Let’s take a fresh look at PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. By understanding what PTSD is and how it may be affecting you, you will be able to better understand many of the things you may have been going through. It will also help you to move out of overwhelm and reclaim your inner peace.
PTSD is characterized by frequent anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, social avoidance and high sensitivity to stimuli. These unpleasant experiences can be triggered by things that seem harmless and innocent to most people, such as social mixers, movies, bright light, minor relationship challenges and unexpected noises. These experiences could bring up past traumatic experiences so intensely that the person re-lives them. Such experiences are called “triggers”.
PTSD is now affecting millions of people in every walk of life, not just veterans returning from war.
The two levels of PTSD
Our Brain on Trauma
Our brains have evolved to help us thrive and survive. They are designed to protect us and keep us safe. When working properly our brains can be very efficient at helping mobilize our bodies to immediately respond to threats and danger, and then chill out and relax once it gets the all clear signal.
Unfortunately for people who have been through a lot of trauma there can be major software bugs in their brains. These are actual changes in the neurological wiring of the brain that makes it incapable of differentiating between a real threat and many harmless experiences. After being triggered into a stress response it is also much harder for them to go back to the calm “all clear” brain state than normal people.
This has created the agony of PTSD for many war veterans, and also for people who have been through traumatic childhood or adult experiences. PTSD is called post-traumatic stress disorder because it creates traumatic feelings and hyper-arousal that continue long after there is any reason for it.
The part of the brain most closely associated with PTSD is the amygdala, nut shaped structures in the limbic midbrain. The amygdala creates associations between common experiences of life and past hurts and fears. It does this in an attempt to protect us from encountering those same hurts again.
This is useful to an extent - it is good to remember that touching that hot plate causes an “owie” in your fingers, or that ignoring red flags and dating creepy guys usually ends up badly.
When the amygdala part of the brain is activated by a triggering experience it prepares the body to respond to danger. It does this by sending a distress signal to the nearby part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the major command and control center of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the body’s stress response system.
The ANS is divided into two sections - sympathetic nervous system, which activates the body for action, and parasympathetic, which relaxes the body and quiets it down. Once the hypothalamus swings into action it instantly gets the body ready to fight or flee through turning on these sympathetic responses:
- Heartbeat speeds up and blood pressure increases
- Breathing deepens
- Large amounts of glucose (sugar) is released from storage in fat to increase available energy
- The adrenal glands go on high alert and start dumping adrenaline into the bloodstream for “fight or flight” response
- Sight and hearing become more acute
- Digestion is put on hold and the immune system is shut down to free up as much energy as possible for fighting or fleeing
EAs you can see these are highly appropriate responses if you are running away from a saber toothed tiger. They put our body in top shape for dealing with emergencies. The vulnerability of the system is that the amygdala can go on overdrive and cause us to stay jacked up on fear even when there is no actual threat facing us. So it is appropriate to get riled up if a real car is swerving toward you at 70 mph. But it is not helpful if you get tense and anxious any time you are driving.
This is the dilemma and tragedy of PTSD. The amygdala of the brain gets programmed to create inappropriate associations of danger and emergency to harmless experiences of everyday life. This wires our body to be in a sympathetic stress response some or most of the time. Staying in sympathetic stress mode can be devastating to the body and is associated with these health issues:
- Heart Disease
- Immune deficiency
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic anxiety and/or depression, phobias
- All kinds of digestive disorders
- Chronic Pain
- Urge to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs
- Over-active mind, making it hard to be in your calm center and be happy
Sadly, our modern society is full of triggers that stimulate our stress systems much of the time, and that is why I am calling this article We Are All PTSD.
A barrage of challenging experiences is overloading our circuits and triggering our brains into some of the same experiences veterans of actual war are going through. With this common kind of PTSD it can be very frustrating trying to heal yourself because of the way the brain is wired. It seems that the more you try to get rid of old pain the more entrenched it gets.
Servicing the devastation caused by chronic stress is extremely profitable to the medical, media and pharmaceutical industries. Not surprisingly, pharmaceuticals are the most profitable major industry in the USA, leading all others with a 30% profit margin. Here are some details.
The Media and PTSD
Do you wonder why I say that the media industry profits from PTSD? If you want to see this for yourself go to your local multiplex movie theatre and watch some of the action films being produced these days. It seems that most originality, heart and consciousness has been removed from the majority of these movies. Those have been replaced by a predictable formulaic blend of long fight scenes with loud gunfire and explosions that go on and on, dizzyingly fast moving action sequences that are totally divorced from reality, special effects that overload the brain and a clear conflict of “us versus them” between the good guys and the bad guys. Yes, the people who innovate those special effects are remarkable wizards, but they are often using this visual magic for negative purposes.
