What Everyone could know about... Post-Traumatic Stress Response
(formerly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but now the science of labelling is admitting that it ain't no disorder, it's the norm, within its own terms...)
A single life-threatening incident.
Cumulative damage of many life-threatening or merely stressful incidents.
Having closely observed a life threatening incident.
During a life-threatening incident, the amygdala takes over from the frontal, cognitive parts of the human brain. The amygdala is a small part of our brains, but the organ makes up a bigger percentage of the brains of other mammals, birds and reptiles*. When it is "in charge", usual cognitive processes are suspended, and the human being has just three choices; attack, run away or freeze.
The rest of the brain takes a detailed snapshot of the incident to process later, but for the time being the amygdala overrides "thinking" to save the body. Body-wide, normal maintenance (of the immune and digestive system, etc) is suspended, with adrenalin quickly generated to fuel one of those limited options - attack, run away or freeze.
If the person receives time, care, empathy and safety soon after the incident, in which to process and accept what just happened, then the chances of developing PTSR are dramatically reduced. Sometimes people talk about "The Golden Hour"; if you can rest, talk, cry and feel safe and connected within an hour of the incident, then you will probably avoid long-lasting development of PTSR.
If the human does not feel safe for a long time afterwards, the brain's most common coping technique is to compartmentalise, or bury all recollection of the incident.
If you get ill shortly after the trigger incident, you might not recover your health for months or even years afterwards. This effect is tied in to the amygdala control, as mentioned above: normal healing and immune processes were suspended during the trauma.
Maybe many incidents pile up, and there is no time/safety to "process" or "deal with" them. The effect of this, is that the brain creates many compartments in the brain, each holding a different traumatic snapshot. If we don't process these snapshots (talk through them, accept them... see CURES on the back), or only process them in a self-blaming, cyclical, unresolvable way, then complete PTSR is a possible outcome. Many sufferers describe this as their world-view becoming shattered, and their thinking fraught. Trusting other people gets harder, and stress levels rise.
Sleep-disorders: sleeping too much, not sleeping, or suffering bad dreams.
Flashbacks: Similar sounds, images etc trigger the intensity (of the original "incidents") to return, and the amygdala can take over again.
Hyper Arousal: Small shocks, frights or even discomforts cause a disproportionate response. The classic example is an ex-soldier diving for cover when a car back-fires on civvy street. More common amongst activists is a disproportionate stress response to helicopters, radio fuzz or samba drumming.
Angry Outbursts: Another disproportionate response, particularly sad as we can alienate the people who might be around us trying to help us recover. There are other symptoms listed in the Activist Trauma Support leaflets and website.
It is hard work supporting someone with these symptoms. Those trying, will need a lot of support themselves (cakes, being taken out on trips, visits, phone-calls, other expressions of care and offers of empathy). Supporting the supporters is sometimes easier than supporting the sufferers direct, but as important.
Without people to trust, or having alienated friends through the symptoms, sufferers of PTSR often shut themselves away, and feel profoundly isolated and lonely, when what they need to recover is to feel connected and loved.
Because it is "socially unacceptable" or awkward to be bursting into tears or having angry outbursts, many PTSR sufferers isolate themselves or self-medicate with alcohol or marijuana, which can lead to further problems and often puts off the curative processing of the "incidents" in the compartmentalised brain.
Speaking about the incidents to a good listener is essential for many people recovering from PTSR. Processing out-loud and hearing yourself as you are heard by others gives the brain access to healing, growth and recovery that many people cannot utilise alone.
Listeners should take care not to flip into their own story-telling mode, or finish sentences for the speaker, or offer solutions unless explicitly asked. We are more likely to take action that we think of for ourselves than to take the advice of others! Comparing ourselves and our reactions with other people who were “in the same situation”can be really unhelpful in recovering from trauma or PTSR. Understanding that every brain has an amygdala, and that this is what it is for, can help people come to terms with the fact of their retreat, attack or freeze-up in the face of danger. Being "disappointed in ourselves" for displaying one reaction, when we believe we "should" have shown another, is shown to be unreasonable reasoning.
Through understanding this process, learning to actively listen, and changing the norms of stress and machismo we can all help each other avoid and recover from PTSR, helping to create a more mutually supportive and sustainable culture.
For more information, to organise a talk within your own community or to share advice and experiences, get in touch via www.activist-trauma.net
A Cultural Shift
I'd like more people recognising that everyone is vulnerable sometimes, and that we should not neglect each other or ourselves for “greater goals”. Also, we don't need “experts” to sort us out – we can become more skilled in looking after each other while we increase our sphere of influence though mutual aid.
This can be a radical acceptance within hierarchical, do-do-do, urgent action culture
This leaflet was inspired by my own experience in UK direct action, neuro-science research and the work of Activist Trauma Support and Seeds for Change.
Though this leaflet was written with an activist readership in mind, NHS statistics find that in the UK, most cases of PTSR are related to rape or military service. My own experience is only informed by PTSR arising from police brutality, and other state-sponsored stress mechanisms.
*The amygdala (sometimes spelt amigdula or amigdala) is often called "The Reptile Brain", as it's the oldest piece of the brain, evolutionarily; we share it with reptiles. This fact may be the basis for the widespread conspiracy theories (eg, David Icke), that exclaim "Oh No! Humans are being ruled by Reptiles!" A human being living in fear and stress does demonstrate the reduced options of a "more primitive", "core" or reptile brain. When the amygdala is in charge, our bodies have simple, self-preservation/domination prerogatives. The emphasis or even possibility of objective observation, trusting interaction,creative and speculative thought, growth, compassion or healing is temporarily lost.