Why PTSD matters

By now most people have probably at least heard of the psychological disorder called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It’s been around and known by that name since at least the 1970’s as a psychiatric diagnosis, stemming from a syndrome of symptoms first evidenced by soldiers returning from America’s Vietnam War.

As you may already know, this Disorder of the brain can cause such human experiences as nightmares or sleep terrors, flashbacks while awake where our human senses deceive our brains into thinking past traumatic events are happening right now, high levels of stress in our bodies as associated with fight or flight behaviors, and more extreme moods such as found in human anxiety and depression. Picking up just on the words, “high levels of stress,” we know that anytime we humans fear we may be killed by any present event in our lives, fearing for our own lives, we are highly traumatized. And such traumatic stress affects our human brains, which then affect all other human organs internally all the way to our largest of all organs, our exterior skin.

You may also know that conditions in the brain affecting our central nervous system and beyond do have a profound effect in our human behavior, causing us to do things we would not otherwise do and things that are highly inappropriate at the time.

I once had a counseling client who, as a Vietnam veteran, would suffer panic attacks while walking outdoors on a sunny day. He could walk out into the darkness but never into actual daylight, which then caused him to become a prisoner in his own home each day. Why? Because while walking down a sunlit street one day in Saigon many years ago, his friend at his side, a sniper fired and killed the friend, essentially blowing his head off. No warning. Just a sudden, unexpected popping sound from out of nowhere, and an unforgettable sight of his friend’s immediate death. While walking innocently down a quiet street beneath a sunny sky. So for the next twenty some years, this man could not help but have his heart start pounding wildly out of control inside his own body each time he stepped into any sunlight.    To control his own heart-rate and ability to catch his breath, he stayed inside the house every day with all window shades closed.

Oh, the things the rest of us take for granted.

Imagine yourself driving a car. Your right foot is placed on the gas pedal and you are cruising along at about the speed limit. Suddenly, without even moving your right foot, the car’s own throttle accelerates on its own. Speed increases by 10 mph, then 20, then 30, then 40, and as you near 100 mph driving in traffic, you find your brake is not working, not even your emergency brake, and you panic!!! Thoughts racing, heart pounding. You fear you are going to die!!! Yet, somehow you manage to survive as the car’s throttle seems to back off and the brakes again begin to work and you come to an eventual safe stop.

Question: do you get back in that same car and drive it again? Do you take that chance? If not, welcome to the wonderful world of PTSD.

What you may not know is that PTSD can be both a primary and a secondary condition of the human brain.

Here’s what I mean. Primary PTSD is, using the above example, the driver of this out-of-control car racing down the road seemingly on its own. Secondary PTSD is anyone else who was a passenger in that same car, and even those who were in other cars being suddenly passed by this out-of-control car. Are you willing to ride with that driver again, or have him back on the road next to you again flying around you at 100 mph? If not, welcome to the wonderful world of secondary PTSD.

I wonder if we don’t have primary PTSD today among the police officers who have been shot at in the course of doing their jobs. We have primary PTSD today among African Americans who have suddenly, personally been stopped by police and handcuffed or worse without even knowing why. We have secondary PTSD among the police officers who’ve not been shot at but know or know of someone else who has been fatally shot, for wearing the same blue uniform. We have secondary PTSD among the African Americans who have not been stopped by police but know or know of someone else who has been stopped and even fatally shot, for having the same skin color. And amidst such nightmares, flashbacks, heart palpitations, anxiety, depression, avoidance or withdrawal, and more, we have a classic case of over-reactions waiting to happen next. Hypervigilance and suspicion has become perhaps epidemic in both of these traumatized communities. Both are stressed to the point of danger. And the rest of us are like passengers in the cars being passed by these out-of-control vehicles on our same highway. Waiting for the next wreck, the next scene of carnage ahead.

It would not surprise me as an old clinician if these days most people around our world of TMI do not fall somewhere along the very mild to very severe spectrum of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If so, it’s important to note that our new perception is our new reality. Whether we are safe or not is not an issue. Rather, if we perceive ourselves to be unsafe we will act in ways we would not normally act, think and feel in ways not always appropriate, vote in elections differently than before, over-react to social stimuli, all the while blaming someone else for our self-imposed loss of freedom. And, perhaps bottom line, we will then stress our bodies to a point where our overall health and wellness is threatened.

It would surprise me, however, if God would not have a solution for such problems we otherwise have, such burdens as we otherwise carry, in our lives. It would surprise me if God has not already created the anti-dote for our own human psycho-social toxins. And it would surprise me if this anti-dote is not love for neighbor as for ourselves.

Oh, we have our own human solutions to our own PTSD, I’m sure. To an extent, these represent what the biblical apostle once referred to noisy gongs and clanging symbols. We buy our own guns, move them closer to our own bedsides, beef up our national defense, profile our suspected terrorists, flip on Fox News to stay alert, and vote for authoritarian candidates running for power. We put our faith and our hope in all such solutions. They all seem to work. Only to find that God’s solution, indeed God’s anti-dote, is the only one that actually does work in the long run to calm our nerves and to steady our world.

So, in closing, simply hear these words as if spoken into your own mind today from within your soul, coming from God’s own whispered presence we often name the “Holy Spirit”:

“4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” — from I Corinthians 13 (NRSV).

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