PTSD, as told by a Special Ops Veteran

Article by: Benjamin Conners, LPC

Understand that PTSD is misunderstood

 A short time after my special operations experience, I was moving my young family to a new city. My wife, son, and I were in the back of a U-Haul unloading boxes into a storage unit near our new home. My wife and young son ambushed me in the back of the truck, cutting off the exit and making imaginary machine gun sounds as young kids would. At that moment, my body reacted with an intense physical response. I found myself unable to hear anything other than my own heartbeat and a ringing in my ears. I was crouched involuntarily in a pool of my own sweat. Paralyzed, I could not see or speak, I could not understand what was happening, and I was not in control of my body’s physical reaction. I stayed there for an undetermined amount of time. When I came to my senses, I was exhausted, unable to think clearly, and at a loss to explain what had just occurred. That was the beginning of my new knowledge of PTSD.  

What most people believe about PTSD is limited, and often inaccurate. This comes mostly from the common portrayal of affected individuals perpetrating acts of violence and vengeance in the medium we consume.  The reality of PTSD is far more difficult to understand and, therefore, out of reach of accurate portrayals in more basic storylines of film and television. Mental health professionals often diagnose depression or anxiety until the realities of PTSD are discovered and treated appropriately. 

When one struggles with PTSD, one engages the five senses alongside the emotions attached to your most difficult memories. The struggle takes emotional and physical resources enough to exhaust those involved. The big lie of “I am not”, attached to those events and emotions is continuously reinforced with every moment until the subject believes it.  

The truth is almost all of us have heard that lie in our heads from one experience or another, I am not good enough, I am not worthy, loveable, safe, the list goes on. A core negative belief is erroneously reinforced by some experience. It is often repeated, and tied to events, nightmares, and conversations, so our brain can make sense of the pain that existed in the previous trauma.

The Mantra of the mind battling PTSD says to itself; I should have done something, I am overwhelmed, I am trapped, I am not good enough, I cannot stop this from hurting myself or others.

Fight or Flight―when there is no fight

The brain and body’s last-ditch effort to survive is known as the flight, fight, or freeze response.  Increased heart rate, blood pressure, work of breathing, all initiated to fight this nonphysical threat. The brain and body work together to divert resources to the survival of the self. Shut down the metabolism, we need everything we have to run or fight so we survive. 

But we cannot run from or fight our memory, and our internal negative beliefs, therefore the energy remains, cycling, manifesting in panic attacks, frustration, the feelings of injustice and inadequacy. It doesn’t create violence toward others; it creates self-destruction, isolation, and fear, that they can’t have connections, fix what is happening inside, or control their feelings like they once could. 

PTSD brings complete and utter exhaustion, both mental and physical. And what does the mind do in response to this? It shuts down and compels the PTSD-afflicted person to isolate themselves, which often makes everything worse. The brain decides it must isolate to protect from any possible trigger and close off emotion to accomplish survival. Isolation becomes the suit of armor protecting the shrinking into nonexistence, a self-implosion to limit collateral damage. The noble way to exit involves the least number of people.

The Key to Treating PTSD

Treatments like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy) are great for the analytical side of trauma, but it all goes out the window when triggers and thoughts start the fight or flight, flooding our bodies with the physical reaction to our traumas. These are important pieces that contribute to healing after the trauma is processed. CBT and CPT work well on the mind after the connection to the body is sorted out. The detachment of our survival instinct from memory and emotion must take place so our executive function can operate and both sides of our brain can work to process the information. When the memory is taken out of the limbic system and moved into adaptive information processing, the brain does the work it was previously blocked from accomplishing. There is no longer a need for survival instinct; it is a memory, without the five senses putting us back there in the moment. 

The processing by our own minds is what is needed as opposed to reframing the way it makes sense to someone who has not experienced the trauma. Let’s talk about the misuse of “trauma”. Again, this is not the Hollywood version. Trauma is anything causing you to be hurt, that your brain decides it can’t make sense of or put away. The brain therefore protects it from being processed due to its ability to overwhelm us. Survival. A kid called me skinny when I was a kid; that’s not dramatic enough for a good binge-able series. But that is a great place for a core negative self-belief to get started or reinforced. That could be the first negative core belief, “I am not enough”. If that is piled on by abuse, a car accident, witnessing loved ones being hurt, guilt, being told that repeatedly etc. you get the idea. It creates a fight internally of self-doubt. The biggest lie. 

Bruce Lee said, “Words are energy and cast spells, that’s why it’s called spelling. Change the way you speak about yourself, and you can change your life.”

The Limits of Bruce Lee’s Wisdom

Bruce Lee is not wrong, but it’s also not that simple. We may need a guide to walk us through that journey, and that journey starts with EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Desensitize, disconnect from the fight, or flight response, and reprocess, or process that which we could not. The eye movement piece is any kind of bilateral stimulation (BLS). BLS is the means to connect your creative and your analytical brain functions. By doing this when you are awake as opposed to REM sleep, with the triggers activated, your brain is given permission to process that which is protected. 

Psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro shows us all we need to know about this process she discovered in the book “Getting past your past”.  I was skeptical at first; for me, this was the easiest way to understand the voodoo that is EMDR. It is an evidence-based practice in Psychotherapy. There are treatments available to help in the struggle of PTSD, and other post-traumatic stresses that are not straight out of a sci-fi movie. We also have to combine therapies to get the outcome we want. 

 For my journey, this is the one that works quickly, and most efficiently. Instead of spending years doing weekly visits to multiple therapists with various modalities, we can get stuck waiting for true cognitive change. EMDR will affect change in weeks. After processing the core, all the other therapies we have gone through finally make sense, and we can use the tools we have learned to grow and progress after trauma. When we are free from the fight that is post-traumatic stress, we can rediscover ourselves, connect to people we care about, and act on what we value. There is a free emotional and cognitive energy we can reinvest into the journey of who am I, and what I value most. As a clinician, I have experienced my own life change along with so many I sit across from.

Interested in trying EMDR? Contact us today.

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