Most of this soul-numbing overload is targeted to the teenage or pre-teen brain.
The media consumed by older people is not much better. Most adults watch daily TV news programs and violent TV series. Similar to the bread and circuses provided by ancient Roman emperors to keep the public entertained and appeased, these programs fascinate the dark side of our minds and over-stimulate us. Why is this so harmful?
Watching the TV news and violent, negative programming puts you at the mercy of three influences that can increase PTSD-like feelings. They are:
- Hearing about overwhelmingly negative news from all over the planet or fear-inducing images that you are helpless to change, day after day. This tends to create passivity and apathy, the antithesis of being an active part of the solution
- By continuously presenting an “us against them” picture of the world, this programming and “news” activates the reptilian, fear-based lower parts of our brain and tends to shut down the higher consciousness centers
- The flickering light patterns of TV screens that activate stress-producing parts of our brains and nervous systems
The bigger the TV screen is, the more damaging these are!
Pharmaceutical companies and PTSD
Want to know why the pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable one in the world? According to the Centers for Disease Control 48.7% of all Americans use at least one prescription drug. Drug companies spend 19 times more on marketing and lobbying politicians than they do on research and development.
Mind-altering drugs are now routinely prescribed by doctors for a vast host of human experiences that people in the past just lived with, or received support for from people around them. Drugs are prescribed for aggressive children, smoking, bedwetting, alleged eating disorders, learning challenges, and criminal behavior, to name a few.
From 1996 to 2005 the drug industry increased their marketing of these drugs between 300 – 500%. It is much more profitable for physicians to prescribe antidepressant drugs than to offer psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, EMDR, acupuncture or other alternative methods of treatment that have been shown to be more effective in the long run.
Increasing numbers of research studies are showing that antidepressants are not much more effective than placebo pills (pills with no medical effects). A retrospective analysis of all FDA clinical trials for four antidepressant drugs found that they didn’t perform significantly better than placebos in treating mild or moderate depression, and the benefits of the drugs were “relatively small even for severely depressed patients”.
Not only are these drugs less effective than touted by those who sell them, they are also proven to increase suicide and violent behavior in many people taking them. Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of Prozac did a retrospective study of people in Germany taking Prozac who had committed suicide. The study showed that people taking this drug were six times more likely to kill themselves than people taking placebos or older antidepressant drugs. According to investigator Peter Breggin, M.D., Eli Lilly hid these findings from the German agency and the US FDA.
How to opt out of the stress-based culture
Trying to “opt out” of the stress-based system has been very difficult up to now. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that we are inundated with experiences and messages that tend to reinforce and increase stress.
The other reason is that most healing systems used to try to heal PTSD are created by the human mind. Trying to use the mind to heal the mind rarely works. This often has the effect of making the stress programs even more resistant! Kind of like using fire to fight fire, as the old expression goes.
I’ll tell you right now about one of the fastest and easiest ways to free yourself from negative programing and be in your calm center - turn off your TV! At least avoid TV news programs like the plague.
Remember the basic principle of computers – Garbage In, Garbage Out. The mind works that way too. That which you take in determines a lot about the quality of your experience. Listen to uplifting, high vibrational music. Get out in nature and take in the beauty through all your senses as often as possible. Choose to spend time with people who love you and support your happiness and awakening. You may have already eliminated or reduced harmful items in your diet such as sugar, gluten, artificial foods and harmful chemicals. Make sure you also do that with your mental diet. This is a top way to reduce PTSD.
A major principle of consciousness is that what you focus on expands. This is based on how the brain works. It is our sacred responsibility to focus our attention on sights, sounds and experiences that are uplifting, beautiful and life-affirming as much as we possibly can. This does not mean hiding from the world in a never never land. Even if you are in the thick of a challenging work assignment or serving in a refugee camp you can behold beauty and upliftment if you see that loving hearts are at work producing a solution.
One of the deeper teachings of Buddhism is that what we call the “world” is really a projection of our minds. What this means to me is: change your mind – change your world. The best way to help restore freedom, fairness and harmony to your world is to free yourself internally, then share your love and truth with as many other people as possible.
Know that freeing yourself from the epidemic of PTSD reclaiming your pure center is not just for you. It is a courageous spiritual and political act that touches and helps free all humanity.
“You tell me it’s the institution, well you know, you better free your mind instead” John Lennon,