PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 1: How reflex works

Hi again!

Today we’re going to discuss the first ingredient in PTSD, which is your survival reflex.

What I’d like to focus on first is telling you a bit about how reflex works. It’ll be easier to do this with an example… Have you ever accidentally put your hand on a hot surface? If you have, did you notice how, by the time you realized what had happened, you had already yanked your hand off?

This is a great illustration of how reflex works differently than your normal, conscious thought:

Conscious thought is all the stuff that goes through your head, that you’re actually aware of. This includes making decisions, figuring stuff out, noticing things around you – every thought that you actually realize you’re having.

Reflex on the other hand, is sort of like the autopilot; it’s the stuff that the brain does behind the scenes, without your awareness.

To go back to the example of accidentally putting your hand on a hot surface – before your “manual” (conscious) thought has a chance to catch up and realize that you’re burning yourself, your “autopilot” (reflex) is already reacting quickly to yank your hand out of harm’s way. You don’t choose to move your hand – reflex leads you to get it off the stove before you’re even consciously aware of what’s going on. Reflex works much faster than conscious thought; it’s done by a different part of your brain.

The foundation of PTSD is reflex – you do not choose to have reflex (it’s hard-wired into every animal); you do not control when to activate reflex (it just kicks in when it thinks it should).

That last bit – that bit about reflex being outside of your control – get used to hearing that bit. I will go on about that a lot. It’s important.

A lot of suffering comes from people blaming themselves for getting PTSD, and from feeling like it is somehow a weakness, a failure, a character flaw. It’s not something you can actually control, so it’s kinda like beating yourself up because your toenails grew since you clipped them last week. Goofy, right?

PTSD is kind of like a reflex on steroids: you can learn to understand it and manage it, but blaming yourself for it is worse than useless – it’s how you keep yourself stuck feeling awful…

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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How to Make PTSD: The Recipe

I know, I know… That’s a cheesy title.

I didn’t want to just title this post, “What is PTSD?”, because that would imply that I’m going to rattle off a list of diagnostic criteria. And I’m not doing that in this post. Today, we’ll talk about the different layers of where PTSD comes from and how it develops.

– The first ingredient in PTSD is a survival reflex that is hard-wired into the brain of every animal. This reflex drives our response to perceived threat, both in terms of how our body reacts, as well as by producing specific emotional reactions. We’ll break down the discussion of this instinct into a number of posts, because it’s a bunch of information. Don’t skip over this stuff – it’s important, and it’ll help you understand what makes your PTSD “tick”. Some of these posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

– The second ingredient is one that you don’t get in your average, garden-variety, civilian PTSD. That ingredient is your military training. Although civilians get PTSD, and theirs can be just as severe as yours – the flavour of yours is different because of your training. Since PTSD is based on your response to threat, your training gives you a lot more to work with in that department as compared to the average civi.

– These first two ingredients on their own aren’t enough to cause PTSD. For that to happen, you need the third ingredient – and that’s trauma, or a threat to your safety or that of someone else. Trauma overwhelms your ability to respond. After a trauma has happened, it also changes what we see as a threat (for instance, fireworks or crowds may start to feel threatening after you’ve been exposed to combat).

The icing on the cake as it were – what keeps feeding the PTSD once you have it – includes things like a lack of good information; not having the proper tools for coping with your symptoms;  and blaming yourself for not being able to “just get over it”. This is what keeps you trapped and makes it hard to get a leg up on your PTSD.

Once you know what PTSD is made of, it gets easier to take it apart, and that’s really where we’re going with this: PTSD is an enemy that you weren’t trained to fight. Once you have a good sense of what it’s made of and how it works, you’re in a much better position to defend yourself and to fight back.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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Finding solid ground (Part 1)

Hi!

Today we’re going to start out with some basics – tools for what to do against the avalanche of bad memories inside your head. These are called grounding skills.

Now – for those of you who have been in treatment for a while and have your grounding skills down pat, this will be a review. Please feel welcome to jump in with comments, share what works for you, support others and learn from each other’s experiences. For those of you who are completely new to learning how to cope with this stuff, you’re in the right place, and today we’re going to take some time to cover the basics so everyone is on the same page.

Future posts might cover some stuff that’s a bit heavier – and when they do, I’ll start off the post by letting you know I’ll be digging a bit deeper, and by reminding you to use your grounding skills. By then, some computer whiz will teach me how to add a hyperlink into a blog post, so I can refer back here as a reminder to take care of yourself if you’re upset.

Grounding skills are things that we do to anchor ourselves into the present when a bad memory is trying to suck us back into the past. They are your first, most basic tool for managing your symptoms. Usually, grounding skills are activities that keep your mind focused on something in the here and now – they are meant to keep you… grounded.

There are lots of different things you can do to ground yourself: you can use your senses to be aware of where you are: for example, take the time to notice three things that you see, hear, smell, and touch to anchor yourself to the present. You can also remind yourself of today’s date, and of how long it’s been since that bad memory happened; this will help you realize that you are here NOW, and that bad memory is over. That’s how grounding works.

Keeping your hands busy is a good way of grounding yourself – it keeps you focused on the present. So, you might give some thought to taking up a hobby like woodworking, drawing, painting, carving, gardening, cooking – heck, learn to crochet. Whatever appeals to you, as long as it requires enough focus that your mind can’t wander into the past.

At this time of the year, the weather’s gorgeous out there – so another way to ground yourself is to go outside. Go out for a good long walk. Don’t rush – take your time. Find an apple tree or a cherry tree. Take a deep breath, and take in the smell of spring.

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You know what else the nice weather means?

That’s right…

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It’s gorgeous out there – so jump on your bike and go out for a ride. It’s a great way to ground yourself.

 

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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