3 Steps to Process PTSD (and Come Back Fighting!)
The research and findings around trauma is fascinating.
Brutal as living with the consequences of PTSD can be, understanding the physical and neural processes at play has been a key part of learning to process, combat and conquer traumatic childhood beatings and near-death experiences for me.
In this piece, I am going to show you how to understand traumatic events, how to process them and then how to come out fighting free of resentment and making up for lost time.
My own personal ability to start facing my vicious inner demons and chronic fear came after getting sober when I had no excuse to use intoxicants to hide from my inner turmoil.
At this point, I had to challenge my internal victim narrative to stay sober, so my first condition of PTSD recovery was to have the guts to move out of the “I’ve been hurt by those that should protect me most” model of living.
It is natural that this isn’t easy, you’ve spent a lifetime lost in these thinking patterns, but living in an atmosphere of victimhood and fear of the past will only destroy you anyway so you may give it a go.
Further, it is not that there is anything wrong with a man being full of fear, there is only something wrong with a man lacking the courage to face that fear.
STEP 1: UNDERSTANDING WHAT PTSD IS
When it was first put to me I had PTSD I wanted to punch the psychologist in the face. I did not want to be that guy who uses painful experiences as a badge-of-honour; as a crutch for identity like a little bitch.
Looking back though, I was doing that. It may not have been vocalised, but it was an internal emotional process going on inside me in which I defined myself via pain.
As I began to look at the evidence – flinching in fear when someone entered a room unexpectedly, going into rage at the sound of someone chewing food audibly, getting an extreme fight or flight response in even minor confrontational situations – I could see how this mirrored my childhood experiences of panic-inducing violent attacks coming either at random, during meal times and in any conversation that had a disagreement.
As a child, I was pitched against an (oftentimes knife-wielding and psychotic) adult, so I could never win the fight on physical grounds. Further, it was me or my mother who would take the punishment, so I had to fight to protect her best I could.
In hindsight, the links to PTSD were clearly there, but so what? And what could I do about it now anyway?
I’m going to save you a lot of time by explaining to you first what PTSD is, as it was this knowledge that allowed me to move on to the key stage of processing it as I began to see myself as an evolved physical and emotional being. So what is PTSD?
In short, we as humans have an inbuilt mechanism to store information in times of extreme stimuli, and it is in this times we store vital memories to keep us safe in the future (as the plan goes).
When an extreme attack happens to us, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in hard and releases stress-based neurotransmitters which in turn activate the famous fight-or-flight (or freeze) response.
In our evolutionary history, the freeze response is an extremely widespread phenomenon that occurs when under attack – think of how a prey animal freezes when it fears a predator is nearby – it is in this frozen state that we record with clear precision the extreme experience to protect us in the future from attack.
This is the exact process we go through during a traumatic event. Further, this is why people state ‘time slowed down’ during a time of near-death experience.
And here’s the really important part: this brain reaction massively impacts the part of the brain we use to process fear – the amygdala. In fact, studies have shown that within continued extreme experiences, the amygdala actually grows bigger thereby increasing the likelihood of engaging the insane fear response you get when you perceive stress.
Yet, there’s still one more crucial element to grasp – not only does the amygdala grow after experiencing traumatic events, the hippocampus – the part of the brain that processes emotion and memory – actually shrinks!
So, in conclusion, what we are facing with PTSD is a learned and chronic fear response that is deeply hardwired within us to face potential future danger.
“Of course the problem is that the warning sign for danger has become the problem – we experience the slightest fear and the system lights up to panic stations! The heart races, the mind crumbles, the spirit contorts in hellish spirals. We perceive imminent brutal chaotic destruction”
Because of the overgrown amygdala, fear becomes a virtual constant, while the ‘hippocampal shrinkage’ leads your spectrum of emotions to descend beneath fear, as well as affect our capability to memorise the non-threatening elements of life.
STEP 2: PROCESSING THE TRAUMA
The world would be a better place if we could afford our brother a little time an attention to sit with him and let him express his pain. Yet many fear the intensity of helping another free his soul. As a man in recovery, it’s a goal for us to aim at, to be dependable and willing to grit it out. Yet with the reality of the world around us you have to work with what is available now.
Therapy is a great option and highly recommended. It is unwise to process heavy emotional experiences alone. You must be somewhere safe and with someone you feel comfortable with – someone who is not a family member, especially someone that was involved in your original trauma.
It is at this juncture I have to leave you to uncover what you must in the privacy of a therapy room – the person who goes in and the one who comes out will be different, and that can only be achieved alone. It is after all your personal quest.
What commonly happened in trauma therapy is a therapist will guide you through the reliving of your traumatic experiences as you recall the smells, sights, feelings and emotions of the time at hand.
