As I look out at the world right now, well…more specifically…as I scroll through my social media feed from my couch while my children squirm and squeak around me, I am concerned.
I see pain. I see fear. I see confusion. I see brokenness and hopelessness and disconnection.
And because of the multiple hats I wear each day, I’m a little more sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others… Hi, I’m Allison. Your friendly, neighborhood mental health therapist. And, while I’m off the clock and clearly not providing any actual mental health treatment through this article, I see you. I see you are struggling and I want you to know that just because the world is on fire, you can feel the pain around you without it causing your own personal suffering.
Now, some of you may not be able to relate to my assessment of the emotional state of my Facebook feed. Congratulations! You must have what us therapy types identify as “protective factors.” These would include skills, strengths, community resources, or sources of support that help you deal with adversity.
- That group chat with your other mom friends where you can spill your guts without feeling judged? Protective factor.
- How about your 3x a week jogging routine around the park? Protective factor.
- Your choice to make sure the coffee maker has been cleaned out so you can have a few moments of peace in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up? Protective factor.
Now, don’t get me wrong. You can have all the protective factors in the world and still struggle. They can help us better manage our feelings of anxiety, depression or shield against certain diagnoses like Post-traumatic stress disorder, but sometimes they aren’t enough. Like I said, the world is on fire, and you can jog all the miles in the world and still not be able to manage your mental health needs. You may feel that your community is being attacked, that your family members are at risk of losing their lives, that you or those you love might get sick, or that people you thought you knew very well have views that don’t match your own.
I also want to offer another piece of the puzzle: our own trauma.
I know, how typical that a therapist brings up trauma, right? But there is value in identifying this as a factor in why so many people are deeply struggling. Once we have been through a traumatic event, we can be more vulnerable to be triggered by events around us, even if it is unrelated to our own traumatizing experience.
Now, don’t get me started on society’s manipulation of the word triggered. This term has been stolen from us mental health professionals to describe someone who is overreacting or acting hyperemotional. But, the exact opposite is true for someone who is actually being triggered by their trauma. They aren’t overreacting, they are having a biological and psychological response that can be very difficult to control.
Being triggered by past trauma is real and can be very disorienting. The most difficult part is that you can be triggered by something that could seem unrelated to your own experience.
That video that was circling our feeds a few weeks ago…what feelings were brought up in you? Perhaps you have never experienced anything like what you saw, but you know that it feels like to be vulnerable, in pain, completely powerless, feeling like no one could help, feeling like your life was in danger. Or, maybe you could imagine a family member or friend being put in that sort of life-threatening position. How did you choose to deal with those feelings? Distract yourself with your sourdough bread starter? Organize a closet? Pour a drink?
Let’s take one step back from that thought… Sometimes, we don’t even realize that our trauma responses have been activated. Everyone has their own unique experience, but let me offer some common symptoms of someone who is having a difficult time processing their trauma.
- reoccurring, unwanted thoughts or memories
- avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of a distressing event
- negative thoughts about yourself or the world
- feeling emotionally numb
- trouble sleeping or concentrating
- self-destructive behavior such as drinking too much
Now, I don’t want you to read this list and diagnose yourself with Post-traumatic stress disorder without talking to a real mental health professional. Everyone, trust me…I’m much more effective in person. There is so much more that needs to be discussed before giving that sort of diagnosis, including a timeline of when symptoms started, identifying family history, understanding how much the symptoms are impacting the person’s daily life, and more.
However, did you know that you can receive a diagnosis of PTSD just by witnessing a traumatic event, not necessarily being the one to experience it?
I would say that whoever watched that viral video could potentially be at risk. Or, at the very least, be at risk of having a trauma response connected to something unrelated, which may have happened at a different point in their life.
So, today, on PTSD awareness day, I hope you will take a moment to honor the thoughts and feelings you are carrying around. Pay attention to them and know that there are local therapists ready to step in and help you make sense of them. Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. Our world feels turned upside down right now, but know that you are not alone. Ask your girlfriends in that group chat if they have a good therapist recommendation… if they don’t have one, reach out to me. We’re all in this together.