Before writing my first blog, I wanted to spend some time explaining what PTSD is, and what that actually looks like in the real world. This has not been taken from excerpts of text written by other people, rather from my own understanding that comes with recovering from the condition myself and from the conversations I’ve had with numerous professionals since my accident.
The first piece of information that sticks with me is that it is a psychological injury, not a mental illness. From what I can tell the jury is out on this point but neither affliction is more reassuring than the other. The effects of PTSD would be visible if you were to scan the brain of a sufferer and many of the symptoms are a result of physical swelling on the brain. That’s the technicalities out the way. I don’t actually mind whether it’s referred to as a brain injury or a mental illness. Some of the most interesting people I know are mentally ill.
PTSD and the brain.
PTSD happens to lots of people for lots of reasons but for me, it happened because I was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a situation where I thought I was going to die. I had accepted that as fact, I was about to be crushed to death. This realisation changes the way your brain functions, and for good reason. You are born with the ‘fight or flight’ part of your brain being the most dominant as this is essential for survival. This fight or flight response is why new born babies right from birth will flinch if startled, why you will duck for cover if you hear a loud noise even before you register what has happened, and why we take evasive or defensive action in the blink of an eye. It is fed by adrenaline, designed to keep you safe and it continues to control your survival responses right through your life. As we grow older this part of our brain becomes less dominant as logic, cognitive thinking and capacity for learning takes over, and it is these that allow us to develop as people and help keep us safe in most situations.
During an experience where the brain knows it is at real and immediate risk of death, it doesn’t have time for logical thinking.
It needs fight or flight in an attempt to survive. A surge of adrenaline feeds this primitive part of the brain and hopefully, as in my case, it saves your life. Unfortunately (although at the time I’d have taken this compromise) your brain doesn’t go back to the way it was. Should you scan your brain at this point you would see the fight or flight area affected by the adrenaline is swollen and has become dominant again, to the point that it squashes the thinking and learning bit of your brain, compromising its function.
So what does all that mean in real life?
In many people this imbalance rights itself in about 4 weeks and with a bit of TLC and lots of rest and support, there are no lasting effects. In some however the surge of the adrenaline and terror of the incident can be such that the swelling does not subside and the consequences of this can be traumatising. The surges of adrenaline continue and the brain can not stop fighting to survive. Your brain continues to see harmless stimuli as a threat and responds appropriately to ensure your safety and survival. It was at about this point that I was diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD manifests itself differently for different people and I will openly discuss what each symptom meant for me (and my long suffering loved ones) in my blog posts, but to offer a brief outline, these have been my main symptoms.
Symptoms of PTSD
Violent flash backs where I am fully re-experiencing the accident with no understanding that it is not real.
Nightmares about the accident.
Nightmares about any other conceivable threat to me or the people I love.
Hallucinations. I often see plagues of insects crawling up the walls, or lions in the garden/wolves in the park/masked men trying to get in my house.
Sensory hallucinations. I can often smell gas or fire when I am trying to sleep and will see smoke in the room. This is sometimes coupled with being able to feel the heat from a house fire flickering on my face.
Paranoia and feeling like everyone is against you. I could win prizes for being unreasonable and at times I’ve been really awful to be around.
Feelings of isolation and of wanting to be alone. Not being able to process your relationships with people so you can’t really understand why they’re there. You stop being able to access your world alongside them because nothing is familiar.
A complete lack of cognitive thinking. Being unable to put simple steps together to do things like drive, shop, clean, get dressed, hold a conversation or retain any information.
Hypersensitivity to noise, headaches and panic attacks.
Being too overwhelmed to function. It often feels too hard to open the post, call a friend, make an appointment or even watch the TV.
There are hundreds of symptoms of PTSD and I will offer a frank and honest look at these in my blog posts, but hopefully this insight offers you some background knowledge and context to support my ramblings.