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PTSD — why telling the story can make trauma feel worse (and what can help_

Here in Ventura County, people have been through a lot.  The terrible shooting at Borderline, immediately followed the Woolsey and Hills fires; so much trauma, so much loss, so much grief, so much sadness.  And of course, many people have had trauma in their lives for a long time, well before these incidents.  With trauma can come symptoms of what is commonly known as PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.  More on those later.

A common misconception is that if we simply tell the story of what happened, our trauma symptoms will decrease and we will feel better.  Many people report to me in therapy that a crisis counselor or other well-meaning individual encouraged them to tell the story, sometimes multiple times, and they ended up feeling so much worse that they had to leave the room.  They were left feeling that something must be very wrong with them since this so-called simple technique did not help, or helped briefly and then left them feeling worse shortly thereafter.

A brief explanation for this is that trauma symptoms are not stored in the mind, but essentially are stored in the body.  Our minds are made for scanning for danger, and they are continually checking to see if we are safe.  When a big, life-threatening, overwhelming event occurs, our mind’s trauma processing centers become overwhelmed.  It is then no longer possible for the mind to help the body understand that it is safe.  So then everything, and everywhere, can feel dangerous, and we keep scanning and scanning, with no relief.  (This is a good place to mention that long-term trauma, the kind associated with an abusive childhood, or abusive relationship, can produce exactly the same symptoms.)

A couple of different mechanisms can quickly kick in.  We start to become “hyper-aroused”, meaning our nervous system can’t really shut off.  Common symptoms here are panic, anxiety, increased heart rate, easy startling, and intrusive imagery like flashbacks.  Another  term for these symptoms is the “fight or flight” response, better conceptualized as a “mobilization” response.  Picture your body on alert, ready to mobilize at the least provocation, including a loud noise, or something seen out of the corner or your eye, or a smell that triggers a memory.

Others will notice, either right away or later, a set of symptoms that seem almost the opposite, called “hypo-arousal”, or a “freeze” response, or a sense of being “immobilized”.  This where the nervous system, in an effort to protect the mind and body, goes into a sort of shut down.  Symptoms include feeling numbed out, poor memory, feeling “spacey”, difficulty engaging with others, a lessening of sensations, and difficulty thinking clearly.  People can experience both of these sets of symptoms, or just one set predominantly.

If you (or someone you know) is experiencing PTSD symptoms, please find a therapist experienced in treating trauma.  Slowly and safely, this sort of therapist will help you begin to process these symptoms by helping you reconnect your body’s and mind’s response so that your mind and body can begin to feel truly and deeply safe again.  Believe it or not, there are situations where individuals have not told their stories out loud and have been able to experience complete healing.

Please understand, I am not saying that a person should not tell their story, to the extent that they want to.  What I am saying is that simply telling the story is not generally helpful enough to help the mind and body process the trauma symptoms, and that sometimes telling the story makes it worse.  A good trauma therapist can help you do the work to get back to the middle zone between “hyper-vigilant” and “shut-down”.  It’s in that zone that resiliency resides, and is strengthens, and grows.  That is where the healing takes place.

As an aside, if you are having trauma symptoms related to a crime, including the Borderline shooting, you may be eligible for therapy paid for in full by California Victims of Crime program.

Please feel free to call me at 805-583-3976 x 33, or via the contact page on our website.  I am trained in treating trauma, via EMDR and other trauma-healing techniques, and can also help you find similar therapists in the local area.

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