in a healthy, positive way. We fear death, and the only environment in which we learned how to survive was a traumatic one.

It’s nobody’s fault. It’s nature. It’s science.

The first step in finding contentment is allowing yourself to get comfortable with feeling safe. It is okay to be uncomfortable with love, joy, and all the other emotions you haven’t yet cultivated to their fullest extent. Try to see that in many ways, you’ve been lucky to get so familiar with despair, worry, and depression. You now know how to recognize them for what they are: passing states of being. Your natural state is one of ease and joy. Peace will return to you one day, sooner that you think. When it does, let yourself receive it. You deserve it.

© 2017 Shawna Marie Rodgers
All Rights Reserved.

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