Ask Dr. Merry: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

» Posted in Ask Dr. Lin, Mental Health, Personal Growth, Trauma and Abuse | 0 comments

 flashbacks

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with me but I thought maybe you could help.  I’ve had some ongoing problems for years with depression and panic attacks but I’ve been able to manage more or less with medication and trying not to think about my problems.  I’ve also been really busy with my work and family, so I think I just kept going on automatic pilot.  Recently though, I’ve been having these weird dreams that are almost like flashbacks and this feeling that something bad happened to me when I was growing up.  It’s to the point where I can’t sleep because I feel like I’m on edge all the time.  I don’t know what to believe because I don’t have clear memories but I do know that there was a lot of fighting and we got beatings from my dad when he was drunk, which was often.  I try not to think about my past and just try to do my best with my life right now, but these flashbacks are really bothering me.  I’m also finding that I’m getting a lot more panic attacks especially after I had this incident at work where a customer cornered me and threatened me.  Nothing happened although I was really freaked out at the time.  I don’t know why it’s bothering me so much but I just can’t seem to let it go.  I’m really obsessing about all of this trying to figure out what may have happened to me, to the point where I can hardly think of anything else. What should I do?

I’m really sorry to hear that you’re experiencing flashbacks and panic attacks but I’m glad that you’ve decided to pay attention to what your body may be telling you.  Our bodies are quite remarkable and will tell us – if we pay attention to their signals – when something needs attending to or requires our care.

It sounds like you’ve tried hard to turn your life around from some of the difficulties in your past.  From what you’re describing, however, I do wonder if there are some unresolved issues that are starting to come up to the surface.  I would need more details about your symptoms before making a firm diagnosis, but there is a possibility that you may be experiencing what we call Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD), which may have been triggered by your recent incident at work that sounds quite traumatizing for you.

For many people who have experienced early childhood trauma, those memories can get repressed (as part of the way children often cope with traumatic experiences) but then re-surface years later after something triggers those traumatic feelings from the past.  I don’t know what treatment options you’ve considered or whether you’ve done any psychotherapy, but in my experience, unexplained depression, emotional distress and panic attacks are sometimes a way that our body demonstrates the possibility of unresolved PTSD.

Some of the symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Recurring and distressing flashbacks and/or dreams
  • Intense psychological distress or strong physiological responses (e.g., panic attacks) at exposure to internal or external cues that resembles the original trauma
  • Inability to recall important aspect of the trauma
  • Efforts to avoid any thoughts, feelings, activities or situations that remind us of the trauma
  • Markedly diminished interest in significant activities (which can present as depression)
  • Hyper-vigilance and an exaggerated startle response, difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Problems regulating emotions, unpredictable outbursts of anger

I would strongly encourage you to consider seeking a qualified psychotherapist to help you work through what is going on with you right now.  Regardless of whether there are any specific memories that have been repressed that are contributing to your symptoms, it sounds like your upbringing has been quite difficult and so it may be helpful for you to process through these early childhood experiences.  You may find relief from your symptoms just by doing this, but in the process, you may end up discovering repressed traumatic memories that also need to be resolved.

Unresolved trauma will often remain locked in our brains but can – like a toxic-leaking waste bin – “leak” out “toxins” that can lead to physical and emotional symptoms.  As well, even if we don’t consciously recall the trauma, we may find ourselves reacting very strongly to situations that, in retrospect, shouldn’t be such a big deal.  It is vitally important to resolve this trauma so that our brain, body and emotions have a sense of resolution – not to change the past (which we can’t), but so we’re able to “digest” the important lessons and growth that is part of experiencing life’s challenges while letting go of the bad stuff (e.g., the fear, shame or wrong mental conclusions about ourselves) that was locked up inside us previously.  Often, people will experience a sense of freedom as the trauma no longer holds them back from experiences or relationships they long to pursue.

There are a number of trauma recovery techniques that are quite effective in helping us move towards this healthy resolution.  But make sure that whichever therapist you chose also teaches you techniques to help you stay grounded and in control of your emotional responses so that you can safely process through your trauma with that therapist.  You don’t want to be re-traumatized by your therapist!  Your emotional safety ought to be of the utmost importance to your therapist and must be established and maintained to ensure that you are dealing with your trauma in a therapeutic and safe way.

Keep in mind, also, that trauma therapy isn’t meant to be a “witch hunt” in discovering the facts of what actually happened.  Because memories are very susceptible to distortion and there’s no way to go back into your past to verify the specific facts of what happened, trauma recovery is more about resolving your symptoms and helping you come to a place of acceptance and peace.  Beware of any therapists who try to tell you what they think happened when there’s no evidence beyond the symptoms you are reporting.  Don’t spend all of your energy trying to remember the details of what happened to you – often, the more you try, the more frustrated and depressed you will get, especially as you start to overly focus on trying to find out the “answers”.  Instead, focus on the symptoms that need resolving and allow your mind and body to naturally bring forward what needs attention.

And for those of us who are Christ-followers, it’s important to remember that nothing takes God by surprise since he knows everything, so trust in his timing as he brings forward traumatic memories that need to be resolved.  And if your symptoms are generally resolved and you’re beginning to experience genuine peace and joy in your life, accept the ambiguity of not knowing all of the answers this side of heaven.  Give over to God those who have harmed, abused or traumatized you, trusting that it will be up to him to deal with them and not up to you to make sure they know what they did or that they pay for what they did to you.  Focus on what YOU can do to break free from the traumatic experiences of your past and then choose to let go of the rest.

 

 

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