The idea is for you to embody the you when you faced these intense experiences, relive them in the current, peaceful present and free your soul from the internal panic and pain.
It will be a potentially terrifying, scary and panic-inducing time, yet it will also be the most cathartic experience of your life.
Trauma is that which blocks the sunlight of the spirit from entering and by finding the courage to face it you will be rewarded with freedom.
“Truth has an immense power in our realm of being. The release of it after its subjugation under fear and pain for many years, even decades, is a life changing, fundamentally enlightening experience.”
In order to maximise the effect of the release of internal pain, as insane as this sounds, it is paramount to learn to forgive those that harmed you.
You may want to punch me in the face for saying such a thing, but consider it this way: forgiveness is about you, not the other person.
As a man seeking to grow into the strongest version of himself, you cannot afford to have internal hang-ups and the spectre of resentment haunting your social interactions as you strive to get the girl you want, fight for the job of your dreams or fulfil your spiritual destiny.
Therefore, forgiving is about no longer allowing any person who harmed you to have agency in your life.
It has been of great value to me to see my abuser’s actions as those of a deeply sick person – if you perceive evil as it truly is, there is no other way around it than it being sickness.
I’ve best-heard evil described by Dr Jordan Peterson as “the causing of suffering for no purpose but suffering itself” and if we impose that logic upon any abuser, we see that the person who was acting in an abusive way was acting from a place of illness.
To believe that human actions in general are evil and all that we desire is evil means you have taken a sharp malevolent turn and immediate therapy should be sought. It is an aftereffect trauma can bring on us, but one that needs to be rooted out lest you spread that internal pain.
“If we stay in our state of labelling humanity as purely evil, we will stay in self-pity and victimhood and create a ticking time bomb inside ourselves, it will be only a matter of time before we explode and act in the vein of evil we imagine to be everywhere.
One great way of practising forgiveness is to write a letter to your abuser, writing it in your non-dominant hand to emphasise the inner child within you. This letter is not meant to be sent, but is a way for you to free your internal feelings.
Dr Jeffrey Young and Dr Janet Klosko state in their book Reinventing Your Life that letters written from you now to your inner child are also highly effective, as they write of the necessity to challenge our internal ‘lifetraps’.
Once you have composed these letters, burn them. Watch the disintegrating memories within your mind.
STEP 3: FIGHTING BACK
A major part of my problem with the therapy industry and the emphasis on ‘compassion’ is that it only tackles half of the issues that we face.
Similarly, I see the same problem with the male self-development community with its emphasis on shutting–up and grinding down.
In my experience in dealing with trauma, these methodologies need to be used together in order to heal and grow you as a man.
Firstly, compassion and patience are required in order to reach your deepest depths and pull your soul out from the wreckage of past experiences. There’s no doubt about that. It is a long process, but certainly not a process that should last forever. Nor one we should fear as un-masculine. Showing vulnerability to a healer is the sign of the man who dares to grow.
Once the deepest issues have been exercised and you have reacquainted yourself with your soul, you’ve been reborn and granted life. It is not time to wallow in victimhood. For once a deep personal issue has been faced down, to seek to play on it still is then only to pull sympathy from the world. It is a way of stunting your growth, not evolving as a conscious being.
This soppy behaviour will catch you up.
The reason that this will catch you up is because there is more to life than simply compassion. Carl Jung explored this via the framework of biblical myth in its articulation of mercy and justice as composite opposites.
The theory so goes that mercy (compassion) and justice symbolise the divine binaries of life, the great Mother and Father, and that the optimal mode of being is positioned between these two.
Therefore in the context of trauma recovery, we need the virtue of compassion to mother us back to health, and once that is achieved, the great father of justice to drive us back into the world with a sense of righteousness of being.
But how can this justice be lived in the context of post-trauma?
It is in its essence the opposite of what one does when you live tormented by trauma.
In that state you are pained, paranoid, and bursting with panic. This toxic combination leads you to a place of resentment that in turn traps you in a state of carelessness of how you act in the world which has been explored above.
So, following this, the state of being which is conducive to the strongest version of you is the one of gratitude, discipline and meaning.
By following these virtues it respects the memory of the event you suffered.
Gratitude states that you are free.
Discipline states a moral code of behaviour that you follow and know why on the deepest of levels.
Meaning stems from living by a philosophy of respect for your fellow humans and a willingness to help he who still struggles.
If you follow this path you are ready to fight, you are even stronger than you were before.
You have gained valuable war-wound experience, having taken a life-threatening blow, and learnt who you are, how life works and how you need to act within it for maximum harmony and force of being.