It was only a text. Just a stupid text. So why are my breaths so shallow? Why is the room spinning?
She curls up on her bed, hugging her knees to her chest. Raggedy, guttural crying only adds to the shaking. Nobody is there to hold her. Her children hesitate on the other side of her bedroom door, listening to their mom’s stifled sobs.
What is wrong with me? This is not a big deal. I wasn’t beaten. I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t tortured or shot at … It was just a text from him … the man I finally walked away from.
I am fine. I will get over this.
But she wasn’t fine. She was not okay. No matter how much she tried to convince herself, no matter how many times she lied to her heart, she was in no way fine. And she would definitely not be getting over anything …
Not without real help.
Yet she didn’t really know what was happening to her. Clearly, panic had gripped her body and her mind. Her trigger was obvious—the text. But why did just seeing his name on her phone screen cause an uncontrollable visceral reaction?
Because this is the veiled face of a PTSD flashback.
This is the face of PTSD that people don’t recognize. It’s the face that you walk around with every day, going to work, cooking dinner, running errands, grabbing dinner with friends. It’s the face that smiles, laughs, lends a listening ear, and offers a kind word. This is a face that just keeps on going, day in and day out.
The feeling of anxiety and tension, staying in high-alert mode, blaming yourself, waking throughout the night, crying yourself to sleep, crying in the shower, avoiding certain places, feeling irritable, startling easily, and feeling overwhelmed have just become your norm. You’re used to it.
It’s just part of your life.
And it’s just a little thing called Complex PTSD. C-PTSD is sneaky. It tucks itself away in the corners of your mind and recesses of your body, keeping just enough of a grip on you that you’re not quite sure it’s there … Until some outwardly benign thing comes into view. A phrase, a sound, a look, a song on the radio, a particular restaurant, a simple text. Any of those things might trigger your body and mind so sharply that you feel like you have no control over what’s happening. You feel like something else has overtaken you and you’ve become a prisoner in your skin.
When we think of post-traumatic stress, we picture Vietnam War vets who are re-traumatized by loud noises and experience nightmares that cause them to cry out in their sleep. We think of people who have survived a mass shooting. We think of women who survived sexual assault. That’s because we associate PTSD with major traumas.
But there is another common cause of PTSD called complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) which is made up of “little t” traumas that happen over and over again. These cumulative, unresolved traumas, like bullying, neglect from a parent or partner, or rejection or abandonment from social supports. These are the kind of traumas that somebody may have told you are no big deal, but our little traumas matter. And healing from those little traumas is possible.
In the book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk highlights four fundamental truths about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and healing:
These truths are meant to help people suffering from PTSD to own their healing journey and become a participant in the process, rather than being a passive patient. They point your healing journey inward and place the keys to healing in the hands of those who are suffering and their community of support.
Dr. Van Der Kolk’s first point claims that while humans have the capacity to deeply wound one another, they also have the radical ability to help in the healing process. This is consistent with the view that humans are highly relational beings, and that when our needs cannot be met by others we are met with suffering. From birth, we cry out to others to fulfill our needs. Unfortunately, we learn as we grow that our cries are not always met with the comfort our souls crave. When our sense of identity and hope is marred by the hands of another, we may run far away from relationships and cling to the fear that we’ll just be wounded again. Self-protection drives us to make vows to decrease our vulnerability, hoping to never experience the trauma, heartbreak, or suffering again. The ironic thing is that when we decrease our vulnerability, we increase our shame. And shame? Shame weighs on you like a wet blanket.
When others see us just as we are, that allows us to understand and embrace ourselves. The problem is that when we are hurting we believe we’re alone. We might know that we need relationship, but we don’t know who would be safe to talk to and let our guard down. You may have tried this. You may have offered your heart on a silver platter only to have it sprinkled with empty platitudes, promised prayers, and a good old broom to sweep it under the rug. If this has happened to you, it is awful. It is not okay. And those are not your people.
