Have you experienced an event or events in your life that were so traumatic they were outside the realm of normal experience? If so, trauma may have shaped your mind and body toward anxiety, just as it can shape your mind and body toward depression. If this resonates with you, look at the lists below and check off the items that apply to your life right now.
Mind Symptoms of PTSD
- You experienced painful emotional or physical trauma in your family growing up.
- You’ve suffered emotional or physical trauma in one or more of your relationships.
- There has been an event in your life in which you’ve been threatened with such serious physical or emotional harm that it would be out of the range of what we consider normal life experience.
- Some examples might be living through war, witnessing an accident with loss of life or limb, experiencing rape or incest, or seeing your children suffer abuse.
- Whatever the trauma you’ve experienced, you tend to have “repeat performances” of this painful pattern in one relationship after another, one job after another, and so on. The painful pattern seems to replay over and over in your life like the movie Groundhog Day.
- You have thought patterns of terror, fright, panic, and edginess.
- You have a feeling that you might be hurt or harmed, or that someone might reject or criticize you.
- You believe you won’t get the help you need.
- You feel you’re incompetent to change the situation.
- You feel like you’re going crazy.
Body Symptoms of PTSD
In addition to the symptoms in the previous section, you may have these:
- Trembling and shaking
- Hot flashes and cold chills
- Numbness and tingling
- Nausea or a sick feeling in your stomach
- Pressure in your chest
- A pounding heart
- Cold sweats
- Shortness of breath
- A lump in your throat
- Dizziness and vertigo
- Feeling like you’re “out of your body”
- Feeling like you’re dying
find that trauma can rewire the brain, and if the above descriptions sound familiar to you, read on. You will have a whole host of solutions you can use with your health care team to create physical relief and emotional serenity.
DOLLY: ANXIETY AFTER A TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE
Dolly, 28, came to Mona Lisa Shultz, M.D., Ph.D. because her family was concerned for her after a traumatic childhood. Here is Dr. Lisa’s account:
THE INTUITIVE READING
I saw Dolly as if she were in a house and someone was walking in and out and slamming the door. The individual in the house who seemed to be creating terror seemed to have violent mood swings, so potent that they would affect people nearby, in the same room or even on other floors of the house. It felt like Dolly’s world was threatened, and the horror of being around this person reverberated in her body.
After meeting that family, I saw that Dolly’s life seemed unstable in so many realms. Did she have a hard time making friends outside of her family? I had a hard time seeing a partner or other relationships. It didn’t seem like she could last in a job and make enough money to support herself.
Her head felt shaky. Her body felt shaky. Everything about Dolly’s mind and body felt nervous. Was there dizziness and vertigo in her head? I sensed a lump in her throat. It seemed that she was constantly out of breath, and her heart skipped a beat in a way that was terrifying.
I could see that her digestive tract tended to look like it had butterflies in it, giving her that nauseous feeling. All the muscles in her body seemed tight, making her feel exhausted. I could see Dolly up all hours of the night trying to get to sleep.
It turned out that Dolly had seen her father beat her mother on multiple occasions. His explosive temper drove away everyone except, of course, Dolly. Dolly still lived with her father because she couldn’t manage to find Mr. Right, nor could she make any job last. Her problems with focus and attention made it hard for her to finish school, and she was soon diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Dolly told me that doctors gave her antidepressants for irritability, and then they said she had bipolar disorder, the idea of which she thought was ridiculous. Dolly began to medicate away the memories of her father’s violence with alcohol and marijuana. All she wanted was to have the episodes of panic go away. She wanted the chest pounding, the choking, the trembling, the nausea all to just leave so she could start to have a happy life.
What is PTSD?
Many of us have events in our life that are traumatic. A parent dies when we’re in middle age. One of our children gets a minor illness and we’re terrified that they may not survive. A child may be diagnosed with a learning disability, or we may have a fender bender on the highway.
All of us have the resilience in our brains and bodies to bounce back; however, when we experience an event that is over the top in magnitude, such as up-close, personal experience of war, watching a loved one die, being a victim of rape or abuse, and so on, the horrific memories get laid down in our brains and bodies.
Psychiatry names this post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The most recent studies with brain scans indicate that in PTSD sufferers, the fear network is not working properly. Whether it’s revealed by PET scans or magnetic spectroscopy, we know that the elements of the network produce aberrant amounts of serotonin, GABA, or other neurotransmitters.3
If you, like the person in this case, have had serious trauma in your life, you may suffer from anxiety as well as depression and from its effects in your brain and body. First, understand that part of all life is distress.
