Updated: Apr 18, 2020
How does stress affect post-traumatic stress (PTS)? I hate to say that I'm an expert on this, but I've been there as 9/11 first responder, front and center on September 11th, when American airlines flight 11 hit tower one. I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress in 2003. For the record, I am not a licensed therapist. I am not a doctor. I am answering this from my personal perspective and from what I learned through my theraputic process. And you may notice that I wrote post-traumatic stress (PTS), not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That's because I do not consider myself a disordered person. PTSD is the clinical diagnosis from the DSM-V, needed for insurance billing purposes. There is a movement afoot to remove the D as it perpetuates stigma. But that's for another discussion.
So how does stress affect post-traumatic stress? There's something called fight, flight or freeze and it's caused by stress which comes out of fear. Our body is flooded with protective hormones like cortisol which help us survive the stress. With people who have PTS, our triggers are met with the same release of hormones. But because a trigger usually means we are re-living the trauma in some way, it means we feel the stress faster and stronger than the majority of people out there. So when a stressful thing happens, like your dog is sick, or your washing machine breaks for the second time, or whether you feel like you're always running late or behind, or whether you feel like you have got 85,000 things on your plate, when you have PTS, that stress response is heightened and it's stronger than someone's response to those things who does not have PTS. There's also a lot of different symptomology that goes along with it.
Personally I feel a buzzing going on in my body. So, having a sick dog, having the washing machine break, having a list of things that I need to get done get's me jacked up. I can feel that buzz, and the cortisol release. So what do I do about it? And what can you do?
Breathe. Deeply. Breathe in for 5 seconds and then out for 5 seconds. The mere act of deep breathing allows you to slow the cortisol release and tap back into the reasoning part of your brain which is shut down when you are in fight, flight, or freeze. It allows you to separate from the stress and look at what exactly is causing the stress response. So is it the washing machine? Is it the sick dog? Once identified, I can now problem solve it. - These are the things that need to happen to solve the problem.
Next, and in order not to re-activate the stress response, I do the first thing that needs to be done to solve the problem. In the case of the washing machine, I clean up the water on the floor. That's it. Just the first thing. Once in action the stress dissipates and then I'm able to objectively and calmly go on to the next step. Call the repair person and schedule the appointment. The important thing is to keep taking the next step forward. Each thing completed calmly and purposefully relieves the stress and adds a sense of accomplishment and sometimes euphoria. With those two feelings, stress cannot exist.
I know the solution sounds pretty simple. Take notice the next time you are stressed. Notice your breathing, how shallow it is. The number one way you can start to take back control and feel less stress is to breathe deeply. If you are reading this and you have PTS, regular practice with this will help immensely. The studies, and there are a ton, have all shown the benefits.
If this helped you, please leave a comment. And if you know somebody that can benefit from this please pass it on. For more, please subscribe to my FB page @SamHorwitz.