PTSD Spirituality: Physical Pain Increases PTSD Vulnerability

Over the last week I have been on a Viral Adventure.  My doctor diagnosed a virus.  I didn’t need medications, just a lot of rest.  I would have to ride it out.  The worst symptoms lasted almost exactly one week to the minute.  I now have some residuals left over but am mostly over it.  Today I am just back to the normal joyful journey of chronic pain and disability and keeping an eye on my PTSD.  But I learned a few more things about PTSD from my Viral Adventure.

1. Pain and Weakness Increases PTSD Trigger Risks

When my chronic pain is worse, or when I am just “normally sick” with a bad cold or flu, I find I am more vulnerable to PTSD triggers.  I have experienced this before, but sometimes I am not the brightest boy in school and need reminding.

These days my triggers have dulled a bit.  The things which used to set off my PTSD do not trigger symptoms as quickly as before.  Because of this healing, I perhaps have become complacent about my PTSD triggers.  But I got a stark reminder that even though I am doing much better these days, I am still vulnerable to PTSD triggers. 

Last week my physical condition deteriorated significantly with a viral infection and my PTSD triggers had gone from dull to hair trigger status.  Foolishly, I did not pay close attention to that.

Click here to better understand PTSD Triggers.

2. From World War II to the 1980s to Now in Just 30 Minutes

Since I was sick, I stayed home from school (Yes, I had a doctor’s note!).  I watched the 1949 film, “Twelve O’Clock High,” with Gregory Peck and several other fine actors.  Two scenes, which would normally not bother me, started to trigger PTSD symptoms.  The first scene made me more vulnerable to the second. 

The first scene is when the general (Peck) tells his aircrews to consider themselves “already dead.”  A long time ago, in a situation of no strategic importance, I was told the same thing by a senior commander.  It was made very clear to me how expendable I was and the circumstances were nowhere as noble or dire as it was in Gregory Peck’s movie.  That I might be killed in the line of duty did not bother me so much.  What bothered me was that this guy was willing to waste my life to no purpose and our nation would gain nothing from it.  This movie scene reminded me of my past and prepped me to be more PTSD sensitive than I would have normally been for a later scene. If I had been paying better attention to myself, I would have stopped the movie at this point. 

That later scene from “Twelve O’Clock High” was an air battle between the B-17s and Luftwaffe fighters.  The B-17 gunners were firing .50 caliber machine guns and there was a lot of radio chatter.  For the record, I have never flown B-17 combat missions.  But that scene really shook me up (even though I had seen the same scenes before with no PTSD activation!).  The gunshots and radio chatter took me somewhere else.  A past place of danger and made it part of my present. 

PTSD often brings out past traumas and actualizes them as if we are experiencing them now.  We feel even more helpless now than back then, because now we cannot change it or affect the outcome.

I got jittery and was ready to curl up and cry.  And then, the negative PTSD coping behaviors began to tempt me.

So, a couple of movie scenes activated my PTSD.  Physical illness had already worn me down so I was more vulnerable to spiritual wounding.

It is ironic, but not surprising, that Gregory Peck’s character has his own PTSD episode later in the film.

3. What Made Me More Vulnerable to PTSD?  Two Things:

I was alone, by myself. And, I was physically run down, sick.  Each of those things acted like a magnifying glass on dry wood shavings.  If my wife has been home I would not have been so vulnerable.  If my health has been at its “normal” level, then I would probably have been fine.

When a forest is dry and hot there is a higher danger of fire. 

If a trauma survivor is alone and physically attenuated,

they are at an increased risk of a PTSD episode.

4. Recognizing the PTSD Activation Cycle

Even while I struggled with the PTSD symptoms, I recognized the pattern:

A. Physically weakened by stress or illness, I was rendered more vulnerable to PTSD triggers

B. Secondary Triggers (the film scenes) Activated My PTSD

C. PTSD-Identity Kicks In and Tells Me I Am Worthless

D. Negative Coping Behaviors Suddenly Seemed Reasonable

E. Despair Assaults the Soul and Wants Me to Abandon Hope

Traumas that I myself did not experience can activate my own traumatic past.  This is why trauma survivors have to be more self aware than non-traumatized folks.  We need to assess our vulnerability on an on-going basis.  Some days we are more vulnerable than others.

If you have PTSD, stress or trauma reminders can trigger symptoms – even if they do not match your own personal trauma.

Some folks, usually the non-traumatized, wonder how a person can be susceptible to the depiction of a stress or trauma that they did not actually experience.  It is because the soul has been wounded.  Like a broken bone, it will always be less impervious to hard use than it used to be.

If I fracture my leg playing football, the leg will remain weak for all demanding events, not just football.

Essentially, if I get a bad cold or a virus, I have to remember to take more precautions about PTSD.

5. Interrupting the PTSD Activation Cycle

Luckily for me, I recognized what was happening even as I went through it.  I was able to interrupt the PTSD activation and not give in to the seductions of negative coping behaviors or get sucked down so deep into despair as not to be able to recover.  If I had given into those negative behaviors, they would only have made my PTSD worse and further isolated me.

5a. Interrupt the PTSD  Trigger If Possible

For one thing I interrupted the movie I was watching.  It was suppose to entertain me, not torture me.  Funny how we will often not stop a PTSD trigger when we have the ability to do so. 

It is very empowering to know I can decide to stop a PTSD trigger by my own choice.  Once I wake up to the fact the PTSD is active, I can sometimes break the cycle and reclaim myself from PTSD. 

