When a person experiences something that is traumatic and overwhelming, the brain is placed in a difficult situation. It is designed to protect the owner. Sometimes it causes a person to faint, to not face the “unfaceable”. Sometimes it does not encode the memory, so it does not get stored in memory. Sometimes it shunts off the sensory input that comes in during the event, unprocessed, to a part of the brain without processing all that the event could be or mean. If this traumatic event is shunted off and not processed, it is still lingering, or incubating, encased, in a section of the brain. One of the problems with that is that when something happens later that triggers a memory of the event, it is like the case is cracked open and a person can experience a flashback, feeling like the original event is happening all over again with all the fear and helplessness flooding back. This in itself is scary, that we are pulled back to an old event and lose our grip on “reality”. This type of traumatized condition used to be called things like shell shock. It was first clearly understood, outlined, and defined after the Vietnam war. Since then, various treatments have been developed to heal PTSD, which are more effective than the old, general talking cure relied upon over two decades ago.
Some of the signs or symptoms are: changes in emotions after the event, sometimes a numbing, attempts to avoid any reminders of the event, exaggerated startle response, nightmares, more anxiety than usual, and intense reactions when something reminds us of the event.
We have had good outcomes/effectiveness using approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and EMDR to treat PTSD. In some cases, other techniques can be helpful, too – like art, Mindfulness, and biofeedback – to deal with certain aspects of PTSD.
The good news, the best news, is that PTSD does not have to a be a life long condition; it is treatable.