Many of you may have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Whilst there is no standard definition of PTSD, it is generally agreed that PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs when a person sees their life flash before their eyes. For example they are involved in, or witness, a near death incident, or a series of events resulting in them having the perception that life as they know it, is about to end.
Emotional overload in these circumstances causes the primitive region of the brain called the limbic region, responsible for brains involvement in emotions, to recalibrate in order to cope. PTSD occurs when the brain doesn’t go back to normal operation of its own accord.
So why talk about PTSD here?
Well it gives a great extreme example of emotions at play within us. You may not suffer from it, but you may demonstrate some of the same characteristics. This is very normal, and has occurred for the same reasons as someone with ‘the bug’ (I use the term bug, because it highlights that you can get over the disorder to live a normal life) – self defence.
There are many elements involved with a person suffering from PTSD, but one of the major ones is their emotions. Generally one of two things may occur. They may become emotional desensitized as a self defence mechanism. This may outwardly come across as someone who becomes isolated from family and friends; doesn’t appear to feel anything, and will be blank when asked. This is a normal coping mechanism that their mind and body has developed.
The second emotional response may be for someone to be emotionally turbulent. Another term for this is emotionally hijacked. This is where their emotions are very close to the surface and little, or specific things make them have an emotional outburst.
So what emotions are generally prevalent in someone suffering from PTSD? Shame, anger, guilt, sadness and fear are the big ones – sound familiar? That’s because a PTSD sufferer is simply dealing with normal human emotions, however, their mind has lost a lot of its normal ability to adequately process them. Often, especially if the sufferers have numbed themselves, happy or positive emotions are very rarely felt.
In all cases the healing process involves getting in touch with your emotions, exploring them, and then expressing them in an appropriate fashion. This can be a lengthy process, given that a lot of us have been taught to suppress our emotions from an early age. Just think whether in your life before you’ve been told "don’t cry, that’s what sissy’s do"; or, "get over it, it’s not that bad"; or, "keep that to yourself!" All these statements are what we call shaming statements, and have taught us at a subconscious level, to bottle our emotions up because they are not helpful.
The opposite is actually true. Our emotions, when used appropriately and listened to, are indicators to us about the situation. Anger for example is an indicator that our personal boundaries have been breached and we need to do something about it. Fear is a great one. It’s all about: if you are going to proceed, do so with caution. It is designed to focus us, not make us run. Running from the situation is a choice, not the emotion. It is often said that courage is not acting without fear, but in acting in the presence of fear.
In the PTSD five step recovery programme I run, emotional release is the first major step taken. Without releasing this pent up emotion, we cannot expect to be able to connect with ourselves and others. So what does emotional release involve? Glad you asked!
There are two parts to this – the bucket and the glasses.
Firstly, if we don’t express certain so called negative emotions (namely anger, sadness, shame, guilt and fear), the energy associated with the emotion builds up like in a bucket, or reservoir, inside us. What then happens is that we explode, or our bucket overflows. Just think about the last time you got intensely angry over a trivial event, or cried a river over something that, in hindsight, wasn’t that sad. These are examples of when our emotional reservoir of anger and sadness are full and overflow. So what we need to do is find an appropriate way to express these emotions. That’s why a punching bag is so good for anger release. No one else will get hurt, and that is of paramount importance when finding an appropriate vent for anger. For details, see my blog article on releasing anger.
The glasses refer to your perspective of the situation. The hormones associated with an anger response last a mere 90 seconds in our system. Why then can we be intensely anger for hours, or even days? It’s because we relive the experience in our mind and by doing so trigger the release of more hormones. All that happens in within 90 seconds. Again have a think about how many times you’ve stewed over something and got yourself more and more angry.
Instead of stewing, a new perspective of the situation is required. The best way I find to do this is think about the lessons, or even benefits of the situation has given you. By doing this you can look at a situation that who have previously got you annoyed or angry, and feel totally different about it.
Let me explain with the aid of my story. Whilst leading Australian troops in Iraq my armoured vehicle, with me chest high out of the top, was hit by a roadside bomb. I received shrapnel and other wounds. After returning to Australia I developed PTSD. Part of my healing process has been expressing the anger inside me about that incident – and believe me there was a bit. Now I have come to look at being hit as a blessing. You see at home I had a wife and young child, who to that time, had play second fiddle to my Army career. I almost didn’t come home to them – the most important things in my life! Being hit by the bomb has made me realize what is important to me in my life, and to ensure I make decisions that reflect that. So I do look at being hit by the bomb as a blessing in disguise – albeit at the time, a bloody big disguise!
It is very important to express the emotion that was caused by the incident/situation (the bucket) first, and then reframe your perspective. Unfortunately some people skip the first step and only reframe the way they view the situation, and then wonder why they can’t forgive, or the issue keeps resurfacing. This is because there is still a level of associated residual emotion within that needs to be expressed.
So how do I help sufferers of the bug get in touch with their emotions?
A great exercise to do, and one I give my clients, is at the end of the day have an emotional check in with yourself. Ask yourself, what emotions did I feel today? For how long was I experiencing those emotions? Simply bringing this awareness to yourself will enable you to get in touch with how you are feeling. Do this for a couple of weeks straight and you will notice substantial benefits. Have a think about it anyway, how often do we go to sleep worrying about what we have to do tomorrow, or in the next couple of days? Worry is wasted energy. Why not put your focus instead on the pleasant emotions and sensations that you were feeling during the day? Not hard to do, but very powerful.