PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is characterized by a host of symptoms that are entirely normal to develop — when someone has endured trauma. This leads us to needing to better define what qualifies as “trauma”. Since the concept of PTSD was first introduced to the American public during the Vietnam War of the 1960’s, most people associate the terms “PTSD” and “trauma” with the horrific experiences of warfare or with other life-threatening emergencies such as a car accident. Even when asked to relate PTSD or trauma with some form of abuse, most identify only the most overt forms of abuse like physical or sexual assault. But we know today that any set of circumstances which unduly taxes your nervous system can produce symptoms of PTSD, including both high levels of protracted stress as well as any situation that elicits a “fight or flight” instinctual response — and there are many occurrences that may not be perceived as “life or death for an adult, that will produce a “fight or flight” degree of fear within a child. So many individuals who may not initially consider themselves to be “trauma survivors” are surprised to find out that certain events which took place not only in their adulthood, but also in their childhood, will meet the clinical definition of “trauma”.
Childhood Roots of PTSD
Children are inherently powerless. This is not a weakness or a shortcoming. In fact, being dependent upon adult caregivers for not only basic physical provisions but also for comprehensive physical, emotional, and psychological security and support is the natural state of any child — this is supposed to be one of the wonderful, innocent aspects of enjoying childhood. But if any fundamental aspect of “physical, emotional or psychological security and support” is missing, this can be experienced by a young child as traumatic. Essentially, food on the table and a parent’s approval are equally needed by a child — so lacking either is an equally life and psyche threatening situation, for a child. This does not mean that parents must be perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect childhood, and children do not require either. However, if any of a child’s most foundational, developmental needs go entirely or predominantly missing — for instance, if they rarely or ever feel any consistency or predictability within the household, or if they are criticized regularly — then this can induce ongoing stress that presents as PTSD symptoms within adulthood and in adult relationships.
Trauma from Abuse
All forms of abuse can cause trauma — whether the abuse is overt or covert, flagrant or subtle, proactive or passive: 1. Physical Abuse 2. Sexual Abuse 3. Psychological Abuse 4. Verbal Abuse 5. Emotional Abuse 6. Spiritual Abuse 7. Financial Abuse 8. Neglect 9. Adult roles placed upon a child (companion, confidant, “care-taker”, etc.) 10.Adult responsibilities placed upon a child (child raising their siblings, etc.) 11.Unreasonable or “perfectionistic” expectations placed upon a child 12.Prolonged exposure to someone with a personality disorder (narcissism, BPD, etc.) 13.Prolonged exposure to someone who is emotionally avoidant or unavailable 14.Prolonged exposure to someone with substance or behavioral addiction(s) 15.Growing up in a household in which love or approval must be “earned” 16.Growing up in a household in which love or approval is “bartered” 17.Growing up in an otherwise dysfunctional family
Sometimes trauma can happen as a result of abuse, but there are many situational forms of trauma that are “nobody’s fault” — yet they still debilitate the nervous system to yield PTSD symptoms. We have provided explanations for some such situations that are often not understood, or even considered, as being forms of trauma: 1. Intergenerational Trauma Comprehensive, long-term studies of Holocaust survivors have shown that the offspring of trauma survivors can develop PTSD symptoms, even if they have not directly endured life-threatening events. This is because children can sense the PTSD symptoms of anxiety and depression within their parents — and this yields a lack of security within the child. 2. Discrimination and other forms of societal trauma Unfortunately, we still live in a society that is prone to determine worth by wealth or skin tone. We live in a society that tells boys that they should not cry. We live in a society that instructs women to derive their identity through transforming themselves into whatever image or behaviors are pleasing to others, rather than through becoming empowered within themselves. Just like unhealthy family conditioning, unhealthy societal conditioning can cause an ongoing, internal sense of insecurity and low self-esteem that translates into chronic stress and causes PTSD symptoms. 3. Poverty 4. Homelessness 5. Addiction in the household (substance or behavioral) 6. Divorce in the family 7. Death in the family 8. Any other circumstance that elicits a fight or flight response or protracted stress
More on Situational Trauma
