We have all seen and heard about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some form or another. Whether it’s through the depictions of war heroes in Hollywood movies or personal experiences with family members or friends who have served in the military. You may have even seen PTSD manifested by a close friend or relative that survived a car crash, experienced a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake, was in an abusive and violent relationship, or witnessed a mugging occur on the streets of their neighbourhood. The problem is however, the majority of people within society associate an individual with PTSD to be highly unstable, violent and psychotic. This, however, is far from the truth and unfortunately leaves genuine PTSD sufferers feeling and being ostracized, rejected, stigmatised, unloved, unwanted, unneeded, feared and isolated from their friends, families and communities.
Whilst it is true that violence and/or aggressive outbursts can occur in some cases of those diagnosed with PTSD, it usually only occurs in direct response to the individual experiencing a flashback or an emotional, environmental, auditory, tactile, olfactory, visual or vocal trigger which transports them, cognitively, to the time and place of the traumatising event. In a very real sense the individual, at the time of a flashback or trigger, is re-living the traumatic event as it originally occurred. The sights, sounds, smells, thoughts and emotions are all experienced just as they occurred the first time. Think of a flashback or a trigger as being a mix between a virtual reality headset and being automatically and involuntarily transported directly into your worst dream or nightmare. The dreamer experiences their dream not as a dream but as reality and they can experience a range of sensations, thoughts and emotions. For virtual reality headsets, the aim is to project to the viewer a scene, such as a rollercoaster for example, which appears to the viewer to be real and authentic. The viewer, although they are personally experiencing a different reality, still exist in the same reality as those around them.
The difference is however, with a PTSD flashback, the flashback is projected onto, and integrated into, current reality not a dreamscape or a virtual landscape. What I mean by this is, if an individual is experiencing a flashback, which was perhaps triggered by hearing a car backfiring for example (which is a credible trigger for a war veteran) then the individual perceives their surroundings not as it truly is in reality (i.e., a neighbourhood street, inside a shopping mall) but as it was a the time of the traumatic event (i.e., in the jungle or the desert fighting enemy soldiers). The traumatic memory and experiences superimpose themselves onto reality. The noise of the backfiring car becomes the noise of a gun firing. The husband or wife standing in front of the PTSD individual in reality becomes the enemy combatant standing in front of them in a flashback.
I am sure some of you have seen the videos of people using virtual reality headsets where, from the outside perspective, they seem to be reacting to ‘imaginary’ events which only they can see. This is how PTSD flashbacks are perceived by outsiders. Outsiders of the flashback fail to see, experience and understand why the individual experiencing the flashback is responding to reality in the way that they are. The truth is, they are responding to their reality, as dictated by their flashback, not ours.
Therefore, there is no point in trying to impose or enforce a solution from our reality onto them, say for example trying to take a hold of them against their will to stop them acting ‘crazy’, which may be perceived as an enemy combatant capturing them, and instead remain calm, patient, soothing and non-imposing and asking the flashback individual how you can be of help. So long as they are not harming themselves, you or others, then offer reassurance, love, comfort and support. Don’t judge them. Don’t ridicule them. Don’t walk away from them in shame or embarrassment. Instead, once they have calmed down and returned to ‘our’ reality, ask them about their experience. What they felt, seen and heard. Try to understand them so that you can assist them in the future but also respect their wishes not to talk about it if they don’t want to. Give them your unconditional love and support. With the right help and support, they can learn to overcome their traumatic flashbacks and hopefully find a sense of internal balance and happiness.