Do you know someone who always seems to be in crisis? His car breaks down on a major highway. She trips on the steps and breaks
an arm. His wallet, keys, or phone is stolen. Her car or house is broken into. These types of events – or worse – seem to be happening all the time; this person experiences one disaster after another. Why?
A person’s attraction to catastrophe may be the result of past traumatic experiences. There are several reasons for this, including his or her
- access to higher level thinking,
- ability to regulate emotions,
- sense of future, and
- nervous system state.
The Impact of Trauma
Let’s first take a brief look at what trauma does to the human nervous system (for a more in-depth discussion, see Where Are You on the Trauma Map?). When we are faced with a situation that we perceive is threatening to our lives or bodily integrity, our autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks in to save us. The ANS causes the release of a flood of neurochemicals that, in turn, redirect the body’s activities to those that are most urgent, shutting down ancillary systems such as digestion and higher level thinking. Once the danger has passed, our systems typically go back to normal. When the danger doesn’t pass (we are repeatedly traumatized) or the experience is so outside of our worldview that we are unable to make sense of it, our systems don’t reset. This results in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Tyranny of PTSD Symptoms
It is the symptoms of PTSD that can draw people, unwittingly, to danger. The four factors listed above are strongly impacted by PTSD. Although people with PTSD experience many more symptoms than these, they are key to understanding why some of us tend to be more catastrophe-prone than others. Let’s examine each of them.
1. Access to Higher-Level Thinking
When confronted with a life-threatening situation, our basic instincts (operated by the ANS) immediately take charge. The activation of these processes does not involve conscious thought; rather, the more primitive parts of our brain wrest control from our higher-level thinking centers, enabling us to instanteously fight, flee, or freeze in reponse to the threat. The ANS of a person with PTSD does not recognize that the threat no longer exists and reacts to harmless reminders of the earlier trauma (triggers) as if they were dangerous. Whenever the threat response system is active, he or she will not have access to higher-level thinking.
For example, when Tom was a child, his father frequently came home in a drunken rage and beat him. Because this trauma was repeated and hasn’t yet been resolved, Tom now has PTSD. Whenever he hears a door open, his ANS is activated as if the trauma were about to occur. Tom is not consciously activating his ANS; it is operating behind the scenes. When this happens, he experiences high anxiety, feelings of anger and fear, and foggy thinking because he doesn’t have access to the cognitive processing part of his brain. It is likely that Tom spends much of his time in this state and, therefore, frequently is unable to make good decisions. He drinks too much, gambles beyond his means, and has difficulty holding down a job. His relationships last only a few months before his partners move on.
2. Ability to Regulate Emotions
When someone suffers from PTSD, fear and dread are often constant companions, leftovers from past traumatic experience. Over time, these emotions manifest as anxiety and depression, which tend to heighten or blunt other emotions. For instance, if Debbie is always anxious, a small slight by a friend may feel like a deep wound. Or, if Sam is depressed, he may be unable to experience happiness or joy. Also, certain situations may trigger buried emotions that suddenly explode way out of proportion to the situation.
For instance, during his tour of duty in Afghanistan, Ivan endured periods of relentless small arms fire and numerous roadside bombs. Now back home, he is experiencing severe PTSD symptoms, including sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. When his neighbor honks his car horn early one morning, Ivan tears across the yard in a blind fury threatening to kill the man. The sudden loud noise triggered Ivan’s combat trauma and he responded as if he were back in the war zone, not in a suburban neighborhood. If this happens again, his neighbor likely will call the police, which could mark the beginning of life-long entrapment in the criminal justice system.
3. Sense of Future
When people develop PTSD, they commonly experience a foreshortened sense of future. This means that, while most of us are able to consider long-term plans, they are unable to imagine a distant future and instead can only focus on the past and immediate future. As a consequence, they often make decisions that don’t take the longer term into account.
For instance, Jeremy’s parents died when he was five and he was taken in by his paternal aunt, who, although well-intentioned, was childless and clueless about child-rearing. Jake was traumatized by his parents’ deaths and then emotionally neglected. As an adult, it is hard for him to think more than a few days in advance. As a result, he is often in financial straits because he spends any money he has. The concept of “saving for a rainy day” – or even budgeting – is foreign to him. He doesn’t concern himself with insurance, retirement planning, or preventive healthcare. Due to his precarious finances, Jeremy is at risk for losing his housing and becoming homeless.
4. Nervous System State
Trauma researchers have identified a continuum that includes five states of traumatic experience, 0-4, where 0 is a state of calm and 4 is a state of traumatic dissociation in which we feel numb and detached (see Where Are You on the Trauma Map? for a complete description). Unresolved traumatic experiences remain in our bodies at a particular place along this continuum, depending on how severely we were traumatized and whether there has been any resolution. When our bodies spend a great deal of time in an ANS-activated state (1-4), even though these states may feel uncomfortable, they grow to feel familiar. As a consequence, we are unconsciously attracted to situations that bring on these states.
For example, Marjorie was verbally abused by her stepfather when she was a child. Now she is in an abusive relationship with her partner. Although she doesn’t want to be treated this way, she feels uncomfortable with men who treat her well because she tells herself they aren’t “man enough” to stand up to her. Her nervous system is accustomed to being under fire, so she unconsciously creates situations in which it will be.
A Slippery Slope
It’s easy to see how PTSD symptoms and accompanying behaviors can lead to catastrophic living, particularly since those identified here, and many others, typically exist simultaneously. When people are unable to access their higher-level thinking ability, regulate their emotions, and imagine the future – while being drawn to situations that activate the ANS’ fight/flight/freeze response – they find themselves at the center of one disaster after another. There is also a cumulative effect as trauma piles on top of trauma. This can be overwhelmingly frightening, as it feels like the world is a very unsafe place over which the PTSD sufferer has no control. And, although we can make sense of the situation in research labs and the therapy office, the person who is experiencing constant crisis usually has no insight as to why any of it is happening.
Escaping from Constant Catastrophe
So how does someone with PTSD escape this destructive cycle? The first step is to identify these symptoms and recognize that their presence may indicate a PTSD diagnosis. Then seek out a trauma specialist who can assess for PTSD and, if confirmed, treat it. Proper treatment addresses both symptoms and causes, after tools and skills are developed to establish a sense of safety.
If you or someone you know is living catastrophically, this doesn’t have to be a way of life. Help and healing towards a more peaceful existence are within reach.
Alexandria Hayes is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in the treatment of trauma. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-588-3639.