I am not a dog for the PTSD-Identity to leash and take out for a walk. 

I am a human being created in the image and likeness of God, I have value (and so do you!).

5b. Notify Others, Admit Vulnerability, Ask for Prayer

That day I also contacted two friends I have made along the way on my PTSD journey.  I gave them an idea of what I was going through, that I felt discouraged, and I asked for their prayer. 

Admitting my PTSD vulnerability was to admit I am a human being in a community.  Unlike the old song, I am NOT a rock, I am NOT an island.  I am a human being in need of love, support, and prayer (and so are you!).

One friend is a Roman Catholic mother who has observed the devastation of PTSD firsthand and knows how its splatter damages more than the just the first person who got traumatized.  She is often a rock for me. 

The other friend is a Lutheran pastor who has PTSD experience combined with an eventful life and ministry.  He runs the PTSD and Ministry website.  He writes much better than I do, but I am probably taller, so hopefully that equals us out somehow.  Check out his website.

Both of these people prayed for me.  Did it make my missing cartilage grow back?  Can I suddenly run instead of limp?  Nope.  But it sure helped me feel less alone on the PTSD journey and it helped me to be more open to God’s grace.  That grace helps soothe my soul. 

In many ways God’s grace is like a protective splint on a fractured soul, it allows healing.

Finally, I talked it all through with my wife later on.  She had had a big day and was tired.  But she listened to me and thanked me for telling her.  She wants to know.  She does not judge.  I know I can talk with her.

5c. Pride and the PTSD-Identity

My PTSD hated that I sought community, prayer, and that I told my wife about the PTSD episode.  It is harder for PTSD to isolate and kill us if we share our suffering, discouragement, and sorrows with others.

Sometimes I have the character flaw of not being able to admit that PTSD still bothers me.  I think I am suppose to be so strong and so helping for others.  How can I offer them hope if I am still soul wounded, if I admit to the ongoing PTSD soul wound? 

On the one hand that is my pride, and that’s a problem.  Deeper down, it is the PTSD-Identity screaming at me to never seek assistance, never admit to vulnerability or that I even have a soul.  The PTSD-Identity screams I must be a rock, an island, silent, suffering, and isolated.  That way it can drive me into deep despair and kill me.  If I am dead, then it also means I won’t be able to help others.

The antidote to PTSD on the spiritual level is love and prayer.  Sharing with others and asking for prayer is part of real love.  Benefitting from their prayer and engaging in my own prayer, tells me that God is bigger than the PTSD.   As a Christian I am reminded yet again that God’s grace surrounds me. 

In prayer, God is walking point for me.  I can admit vulnerability.  God can take it.

5d. Becoming the Wounded Healer

Lastly, one more thing helped me through a tough week of physical illness and PTSD triggers.  I was able to help a few others. 

I won’t go into details, but there were several people whose lives were affected by PTSD that I was able to help.  I believe I offered them some degree of hope, some more, some less.  When it comes right down to it, I could not be very helpful if I was not myself on a similar PTSD journey.  We share a common wound in our PTSD.  We know we are not alone in this.  We share a common struggle and can encourage one another.

I do not intend this as hubris.  I am fully aware that as we carry one another God carries us all.  We share our wounds, we make this journey together, and we desire to be more open to God’s grace.

It has been an eventful week.  I was very preoccupied (if not overwhelmed) with illness, discouragement, and PTSD.  At the same time it provided me opportunities to learn more about PTSD, make and renew friendships, avoid deep despair, and journey onto another day of seeking God’s grace.

Through the prayer offered by a community of friends, people who share the common soul wound of PTSD, and the shared marriage with my wife, the severity of my PTSD experience last week was much less than it could have been.

I do not suggest that one simply cranks out a prayer and that stops the PTSD Activation Cycle.  But, I am saying the PTSD will damage you less if you engage God, your friends, and loved ones, in prayer.  Paradoxically, breaking out of the PTSD-Identity has enabled me to trust God and enjoy the fruits of love and prayer more than if I were merely healthy and normal.

6. Your Mileage May Vary

In my experience PTSD never goes away 100%.  But it does not have to control us or ruin our lives.  As we learn how to deal with it in a healthy way, we actually become more self-aware, less self-destructive, more compassionate to the suffering of others, and more open to the grace and love of God.  Paradoxically, from the soul wound of PTSD, one can come to taste, value, nurture and cherish life even more than before.  It’s an eventful journey.  Your mileage may vary.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z



    Dr. Z,
    We met for several hours about a month ago in Milwaukee along with a friend, Karl. My time with you helped me better understand that PTSD recovery is a journey and there is hope for me. I read your messages daily and find your words are both enlightening and soothing. I’m searching for a state-side veteran retreat and considering a Viet Nam retreat in the next year.

    • Hello Bill, People like you are an inspiration. You can go through hard, tough times that even a horror novelist could not imagine and yet you value life. Yoiu know things about life that few do, and that makes this life that much more worth the living. As we progress and triumph in our own PTSD journey, we often help others merely by our choice to stay in the game. As we persevere we see the power of God’s love in our own life and others. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. Dr Z
    Thanks for posting this. Glad there are people available to help you during the rough times. Your willingness to share with others is heroic. Know that you are making a difference.

    • Thank you,Queta. Sometimes trying to keep everything going and then getting sick is too much like juggling hamsters. With luck, March will be a tad bit healther. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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