NOTE: I’m going to get kind of heavy in this posting, and I’m also going to get kind of heavy into some science, but PLEASE! don’t let it scare you off. If there’s anything you don’t understand (and want to know more about) feel free to email me at Jamie.Kaufhold1@gmail.com. That’s what I’m here for, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t want to use my experience to help out other people, so maybe they don’t have to go through as much BS as I did, in trying to sort all of this out.
So, on that note, let’s get down to it.
We’re All Doomed! Doomed, I Tell You!
Sure, everyone knows that their days are numbered.
But those of us with PTSD have experienced this knowledge in an intimate way that is only really ever faced by people whose lives have actually “flashed before their eyes”—by those of us who experience the sure and certain knowledge that, not only are our days numbered, they’re up.
When you know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you are about to die, whether you experience that momentarily, over the space of many years, or, as I did, over a period of several days, it’s like opening your eyes for the very first time. You never feel or see anything quite the same way, ever again. It’s a little like skydiving, too. Not only is there a massive release of adrenaline into your system, but you also gain instantaneous access to a very different view of the bigger picture, and afterwards, should you survive, most stuff just doesn’t seem as important as it used to seem.
Living with PTSD can just be plain old hard. It can be massively difficult to deal with life on life’s terms (while at the same time having to come to terms with the past), on a moment to moment basis, one day at a time. Whether you suffered trauma in combat, as a child, during a natural disaster, a car accident or a sexual assault, PTSD is real, it’s painful as hell, and it’s here to stay—until you decide you’re going to do something about it.
Don’t kid yourself. If they are significant enough, ignoring your mental health symptoms will eventually wind you up in a hospital, in jail, or down a bottle. Please don’t wait till you find yourself with a gun to your head, while your finger pulls the trigger, to wonder whether you might need help.
A therapist once explained it to me like this: when we suffer severe enough traumas, particularly traumas in which an imminent, violent, and generally unpleasant death is a likely-looking factor, our brains become overwhelmed and, basically, freak the heck out.
Rebar for Dinner
It’s as though we have eaten rebar for dinner—just as the metal would sit undigested in our stomachs, because stomachs can’t digest rebar, the memory of the traumatic event sits in the brain, in short-term memory. The brain can’t process the information into long-term memory because it lacks the capacity to do so. Having no experience of death or how to deal with it, areas of the brain that deal with short-term memory keep the event at the forefront of our minds, looping endlessly through our thoughts. We become totally disconnected from our current environments, literally lost in our thoughts. Our hearts pound, our palms sweat, our pupils dilate. It’s very much a real, physical response—to something that isn’t there (anymore).
This response is called a flashback, and if your flashbacks are bad enough and you don’t get help, the good news—for people who love bad news—is that they will eventually destroy you, by gradually destroying everything worthwhile in your life.
Flash Back to Reality
Along with the low levels of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain that you are familiar with if you have undergone any psychiatric treatment, you’re also dealing with something called the hyperresponsiveness of norepinephrine that got rewired into your hardware during and after your trauma. This little number got dialed into your system as the proverbial shit was hitting the proverbial fan, and now you can’t turn it off. It keeps you vigilant for danger under even the most convivial of circumstances, leading to nightmares, flashbacks, and that large or little feeling of impending doom that persists, no matter how cheery the day.
It’s All About the Amygdala, Baby.
In current PTSD research, scientists are spending a lot of time studying a part of the brain called the amygdala.
The amygdala is involved with generating and regulating chemicals that have a lot to do with how we feel, what and whether we learn, and how and why we remember things.
One emotion whose origins are closely aligned with the amygdala is fear. How and why we learn to fear is another factor that this area of the brain has jurisdiction over, as is how (when it becomes possible) we learn not to fear.
According to the website BrainConnection.com,
“Recent research has further supported a crucial role for the amygdala in fear conditioning. If a rat has its amygdala destroyed, it will still show a fear response to the foot shock but fail to learn the association between the light and the foot shock. Even after many training sessions, the animal will not exhibit any fear to the light alone. Humans with amygdalar damage seem to have a similar problem. When Elizabeth Phelps and Joe LeDoux examined (mild) fear conditioning in people with localized damage to the amygdala, they found that their subjects could verbalize the connection between the light and the shock—“A light comes on, followed by a shock’—but they failed to show the usual conditioned fear responses, such as increased heart rate, when the light was presented alone. Interestingly, LeDoux has also shown that fear conditioning in rats induces long-term changes in the patterns of communication between neurons in the amygdala.”
Memory and Trauma
In the moments during and after a severe trauma, the brain synthesizes certain kinds of proteins. After a short period of time, these proteins combine, and a memory forms. If the trauma is so severe that the proteins cannot properly combine, because of releases of other chemicals in the brain or physical damage to the brain, then the memory may be imperfectly formed, as well.
If the memory does form properly, however, it is still “labile,” or variable in nature. So, the next time you recall the memory, the proteins comprising the memory actually destabilize, and then reconsolidate when you file the memory away again for later use. Then, the next time you recall the memory, you are actually recalling the reconsolidation—not the original protein formation. It’s like an ice cube tray. When you are ready for some ice (or, for the sake of this analogy, ready to retrieve your given memory), you go into the freezer (your brain) and grab out the ice cube tray. You pop out some ice and use it, and then you refill the tray and put it back in the freezer, where the ice reconsolidates and gets ready to be retrieved again.
Eventually, while you still have ice in the tray, you by no means have the same ice with which you started. Every time your brain retrieves a memory, it becomes subject to the conditions you are under at the time (environment, mood, etc.).
It Was THIS Big!
Memories, essentially, change with every recollection. This is why the fish gets bigger every time the story gets told, why there is always a “different side to the story,” why two people remember the same event differently, and why “time heals all wounds.”
Scientists have known this much about how memories consolidate and reconsolidate since the late 1990’s, but they have only recently identified how the protein consolidation works for fear-based memories. Fear affects memory formation by disrupting the reconsolidation process.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Fallujah… I just forget what.
Humor aside, the good news, (for people who love good news) is that there is hope. Major, real, relevant hope. There is such a thing as healing from PTSD. Next week, I will be writing about some of those sources of hope that have helped me in my own recovery.
This is not an easy journey, but like all journeys, it begins with just one step. If you need or want to, shoot me an email. I’ve been through it, too, and even if I can’t relate to your specific circumstance, then chances are that I can relate to your brain chemistry now that your trauma is over.
I’ve been through quite a few of the types of pain that life has to offer, and I would like to either help you or point you in the direction of someone who can. Either way, don’t hesitate to reach out. Why keep suffering alone, when you’re not alone in your suffering?