Mental Health and Emotional Trauma: PTSD and our Valley Populous

Part I

Ralph E. Jones, Ph.D. LPC;

Juan Hernandez, M. Ed., LPC

There are many that are living with emotional trauma in their lives; and for many the trauma has been present most of their entire life. In the following article, in collaboration with Mr. Juan Hernandez, M.ed., LPC (whom has counseled with many individuals and their families relative to trauma), we present you vital information relative a most pressing condition…Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) gives examples of PTSD symptoms for adults and children. According to DSM-5, an individual can begin experiencing symptoms of PTSD at any age starting after the first year of life, within 3 months of exposure, while others may not experience symptoms until years later.

Symptoms occur for at least a month. They include, but not limited to, recurrent intrusive distressing memories of the trauma event, sleep disturbance, hypervigilance, efforts to avoid reminders of trauma like memories, people, or places; as well as experiencing intense feelings of fear, guilt, or shame. Symptoms of PTSD can be triggered by sensory cues like sight, touch, taste, sound or smell.

Children have symptoms similar to adults with some exceptions like wetting the bed after having mastered the use of the toilet, forgetting how to or being unable to talk, acting out the trauma while playing, and being clingy with an adult or parent.

The symptoms of psychological trauma are many, but the most common are having nightmares, feeling on edge, having flashbacks of the event, keeping others at a distance or not trusting, and never being able to fully relax.

Other most pronounced symptoms include anxiety, having difficulty functioning at work or in the home environment, having depression, having difficulty forming or maintaining lasting relationships, and self- medicating with alcohol and other drugs.

Physical trauma; having a broken bone, undergoing surgery, etc., are events that are most usually overcome and are more or less temporary in nature.

One has a broken arm for example; the arm is set in a cast, healing takes place, and the person goes on with their life….the scars of these events usually fade quickly.

Mental Trauma, on the other hand, produces emotional scarring that may take some a life time to overcome.

Studies have consistently shown us that about sixty-five percent of individuals who experience trauma are able to return to their normal level of functioning shortly after the event and stay there, with another twenty-five percent taking a year or two to recover and a minority of people suffering more greatly and struggling for a much longer period of time, or have a delayed reaction to the event; as in the case of one struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In order to fully understand and appreciate trauma, one must take a look at what is going on in the brain at the time. An article written by Jennifer Swenton, Psy.D., in Psychology Today magazine, has a most meaningful elaboration of what is going on in ones brain when it comes under stress.

“When something traumatic happens, the brain functions differently. Under normal circumstances the brain encodes whatever it needs to encode, sends it down the pathway, it is processed, stored or disposed of, and life goes on, memories intact. This is a completely different process under stress. Our bodies communicate consistently all day long with all kinds of electrical and chemical impulses. These impulses tell our brain and body what to do…process this, dump that, pay attention here; this doesn’t need to be here, etc. In a traumatic situation your “flight or fight” response gets triggered.

“Your body senses danger and sends out red alert signals in the form of hormones. Your bloodstream is swimming with chemical messengers that tell you to “GET OUT NOW!” The primary goal under these circumstances isn’t encoding the memory, but getting you to safety. This is the reason that so many trauma victims have gaps in memory: the attention was focused on getting the body to safety.”

Doctor Sweeton goes on to state, “When the trauma takes place one gets stuck. When you get stuck with the event your amygdala- the primary culprit in the fight or fight response- gets really, really sensitive. This part of the brain screams GET OUT when it feels that you are in danger. Your brain stops processing and focuses all of its energy on getting you away from danger. The memory doesn’t get fully processed and is fragmented in the brain in chunks of implicit and explicit memories. This is why sometimes a smell, the way a person touches you, or even tone of voice can trigger a trauma victim.”

Now, the body cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional danger. This is the reason that you have this flight or fight response to stimuli, whether it is emotional or physical. The brain, the very primal part of the brain involved here, thinks that you are in physical danger, which is why you have the physical symptoms. The body then does exactly what it is suppose to do. It is protecting you.

Traumas experienced in childhood can leave scars that last into adulthood and put a person at risk for a greater number of difficulties. This can be said of all kinds of traumas, to include (but not limited to) accidents, disasters, witnessing violence directed toward others, and the horrific experiences in combat situations; but are especially true for a child experiencing neglect and abuse.

Not all individuals who have experienced childhood abuse and neglect experience difficulties in adulthood. There are those individuals who are resilient, can bounce back and lead normal lives as adults despite the traumas of their childhood. Unfortunately there are many that bring their trauma baggage into adulthood, as trauma knows no bounds of age, sex, ethnicity, nor any other parameters. Brought to mind is the case of “Ronny,” a 10-year-old Hispanic boy.

Ronny was in the fourth grade of school, and referred to therapy after he burst into tears and curled up into a ball at his classroom desk. When asked what the matter was, Ronny answered, “I just want to die.”

It was learned that Ronny and his family were involved in a terrible car accident where his 12 year old brother died at the scene. After the accident his parents noted that Ronny had trouble sleeping, waking from horrific nightmares about the accident and seeing his brother thrown on the roadside.

He became quiet, and refused to play with friends. He refused to talk to anyone about his feelings or thoughts. His teacher noticed poor concentration, and restlessness. Sometimes he would become angry and irritable. Ronny was an individual with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder…PTSD.

Next week, in Part II of this article, we shall present to you further information on PTSD and the affects it presents to our Lower Rio Grande populous, and what is being done about it. Until Next Time, Stay Healthy My Friends!