In the world of psychology, PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – is how doctors describe the experience of recovering from trauma. This term was created in1980 and was used to describe soldiers coming back from war: these men and women had often killed people and watched their friends die right in front of them. Extremely traumatic, right?
I would like to posit a slightly different definition of PTSD. I define trauma as: “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”. That certainly is not limited to solders coming home from war.
I would say that the majority of people I know – myself included – are recovering from some sort(s) of trauma. Trauma need not be dramatic: it can be the end of a relationship, job, or friendship. It can be when someone says something to you that is so hurtful that it’s hard to take it in and your mind reels in shock.
Trauma can be when your mother or father or best friend dies.
Trauma can be when you get a really negative performance review from your boss and it blindsides you.
Trauma can be when you best friend moves to Phoenix, Portland or Denver.
Trauma can be when you realize that you drink too much, you try to cut back, but discover that you can’t.
Trauma can be deep distress and fear about getting older.
Trauma can be when it becomes crystal clear to you that you’re bisexual and don’t know what to tell your wife and kids.
Trauma can be when someone you’ve long been in love with – but never told – takes another lover.
Trauma can be when you like crystal meth a whole lot more than you wish you did.
Trauma can be when your family disowns you because you’re transgender.
Trauma is personal; what is traumatic for you may not be so for me (and vice-versa). As a psychotherapist, I think that we all are recovering from some kind of trauma.
Typically, when someone is diagnosed with PTSD, it is to be expected that they kind of “fall apart”. You know how it is when you have to get through something difficult – the traumatic experience – and you just keep going until you get through it. Then, when the trauma is over, you let yourself “fall apart”.
It is this “falling apart” stage that I’d like to talk about. We all fall apart now and then. It’s normal; not abnormal.
How do you know when you are in a PTSD mode? You may relive the trauma over and over. I once was fired from a job and kept reliving my termination interview over-and-over again. I also had bad dreams and frightening thoughts (e.g., that I would never get a job again).
Let’s say that your trauma is that your partner ended your relationship. Typical PTSD responses may include: negative self-thoughts and negative feelings (like doubt, shame or embarrassment). You may also feel like avoiding situations that remind you of the traumatic event, like staying away from places, events, or objects that remind you of your ex.
When we are recovering from any kind of trauma, we are often easily startled, feel tense and “on edge”. We may have difficulty sleeping and are likely to experience emotional (sad or angry) outbursts.
When you’re in recovery from any kind of trauma, it may be hard to sleep or concentrate. You may have negative thoughts about yourself (or life in general) and a loss of interest in activities that you usually enjoy. This is all normal. You are recovering from something traumatic. Here are some things you can do to help it pass:
Increase your level of self-care: go out of our way to treat yourself kindly
Spend time with other people and confide in someone you trust
Engage in mild physical activity or exercise (you want those endorphins!)
Expect your symptoms to improve gradually, not immediately
Identify and seek out comforting situations, places, and people
Above all, don’t let someone else define what “traumatic” is for you. Each of us has our own experience of trauma. Whatever your trauma is, please help yourself to recover. Try the above suggestions, increase your level of self-care and get professional help if necessary.