Exploring the Controversy: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder & Triggers

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after enduring a traumatic experience. Almost all individuals will have a traumatic experience at some point in their lifetimes, and 10% of them will develop PTSD (16% if the victim is eighteen or younger). Far from new, PTSD was formally recognized, named, and added to the DSM III in 1980. It had been understood to exist since WWI under the antiquated term “shell-shocked”.

Any event, either directly or vicariously experienced, which is threatening to life or integrity-of-self can be traumatic. Some examples of this would be: war, being injured in combat, a car crash, assault, sexual assault, mugging, natural disaster, robbery, severe illness or injury, intense drug experience, death or suicide of a friend or loved one, intense and prolonged stress, spiritual apostasy, or an existential crisis.

Unlike the antiquated notion that memories of traumas become repressed, those suffering from PTSD are constantly assailed by unwanted reoccurring thoughts of their trauma, and will often actively avoid anything associate with it. Additionally, benign things which a victim associates with their trauma can trigger not only memories and negative emotions, but also panic attacks — a sudden and acute form of crippling anxiety so intense that it is often mistaken for a heart attack.

Symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, depression, irritability, panic-attacks, flashbacks, agitation, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, nightmares, unwanted thoughts, emotional detachment, self-destructive behavior, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. These symptoms may come on immediately after the trauma, or may take days, weeks, or even months to develop. This delayed onset — as well as many other factors such as: little or no knowledge of PTSD; a misunderstanding of who can develop PTSD; little or no knowledge of psychiatric issues; fear of psychiatric treatment; stigmatization of psychiatric issues; guilt; shame over the trauma itself, especially in instances of sexual assault or abuse; fear of being seen as or thinking oneself as weak — all contribute to both a failure to identify PTSD by the victim and those around them, and in receiving treatment.

A lack of understanding of PTSD by the general public can lead to further stigmatization of the victim. Their seemingly unreasonable antisocial behavior and excessive sensitivity can lead to social ostracizing and victim blaming. This, especially when the victims themselves don’t understand what’s happening to them, can lead to intense distress and greatly worsen their condition. This can lead to more self-destructive behavior like dangerous drug abuse, self-harm, or even suicide.

The trivialization and mocking of triggers in popular culture has undoubtedly harmed and served to further isolated trauma victims, who are painted as sheltered and delicate individuals who want to curtail free-speech to protect themselves from ideas they don’t like. This conflation of free-speech issues with trigger-warnings is, however, largely erroneous. Far from desiring to use PTSD to garner special treatment, those suffering want nothing more than to be cured and move on with their lives. Anyone who has suffered through a panic attack understands why someone would welcome any attempt to prevent them from occurring, and this is why trigger-warnings were created.

Trigger-warnings — which are a list of the content in a piece of media commonly understood be a likely trigger of a panic attack in someone with PTSD — have appeared in their current incarnation since the late 1990’s. Those these warnings are often painted by bad-actors as excessive coddling, similar warnings have existed unopposed in the public sphere for longer, such as explicit content labels on music albums and movie ratings. These warnings are both informative and non-invasive, and thus opposition to them is clearly unreasonable.

Some critics of addressing triggers in an academic setting say that we should not be curtailing content to accommodate those suffering from PTSD, and instead those individuals should simply seek treatment. I agree with these two points, however, it’s important to understand that the real intent of such statements are to deflect any responsibility for making reasonable accommodations to trauma victims, not to help anyone. The speakers want all the responsibility place on the victim of PTSD, and this shows how inhumane and lacking in empathy they are. Schools and colleges need to work alongside mental health professionals to determine what the most beneficial approach to helping students suffering from PTSD get the help they need and to succeed academically.

Just telling someone to seek treatment is easy to do, but ignores the large number of obstacles involved in achieving it. These include some that I covered earlier — such as not knowing you’re suffering from PTSD; the stigma of weakness and being perceived as “crazy”; and being too ashamed to seek treatment — as well as issues of cost of treatment, lack of medical insurance, and low availability of psychiatrists and psychologists. Add to that the new hyper-inflated stigma of emotional fragility that is now being attached to those who can be triggered. The mocking and condescending phrase “Are you triggered, snowflake?” is omnipresent, so even if all the traditional obstacles to treatment can be overcome, we have introduced new ones. Finally, what perhaps this critique misses the most is that even those undergoing treatment and on medication can still be triggered while they recover, thus these objections, which may have ostensibly been reasonable, are revealed for the disingenuous victim-blaming that they really are.

Instead of adding to the obstacles of receiving treatment, the stigmas surrounding psychiatric issues, and suffering in general, we need to educate ourselves and be empathetic to the suffering and struggles of others. As 50% of individuals will experience a mental illness lifetime, it is almost a certainty that you or someone you love will be affected. It goes without saying that you wouldn’t want you or your spouse or you parent or you child or a close friend or sibling to be treated with scorn and derision and driven from treatment while they suffer. Empathy and treatment can mean the difference between recovery and death, so help foster an environment where you, the people you love, and the people others love are enabled to overcome their mental illness and live full, happy, meaningful lives.

What makes me happy

I was recently caught up in a 35% lay off after just eight months in the job that brought me to Seattle from my previous home in Colorado. This layoff comes at a particularly inopportune time as we recently signed a lease on a place that is expensive, and my husband’s job is laying him off as well.

The transition itself has been fraught with emotional challenges. Having only moved out of state once before, it was a scary, unfamiliar, and disorienting event that took more than a month to adjust to enough to not be in a constant state of low to high anxiety. This was exacerbated by having to leave my husband behind because we wanted to wait for him to find a new position before following. That ended up lasting seven difficult months before we said enough and we were finally reunited.

