Our PTSD Triggers can not only initiate our PTSD symptoms, they can also create new stresses and anxieties that are not directly tied to the initial PTSD-producing traumas. We may begin to unduly focus on “worst-case scenarios” due to the harm we have received to our PTSD-damaged sense of trust and safety. While we must keep alert to the fact that not all anxieties and stresses in our lives our signs of PTSD, we should also be aware that PTSD has a “Mission Creep” all of its own. This “Mission Creep” can
make our lives more difficult and it will help us if we better understand it.
PTSD Anxieties as a Form of Mission Creep
When politicians, wanna-be presidential candidates, and TV-pundits encourage the employment of American Armed Forces to solve a problem they often forget about “Mission Creep.” This is a phenomenon where the mission keeps getting larger and eventually dwarfs the original intention. Thus the military is sent “over there” to do one specific thing and then commanders discover that in order to do that one thing they must also do three other things. To do those three other things, they discover they now need to do ten other things. It is like pulling a loose thread and finding out that it causes the sleeve to fall off your jacket.
The focused military mission parameters they started with have creeped and creeped into a larger and larger mission. These larger and larger missions demand more resources, and often more lives, than was initially predicted.
Our PTSD can cause a sort of “Mission Creep” for us when it begins to inject new anxieties and behavioral reactions that are not connected to the original set of PTSD-inflicting traumas.
PTSD “Mission Creep” afflicts us as our symptoms to the original PTSD become PTSD-causing events in and of themselves. It is like shrapnel. Thus, we have to become engaged with not only understanding (and hopefully healing) from the original PTSD-producing trauma, but we also have to deal with the expansion of secondary and tertiary symptoms that the initial PTSD symptoms can produce. Those spin-off, mission creep, symptoms can also produce another set of symptoms. If it persists, we may end up having hyper-vigilance responses to items unrelated to our trauma.
Does this always happen? No, it does not. Does it sometimes happen? Yes, it does. If a healthcare professional is trying to help someone heal from their alcoholism or drug-dependency, they will eventually ask about what sort of problems, stresses, environments, caused the person to self-medicate to begin with. If they can discern this, they may be able to help the person cope with the initial problem, but also the drug/alcohol problem which causes its own set of spin-off problems.
Ruptured Trust Makes Us More Vulnerable to Insecurity
There are several ways we can become PTSD-afflicted. One of them has to do with violations of our trust.
Violations of trust cause us to feel insecure. We worry about our safety. We begin to not only take precautions against normal risks; we may begin to focus on worst-case scenarios that are unlikely to happen. While unlikely, they feel real, and we respond to that feeling.
a. Violated Trust From Someone We Were Supposed To Trust
The violation of our trust can come from someone who we thought we were supposed to trust, for example, a commanding officer, a teacher, or pastor.
In these cases, part of what makes the trauma so outrageous to the victim is that the perpetrator was supposed to be someone they could trust. You can get a taste of this outrage if you watch the news. Reporters will relate the details of a rape or other form of abuse with greater outrage if the perpetrator was in a position of public trust or was someone we thought we could trust.
A rape is a rape and abuse is abuse. That said, we seem to be wired to experience greater moral outrage when the perpetrator has not only violated the law (they raped/abused someone), but they have also violated the trust of their position. We had infused their position with respectability, prestige, and most importantly, our trust. The crime feels harsher when done by someone in an occupation society has taught us to respect.
Sometimes this can lead to rejection of authority as a safety measure to prevent us from being hurt more deeply. If we maintain low expectations of someone or a profession, then we are not as vulnerable to any moral pain they inflict upon us. This is a mistake. It does not help and only makes the urge to consider worst-case scenarios even more intense.
b. Violated Trust From Someone Who Had Earned Our Trust Earlier
There are not only people that society has shaped us to trust, there are also those who earned out trust (or we gave it to them by mistake). There may also be people who have earned our trust in such a deep way that we are able to trust them with the deep non-erotic love of true friendship. For those with a military background, this may also include the person who you trust to watch your back. Typically, the person we choose to marry has been someone who has earned our trust.
Unbinding a Trust that was Bound
When we form deep trusts we got there often by going out into the deep end of the pool. The individuals involved discovered they could trust one another in things that were progressively more important. We test others and ourselves, sometimes unconsciously so, in a progression of opportunities to expose and share our vulnerabilities. As individuals demonstrate they can be trusted with small things, we begin to trust them with larger things. The further this progression goes, the more deeply we trust someone. The relationship goes from the shallows out to the deep end of the pool.
In the case of marriage, two people have discovered a depth of trust that leads to a public binding by either civil and/or religious authorities. For a Roman Catholic, marriage is sacramental and God is involved in the marriage (which is why the Catholic Church is so obsessive about divorce). The journey of the marriage is a unique opportunity to experience the grace of God more fully as one trust and makes oneself increasingly vulnerable to their spouse. Indeed, most Christians figure that God is somehow involved in their marriages.
As we trust one another more, we discover a binding to one another in mutual trust has occurred. It is why we exchange our names in our vows, we intermix our very selves in the union of matrimony. We trust the other with our name, our selves.
In our marriages we have trusted and taken risks. We may have shared information about experiences that have harmed us, that have humiliated us, or made us look the fool. We may have shared details about what frightens us. We may have shared about who we really are deep down when we risk taking off the face we wear for the public.