From the moment we’re born, we cry. It’s painful. Daily all of us have one event or another that causes distress. Some amount of “stress,” pain, is necessary for us to grow and develop. Some even believe that crisis is necessary to challenge us and force us forward to accomplish greater and greater feats.
Symptoms of PTSD
Whether it’s taking our first steps or the anxiety we face on the first day of kindergarten or the first day of college, all of us have to face normal amounts of fear and other feelings so we can recruit other brain regions to adjust our thoughts and move on to the next life mission.
However, if we’ve been threatened or someone close to us has been threatened with bodily harm or sexual violence, this can be considered PTSD if four basic symptoms continue longer than a month:
- You keep having reverberating memories of the event in the form of dreams, images, or body reactions.
- You go out of your way to avoid situations that remind you of the event. This might be avoiding a highway or highways around it after you’ve had a car accident, or avoiding the sounds of airports if you’ve seen a helicopter crash, and so on. You avoid situations where you hear, see, or sense reminders of the trauma.
- You have changes in how your thoughts work, your mood functions, and your body functions after the event. Your memory is like a fog. You can’t remember events. You may feel like you’re out of your body, you dissociate, and as a result you may have a distorted memory of events. You may either blame yourself or you blame the world. You may start to withdraw from activities. You may feel numb or detached from loved ones. And somehow, that overall dulling in your brain makes it hard for you to experience love, joy, and satisfaction.
- Last but not least, your body remains keyed up after the trauma with norepinephrine, that adrenal gland stress hormone, which causes you to be jumpy, reactive, and hypervigilant; your muscles will tighten, and you’ll get exhausted. This also makes it hard for you to focus, pay attention, and, yes, fall asleep. Your jumpiness and moodiness may make you more likely to have anger outbursts, causing problems with your relationships, your job, or your functioning as a whole.
The symptoms of panic with PTSD are not the most paralyzing consequence. What is the most paralyzing consequence is you restrict your life. You start to avoid things that remind you of the trauma.
The circle of avoidance gets greater and greater and greater and greater. Those highways you started to avoid after the accident start to become back roads as well, until you stop driving completely. Hearing traffic noises may bother you, at which time you start closing the windows in your house and just don’t want to listen to any kind of car at all. You may stay home more and more.
When people start to tell you, “Hey, listen, you’re getting more and more restricted in your life,” you’ll say, “Well, I could do more, but I’d rather not.” You start to think, What would happen if? Well, I could go in a car, but what if an accident happens? A minority of people, 5 percent, actually end up unable to leave their homes, a homebound situation called agoraphobia.
If you have suffered from a serious traumain your life that affects your mind and body, these solutions can help you support your brain and body as you heal the past and create a healthier mind-body for greater happiness in the present and the future.
When it comes to suffering from panic after a trauma, it’s important to look at all the medical conditions that could make your anxiety, nervousness, and twitchiness worse.
Have a physician check out your thyroid, your blood sugar, your calcium, and your adrenal gland. Hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome (excessive cortisol or adrenal gland exhaustion), and a parathyroid gland problem can all mimic or worsen panic attacks.
Go to a cardiologist and have an EKG to check out your heart rhythm.
If you have symptoms of dizziness, vertigo, and feeling “out of your body,” go to a neurologist to make sure you aren’t also having a brain wave problem.
Go to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor to make sure your middle ear isn’t also causing some symptom.
Notice I’m not saying that if you treat these physical health problems, your panic will completely go away.
Traumatic experience may increase your chance toward having all of these disorders, so it’s important to treat both the physical problems and the emotional distress.
While you’re at it, make sure that your shortness of breath isn’t made worse by allergies or asthma.
Have a trusted coach, counselor, or nutritionist go over your diet to make sure that medicine, supplements, or foods aren’t making your panic worse, especially caffeine and alcohol, not to mention cocaine and marijuana.
You might say, “Marijuana? How could that possibly make my panic worse?”
Well, it may make you calm at first, but over time it will make your brain foggier in terms of attention and memory. It’s called “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”
Using marijuana may calm your nerves but mess up your attention; using alcohol can help you fall asleep, but you’ll end up feeling more depressed. It’s important to work with a trusted practitioner to balance your psychopharmacology so that the things you’re doing to self-medicate your panic aren’t making your brain and body worse.