People who are counselled and supported in the aftermath of trauma don’t tend to go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is something that tends to happen to people who take the trauma inside them. It becomes normal. It becomes how you think the world works and what you expect. This is a higher risk when the trauma isn’t a one off event, but a long process – people coming out of war zones, domestic abuse situations, child abuse, can all have spent a long time suffering and being blamed for what’s happening.
The general wisdom out there seems to be that if you don’t get it dealt with early, it might never be possible to deal with it. Everything I’ve seen has said that recovery requires professional help. So, what do you do if you can’t afford professional help, or you aren’t believed, or you can’t deal with professionals?
Creating a new normal can change a lot of things. It takes time. If PTSD is rooted in a long experience of trauma, it won’t change quickly. However, if you are in a safe environment, and you are able to recognise it as safe, this slowly retrains your brain. It doesn’t mean you won’t get triggered, but it means when you do, you know that’s what’s happening. Support in recognising when you aren’t in danger can really help. Constant affirmation that you are safe now, you aren’t there any more, it won’t be like that again, can, over time, get your brain out of hypervigilant terrified panic stations. It can be done.
I’ve found that being able to tell when I’m being triggered makes a lot of difference. The faster I can identify it, the less damage the triggering does me. It’s when you’re locked into the past, reliving it, re-enacting it, that being triggered is such a desperate nightmare. Recognising that what’s happening is that you’ve been triggered is really powerful because it gives you a little space in which to reassess things. Am I really in danger? Am I going through that same experience again? If it looks like you are, then doing whatever it takes to get to safety is the priority. Mostly I find that I am re-experiencing the past, and it is not the case that the past is repeating itself in the present.
Once I’ve been triggered, there will be flashbacks. Even if I know I’ve been triggered, they still come up. This can go on for days if it’s really bad. Again, I’ve found that knowing this is happening makes a difference. A flashback comes, and it happens to me, a memory surfaces. There will be a period of time when I can’t do much about that, but, as soon as I can properly identify it as a flashback, I can try to put it down. I won’t always manage, but the more I do to try not to become enmeshed in the flashback, the better it is for me. Over time, I’ve got quicker at realising when it’s happening and quicker at identifying surfacing things as flashbacks, and better at not getting involved with them.
I’ve learned that the only thing to do in face of this is be kind to myself. Rest, and get some good quality, soul feeding distraction in the mix. I try to find balances between distracting myself, and thinking carefully about what’s going on. If I can face up to the surfacing trauma and name it, that does help. If I can reframe it as something I didn’t deserve and wasn’t ok, that helps. If I can grieve for what happened to me, that helps. If I can recognise what I internalised at the time, that helps. I have to face why I didn’t protect myself, and those things run very deep.
Healing can be a brutal process. When the cold dead fingers of PTSD are wrapped around your throat, trying to pry them off is not happy or easy work. It isn’t quick, or simple. But it can be done. And it can be done with no professional help, no guidance, and a great deal of unpicking it yourself. If you can get help, get help. If you can’t, you don’t have to give up on yourself.