We want to share a few examples of situational trauma with you, so that you can better understand how easily PTSD symptoms can occur. Humans are beautiful and fragile, so things that we might not classify as being damaging can actually impact us more than we realize. All of these examples are from clients, who have given us formal permission to share their stories with you: Example 1 A young boy went tree climbing with other boys in the neighborhood. Before he realized it, he had climbed much higher than he had intended up a very large pine tree. As he looked down, he felt terror. The fire department had to be called out to help him get down because his nervous system had reacted with a rapid heart beat, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, lightheadedness, and all of the other signs of shock. Years later, he came to ARCS seeking counseling for depression. Over time, he and his counselor came to realize that his depression was really a PTSD symptom — he had lived his life in utter isolation, avoiding even the healthy risk-taking involved in forming bonds and “living life”, all in an effort to prevent any potential for danger. Example 2 A middle aged man had struggled with crack cocaine addiction for many years. He was very affable, capable, dynamic and charismatic — but his relapse pattern was always the same. He would enter treatment and excel throughout that process, to the point that he soon became a bit of a “peer counselor” to all of his fellows. He would leave treatment and progress aptly through early 12-step recovery. He would restore both his family and his career (always in a managerial position, due to his intrinsic leadership qualities). Then, when everything was going great — he would relapse. In working with his ARCS counselor, they soon determined that he had no evidence of overt trauma in his family. But after acquainting him with the cycle of how addictions operate and more information about the effects of covert, situational trauma — he returned from a family Thanksgiving visit with a revelation! He realized that his family dynamic projected perfection, in all things. It was implicitly understood that everyone was to feel happy, at all times. So this seemingly “healthy” family structure left him no option to feel or express any fears, or sadness, or anger — it left him no room to be just “be a kid.” Although he would appear to most as gifted, well-adjusted and high-functioning — the weight (stress) of the conditioned mandate to maintain “perfection” would ultimately overwhelm him, and he would relapse as a means of giving himself permission to “fall apart” (or in this case, to be human). Example 3 One of our ARCS counselors was facilitating a workshop about trauma a few years ago, and she stated that the foremost developmental needs that any child has are for protection (safety) and nurturing (support). She went on to say that a substantial lacking in either of these foundational “building blocks” will result in PTSD symptoms. After the workshop, an attendee approached her in a somewhat defensive stance. “My parents did the best they could!”, he said. “They weren’t there, so my brother and I often felt scared and confused — but they weren’t there because we were very poor, and my parents had to work all the time to keep food on the table. My parents loved us!” The ARCS counselor validated and reassured him, “You’re absolutely right. It sounds like you parents loved you very much and provided for you wonderfully! They did everything right! If a parent has to choose between safety and nurturing, then safety is the right call. Sometimes, trauma is nobody’s fault — sometimes, it’s just situational. But it’s OK to acknowledge now, that that fear and confusion still left their mark. Your trauma patterns are no one’s fault, but healing from them is your responsibility. Only you can do it, and I’m sure your parents would cheer you on — in wanting you to be healthy and happy.”
Psychiatrists tend to work with lists of symptoms, and one must display a certain number of symptoms in order to receive a formal diagnosis — but hopefully, this article has made clear that many individuals who may not qualify for a formal diagnosis of PTSD still suffer from a substantial number of PTSD traits. Generally, anyone suffering from emotional, behavioral or relationship patterns that that they deeply wish to change — but that they nonetheless have great difficulty changing — has some PTSD traits. The roots of issues like codependency, low-self-esteem, depression, anxiety, toxic relationships and substance or behavioral addictions are most often found in some form of covert trauma. This is because those emotional, behavioral and relationship patterns have become embedded within your instinctive system in an effort to try to keep you safe — even though they are not actually serving you. PTSD is like an instinctual version of an allergy. Just like an allergy to peanuts might prompt anaphylactic shock, a trauma survivor’s instinctual drives are so programmed to avoid danger, that they over-react to current life situations — and this over-reaction can actually cause someone harm, impair their functioning, disrupt their relationships, or otherwise thwart their joy. Basically, PTSD is a case of the instincts’ protective efforts “backfiring”.
PTSD Treatment and Counseling
The way out of PTSD is to “rewire” the instinctual drives, so that your internal (emotional) and external (behavioral) “knee jerk” responses correlate with what is happening in your present day — rather than with whatever many have happened in your past. ARCS specializes in helping trauma survivors to realign your instincts, by providing a supportive online environment in which you can work with your counselor to fortify whatever developmental “gaps” you may have sustained — including garnering internal awareness, cultivating primal security, building self-esteem, and forging selfloyalty.