There is healing when you are seen and heard. There is healing when you find a safe person who allows you to lay your burdens down and rest awhile. But it starts with our own vulnerability. Start with one person you already trust or suspect is trustworthy–it could be a parent, partner, therapist, teacher, coworker, new or old friend, or anyone willing to listen. Start by asking if they’re open to a conversation and if so, take the risk of admitting the hurt and asking for what you need. You may not know what you need yet. That is okay. Your healing is worth it.
If you’ve experienced trauma, you may have an awareness of deep suffering but you may not grasp why or even how you are suffering. You may not even know how to put it into words. It may be painful, uncomfortable, or scary to speak the pain into existence. Remember, things fester in the dark. Dr. Van Der Kolk hints at this idea when he describes how language can help us make meaning out of our painful experiences. When you don’t know how to name your suffering, it can feel wildly overwhelming. Shame may kick in and whisper that there is something innately wrong with you and that’s why you have issues. But the truth is that your mind, body, and soul are having reactions to the unresolved pain in your life.
Naming your pain may cause intense reactions such as emotional distress, flashbacks, or physiological symptoms such as shaking, sweating, etc. Having a trusted and qualified mental health professional to come alongside you and address the root of the pain can lead to greater freedom. If you have PTSD, confiding in a mental health professional can help you understand how your trauma affects your life in the present and how to move forward. And wouldn’t it be amazing to be unstuck? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a path forward and walk on it?
When you are a victim of trauma, whether big or small, you may struggle to function in your everyday life no thanks to intense fight-or-flight responses to normal stimuli, like seeing an abuser’s name. Many combat veterans with PTSD are triggered by sights and sounds like fireworks. A therapist can help you identify your triggers and regulate your fight-or-flight responses in healthy ways. The good news is that there are quite a few ways to interrupt your fight-or-flight response. In Dr. Van Der Kolk’s third point, he states that involuntary actions such as breathing, moving, or touching can help regulate our nervous systems.
You may have already discovered that deep breathing helps when triggers or anxious thoughts arise. When you take long and deep breaths, you communicate to the body that it is safe, that no threat is present. Breathing in, holding it, and slowly exhaling causes your heart rate to slow and the body returns to a sense of safety.
Breathing may not do the trick. You may need to move by doing yoga or going for a walk. Getting physically active can be like balm for an overactive mind and body. Studies have shown that walking, or any bilateral movement, stimulates both sides of the brain. This paves the way for greater emotional processing, allowing your thoughts and feelings to become more coherent.
When walking is not available, some people find tapping on both sides of the body provides similar effects. Whether you choose mindful breathing exercises, gentle movement, or both–utilizing these mechanisms can help calm a heightened nervous system and communicate peace and safety to the body.
Along with internal work, changing your environment can bring positive change when you have PTSD. Dr. Van Der Kolk emphasizes that social conditions play a large role in creating safe environments for people with PTSD. Participating in theater is a useful tool. People may come in highly unattuned to their bodies and uncertain how to engage with others in the space, so the director intentionally works to slow things down.
A director who works with traumatized teens described to Dr. Van Der Kolk how he structures his theater practices. He first gets the participants up and walks around the room. He uses small steps to create safety. This example shows the need for those with PTSD to engage in social settings slowly and carefully. Beginning with something like a theater, music, or dance class may help build social skills and awareness that translate to real-world scenarios. Additionally, utilizing the safe space of a therapist’s office may be a good first step if a class with other people seems too daunting.
If you are a victim of trauma, big or small, one or many, know that healing is possible. There is no way to remove your past, but there is a way forward. You are not what happened to you. You are not your past. Your heart is worth healing.
Here at the Refuge Center, we see you and want to honor your unique and valid needs. If you feel that the next step in your healing journey may be to reach out to a mental health professional for help, we would love to meet with you and walk alongside you in the process. You may reach us at 615-591-5262 to take the first steps.
A., V. der K. B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.
Blog written by Master’s Level Intern, Madison Josey and edited by Shelby Rawson