Living with PTSD can have a huge impact on an individual’s life, sometimes affecting them in ways that they don’t even consciously realise.
Geoff* walked into my therapy room for the first time and did something quite unusual. He picked up the chair I had suggested he sit in, and carried it over to the wall. He placed it firmly up against the wall then sat down.
Geoff is a veteran of a number of tours of duty to the Middle East. One of his military friends had died in his arms as a result of an IED (Improvised Explosive device) that had exploded through the side of their armoured vehicle while they were on patrol.
The explanation for Geoff’s unusual behaviour is that it had become a habit for him to never sit with his back to a door – or any sort of open space – so that he could always survey his surroundings to ensure that nobody could creep up behind him. This sort of behaviour is known as “hypervigilance”, and it is one of the common symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When I commented on Geoff’s behaviour he looked a little startled and said that he hadn’t consciously performed this action, he’d just done it automatically.
What Causes PTSD?
Of course, it is not only military personnel who suffer from PTSD. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that may develop after a person has been through some form of traumatic event: such as being a hostage; victim of crime or torture; in a car accident; or natural disasters. In fact any event (especially when they happen suddenly) where the person is fearful for their safety or the safety of others, and particularly those with the feeling that they have no control over the traumatic situation, can develop PTSD.
Symptoms Commonly Experienced
In addition to the hypervigilance mentioned earlier, other symptoms of PTSD may include:
- recurring nightmares;
- chronic irritability;
- free-floating anxiety;
- avoiding thinking about the traumatic event; and,
- flashbacks where the sufferer re-experiences the traumatic event.
Flashbacks: Part of Living with PTSD
Flashbacks are usually triggered by something, such as a smell or a sudden loud noise, that reminds the individual of the traumatic event. The classic line in the Red Gum song, “I was only 19”, is a stunningly grim description of this symptom: And can you tell me doctor why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet? In fact, the whole song is a vivid description of the symptoms suffered by individuals living with PTSD.
Clearly PTSD is a very debilitating, very painful psychological condition but it can be successfully treated.
Firstly the experience of the PTSD sufferer must be validated. It is no good trying to suggest that the event never happened, or to minimise it. Not only does this not work, it is also an insult to the person living with PTSD. Therapy cannot wipe out the reality of what the person has experienced, but it can help them to gradually deal with the symptoms previously described.
One of the ways therapy can help someone living with PTSD, is to teach them to catch and observe the symptoms when they arise, and then to remind themselves that even though the trauma did happen, it is now over.
The traumatic event is stored in the “memory bank” of the individual living with PTSD. It is like a movie in their own head and like any movie (or any well made movie) it seems real; it is compelling. You need only look around at the people in a movie theatre to see how compelling real movies seem – you will observe people, smiling, weeping, laughing, frowning etc. For all intents and purposes, the audience is living the story along with the actors.
People living with PTSD can learn to catch themselves reliving their own movie, and remind themselves that although the event did once happen, it is now “just” a movie – and then make a decision as to whether they still want to watch the movie.
Through therapy the person with PTSD can learn strategies and techniques that will assist them to get up and leave their own personal cinema behind, and walk out into the real world and their own real life.
Author: Matthew Ryan, B Psych (Hons), MA (Marriage & Family Therapy).
Matt Ryan is a Brisbane psychologist with over 25 years of experience, in assisting individuals, couples and families, to work through their problems and difficulties, such as living with PTSD.
To book an appointment with Matthew Ryan call 1800 877 924 or book online today!
* Not real name