Being in the middle of a PTSD flare-up can be a bit like being in a pit full of snakes, sometimes. You will be trucking along OK, and then suddenly life pulls the rug out from under you. A rug you didn’t even realise you were standing on. And then you find yourself down in a pit. A pit filled with snakes, which EVERYONE seems to be throwing more snakes into! And at this moment in time, you will find yourself terrified of snakes. (Work with me here, I’m building a metaphor).
Not all of the snakes in the pit are poisonous, of course, but your system is in full-on alert, and will register every single one of them as a threat anyway. In the midst of an anxiety attack, you have very little access to your cognitive reasoning. It’s like your Operating System shuts everything down except the Survival programme. A big red sign of alarm, flashing “ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!!”.
How the hell did we even get into this pit? And why the hell does everyone seem to be throwing snakes in at you? More on that later. The only thing that you know for sure? You suddenly don’t feel safe. In fact you feel very UNSAFE. And you don’t even really know why.
You probably also feel hurt or betrayed by someone (and if you don’t yet, you soon will. PTSD/anxiety has a tendency to distort all incoming information). And did I mention that you don’t feel safe? And you can’t seem to trust anyone? Not even your own thoughts and feelings? And your thoughts will be rapid-fire and damning and your feelings will be BIG.
This survival programme is not concerned with figuring out how real the threat is. And it won’t allow you access to the resources that could help you discern such things. It was flipped on because your system feels unsafe, and it’s all about getting you the hell out of Dodge! You get tipped unceremoniously into Fight or Flight. Or if they don’t seem likely to work for you – into Freeze! (there are two more that I recently found out about – tend and befriend or dissociate – but I don’t feel I understand these strategies quite well enough to talk about them just yet.)
And if you actually WERE in a pit full of snakes, all of this would be quite understandable. And probably even helpful.
The problem here, is when the trigger is not a big, recognisable threat, but something relatively minor. Most likely the last thing in a chain of several relatively minor things, which may have been building for months. You see, people with PTSD-type things going on, are living with a dysregulated nervous system. All the time. Their systems are a little glitchy. They will have days where they have to draw on their coping resources like a m*ther-f*cker in order to compensate for how fragile they feel inside. This stretches everything pretty thin. Glitchy nervous system + stretched thin = likely to snap like a rubber band.
In this space, that relatively minor event or comment – can feel like a sucker-punch!
You were probably juggling three or four (maybe as many as 6) unusual stressors, and managing super well. You probably didn’t even notice that you were in the danger zone, because this is what you do. You cope superbly. But then stressor #7, sends everything toppling down like a giant game of Jenga that you forgot that you were playing. Sucker punch!
On its own, maybe the thing wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But it’s the cumulative effect on an already overloaded system that brings the curtain down. With this, the lens through which you see the world distorts. Micro-aggressions that normally wouldn’t even register, suddenly feel like physical blows. Words can feel like knives in the back. And they seem to be everywhere! And part of you KNOWS that it’s very likely nobody else is going to get why you are so upset. You probably even suspect that you are being overly sensitive. You will quite likely cycle through some fairly harsh appraisals of your own level of self-absorbedness. You may feel anger, hurt, sadness betrayal or fear in this state. One thing’s for sure – the feelings are BIG. And you can’t seem to find your way out of them.
A triggering incident is in itself, often only damaging because it connects us back to past trauma. It is not unusual for these triggers to be vastly out of balance with the massive response they evoke. It’s about how our human systems catalogue things and our need to assign meaning to everything. So many different kinds of stimuli get wired into our experiences of trauma – light, smells, surroundings, people, emotions, situations, memories, thoughts. When our systems become overloaded and are dangerously near their limits we lose our ability to access our full range of resources. If our system perceives enough of these stimuli to approximate a pattern it recognises, then it fills in the blanks and dumps us straight back in the past. “This is happening again,” it insists.
Studies using MRI to track which parts of the brain light up in response to certain stimuli; show that in a triggered state, it is impossible to tell the difference between a friendly face and a menacing one. Everything registers as a threat. We literally can’t tell friend from foe. It can feel like our friends or helpers are attacking us! The ones who are supposed to have our back appear to be against us. This is super confusing and further dysregulates the nervous system. Being in this reactivated phase of PTSD is not fun. For anyone. Especially when one has worked so hard to heal from it and move forward. But it is very important to understand that during this phase, the person has been hijacked by their nervous system and is INCAPABLE of handling things better. The threats feel very real and it takes time to unravel what within this “real” is not also “true”. Furthermore, the effort of trying to explain all of the intricacies of the inner experience to those around them may well be beyond the resources of the person in a reactivated state. Patience and compassion needed all around on this one. It’s very rough terrain. And it’s almost impossible to navigate without some work to help regulate the nervous system again.
So why does it happen? Why do people get triggered back into an acute anxiety or PTSD state, years after the initial expression has been overcome? My theory is that it’s a gift. Being triggered back into our biggest wounds, opens us up to the journey through them. We are able to reconnect to all of the scattered pieces and rebuild with intention. This time around with the benefit of all of the insights and resources we have gathered in the intervening years. This time with support structures that we have gathered around us. This time with the courage born of experience – we can do things differently and carefully write new programmes to follow in times of stress. We can assign new meaning to what has gone before, and also realise that it needs have no bearing on what is happening now or is to come in the future. It will take a little while to reconnect with our higher function. But eventually, we will be able to override our survival programming and resume command of the vessel.
Perhaps if you have a trauma, anxiety or PTSD history you could develop some short-hand or code (like a safe word) for these times. Because sometimes they happen. The past comes back to claim us in various moments and will distort our lenses on reality. I recently learned from a TV show that the Viceroy butterfly looks nearly identical to the Monarch. Unable to tell which of them is toxic, predators tend to avoid both of them. In times where we are unable to discern friend from foe, we will often do likewise. After watching this program, I had this realisation and admitted to my partner that I was having trouble telling my Viceroys from my Monarchs. It was enough for him to understand and to help me begin navigating forward from this point.
In the meantime, realise that there is probably some wisdom in withdrawing until you’re more sure of who’s who. Because the distress being caused is real, even if the perception of what is happening is not. And repeatedly thrusting your arm into a fire is probably not the best way to get your burns to heal.
- Photo by Ck Lacandazo from Pexels.