In my experience every traumatic event has as part of its natural course a time of reflection where we ask what could have been done differently and what should be done moving forward. A question in the latter category that I keep returning to is: what would it take for a job to make me truly happy and not just what I do to facilitate the rest of my life. To be fair, I’ve never felt there’s anything wrong with having a job you don’t mind just for the good money, there are plenty of worse configurations, but I at times like these I wonder if I couldn’t achieve more.

I’ve asked myself on numerous occassions what would make me happy, and each time I’ve been unable to come up with an answer. The break came from an unlikely place: a dream. I think the dream succeeded where my analytical approach failed because it was able show me the emotional end-game I desire rather than individual traits a position might have.

In the dream I was one of several cast member on a television series during the shooting of the final episode. Genuine laughter frequently filled the air which was electric from the intense pride and sense of accomplishment of having created something wonderful with so many friends, all of which had passionately and diligently contributed. It felt so good.

That is what I want, both in life and from my job. It’s hard to tell yet whether this revelation will actually assist in guiding me into a position/pursuit or not, but I’m hopeful.

What Can’t Be Taken

Growing up I was quite fortunate in that my parents could afford to give me their old cars when they purchased a new one, and pay for whatever maintenance was necessary to keep it running. I was grateful for this generosity and was happy to accept it, but it meant that I was 29 before I was able to responsibly purchase my first car.

I still vividly remember the night I got my car. I was slightly shaking with nervous excitement as I drove off the lot, because it simply didn’t feel real. All I had done was talk and sign a bunch of papers. How could I possible now own what for most is the most expensive item they own behind a house? It took awhile, but as I my belief in ownership grew, so did my sense of pride. This was a significant achievement, and one I could say – while still fully acknowledging all those who had helped me along the way – was mine.

Honest achievements are special because, unlike the car, they are immutable and cannot be lost or taken. Appreciation for achievements like these are under-emphasized in our culture, and done so to the detriment of all. Rather than trying to guide behavior solely through fear and consequences we should show others the long-term fulfillment that comes from striving for achievements with integrity.


The Company You Keep

I recently saw the movie “The Company You Keep” which revolves around the re-emergence and capture of aging Weather Underground members who had long ago changed identities, re-integrated into society, and made new lives for themselves. If you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the Weather Underground, here’s a bit of background.

The Weather Underground was an extremist communist group formed in 1969 from from dissidents in the SDS (Student Democratic Society). The group opposed racism, sexism, classism, traditional sexual values (promoting open relationships and bisexuality), and Vietnam. They felt the US government was guilty of all these crimes, and combined with daily horrifying images of the war in Vietnam on the news, friends and family members lost overseas, and a the draft threatening more of the same in the future, they were driven to action.They were of the opinion that all avenues of peaceful protest had been explored and exhausted. Violence was all that was left to them to bring about necessary change.

The group staged a number of violent riot protests, and a number of bombings throughout the 1970’s. It’s worth noting that the film itself painted the group more unfavorably than history supports. All their bombing targets were empty at the time of attack, were given warnings that the attack would occur, and always came with explicit reasons for the bombings. The bank robbery they mention in the film — which did result in the death of two police officers and a security guard — occurred after the group had been disbanded by former members.

This kind of driven idealism will no doubt resonate with many right now given the tumultuous socio-political climate we’re enduring. Personally, I sympathize with an idealist version of this group’s motives, but in reality I think they were misguided, and would have left the country in a far worse position had they succeeded in their goal to overthrow the government.

Aside from the riveting history revolving around the group, I found it interesting to contrast it against my own experience with youth rebellion. I grew up in the space between Desert Storm and 9/11, so my generation didn’t have any great, unifying cause to get behind. Instead, when I think of my own rebellion, I think of stories and attitudes expressed in the songs by bands like Blink-182, which revolve around abstract rebellious behavior and a general sense of feeling lost and seeking.

It may seem that one of these expression is preferable to the other, but I think they both hold their pros and cons. For instance, when your rebellion has a very tangible goal, like ending a war, you have a definitive measurement of success, whereas my form of rebellion can’t truly be satiated by an outside force. Instead, it is simply the expression of trying to find oneself through experience, which only ends when one settles into themselves. Alternatively, the down side of the former is that one can find themselves lost after their goal is achieved, since striving for the goal is what defined the person. This can lead to a rejection of the object, and a perpetual moving of the bar to perpetuate one’s sense of purpose. Of course, it’s possible to find a balance between these two states, and perhaps that is the most desirable.

Regardless of what form youth rebellion takes, I feel it all stems from three main places: the need to affect change in the world, which naturally necessitates a rejection of those who would do it for you or tell you how to do it; rejection of the social acceptance or complacency of injustice; and the drive to find oneself and live a meaningful life. Regardless of how this is expressed, I feel that without it, it becomes very difficult for a person to be set onto the path of self-actualization, which is something we should strive for in ourselves, and encourage in everyone else.

Beacon of Dreams

This is another conbook, short-story submission I wrote. This one is for FC 2013. Hopefully I’ll get to edit this post later and be able to list it as published.

This is an apocalyptic anthropomorphic story (zombie free), that pulls inspiration from several sources, but I believe presents an unique vision of how events play out, and leaves the door open for sequels, prequels, and a fully fleshed-out story.

Hope you enjoy. ^.^

Alive and Dreaming…

Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to be here and letting me share my writings with you. I would love hear your thoughts on any you read, and I hope you enjoy them. ^.^