In such a deeply bound trust, two people have gone farther together than they were likely to go as individuals in the journey of self-awareness. The more self-aware we become the more fully we can open ourselves to God. God is not interested in the public masks that we wear in self-protection on a day to day basis. God desires to be in deep relationship with us and we need to know ourselves more fully in order to be in that relationship.
This is a longwinded way to say, that the deepest friendships help us to learn about ourselves and God. Marriage can be just such a friendship.
When a marriage malfunctions, trust is withdrawn. The withdrawal of trust is extremely painful. It hurts. It hurts like starvation and drug withdrawal hurt. It hurts so deeply because we had trusted in the relationship and it helped sustain us. We knew it could help us grow into someone better because in shared love we understand ourselves better.
Even a “friendly” divorce results in the diminishment of trust, the reduction of the willingness to be as vulnerable to the other as much as they did before.
A deficient marriage or a bitter divorce, an anger-controlled relationship, each generates abuse of trust. Since deep trust enhances out soul, disruption of trust can damage our soul.
If that deep trust, the binding together in intense friendship, is violated, then soul wounds can result.
Just as scraping the skin hard enough causes physical bleeding and pain, scraping the trust from our deepest relationship will wound our souls.
Divorce and PTSD
Some of the mail I receive is from people who have been soul-wounded through divorce. It seems that PTSD can often be one of the primary causes of divorce. It can also be the by-product of many divorces.
In the cases of military-based PTSD one often sees either a current drug/alcohol problem, or a drug/alcohol problem which has been overcome. Almost every case of PTSD I have dealt with has included the strain and/or destruction of relationships. This is not too surprising because the PTSD-Identity wants us to become fully alienated from all of our relationships, isolate ourselves, and then kill ourselves. Some relationships can be healed and restored; others do not end up that way.
An abusive spouse can cause PTSD. The abusive spouse may have their own case of PTSD. For example, many people come back from military service with PTSD. Their PTSD symptoms may compel them to withdraw from relationships, react with anger, and self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, porn, and/or violence. Even the most rock solid, trusting, marriage relationship will have difficult sailing in that kind of weather. It is even harder if the people involved don’t recognize PTSD, are in denial about PTSD, or fear they will lose their job or promotion due to PTSD.
Screaming is Not Gentle Music
Having someone scream at you, or threaten you, is not pleasant. Even undeserved and unprovoked, most of us don’t feel too good about ourselves after that happens. I don’t think being screamed at ever made me feel more creative. Being threatened with bodily harm has never made me feel better about myself. Experiencing those sorts of things are neither pleasant nor happy moments.
Our spouses, and even our ex-spouses, can traumatize and re-traumatize us. They knew us when we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable and exposed. They knew us when we risked telling what we loved and what we were afraid of. They knew us when we dared to vocalize our hopes and dreams. We may have trusted them enough to tell them about that one time when ….and now we still feel vulnerable and ashamed. They know us deeply enough to really hurt us, to wound our souls.
Don’t Try This at Home!
First: Imagine if a complete stranger cursed me and hit me.
Second: Then someone whom I once loved deeply and trusted did the exact same to me.
Third: Some rocket scientist then asks me who harmed me the most.
Fourth: I say the person who I trusted harmed me the most.
Fifth: Rocket scientist walks away in confusion muttering, “But both actions were the same…”
While the actions all look the same to a rocket scientist, the person who I was in a trusting relationship with has the greater capacity to injure my soul than the complete stranger.
Can a complete stranger traumatize us so we get PTSD? Yes, you bet, it often happens with military-induced PTSD. But, someone to whom I have shared part of my soul has a greater ability of inflicting a soul wound on me than someone who is a complete stranger.
Creeping Back to Worst Case Scenarios
Once we have been traumatized in such a way as to get PTSD we are vulnerable to hyper-vigilance. We have been conditioned to try and prevent traumatic events from happening again. In some cases we are hyper-vigilant because certain practices, routines, and mindsets in the past kept us or others alive. Now, we repeat those practices if we want to or not. In some cases it can be compulsive.
Many former soldiers will patrol their homes every few hours; they have to ensure the house is safe, that no enemy will get inside and harm them or their families. They either wake up from an internal clock or they instantly awake at the slightest noise and then patrol the house.
If a spouse was abusive but is now gone and not living nearby, we may still find ourselves caught in behaviors designed to not aggravate or provoke the violent behavior that person had inflicted on us. Even if we know we were not at fault, we still find ourselves trapped in behaviors designed to keep that certain someone from losing their temper and being violent.
Additionally, with past spousal abuse a person may become hyper-vigilant as a result of PTSD triggers or the behaviors due to PTSD triggers. This is the “mission creep” discussed way up there near the top of the page. Our PTSD has creeped out and expanded its boundaries, broadened its mission. At one point we were directly vulnerable to the initial trauma, then we had situation-related triggers added, later, we might have symptoms based upon symptoms to the triggers and not the event itself.
Thus, a person may exhibit behaviors that don’t have much to do directly with the original trauma event/person.
We may start to generate worst-case scenarios because our trust has been so damaged in the past. If our trust has been damaged then our sense of safety has been damaged. Just as we may be hyper-vigilant with PTSD-related triggers, we may then become hyper-vigilant to try and ensure our safety from all possible dangers. We may become over-sensitized to the possibility of dangers that are neither probable nor reasonable. We have been pushed into trying to assess every possible worst-case scenario thinking it may keep us safe.
Generating worst-case scenarios can further harm us because all they do is make us feel even more unsafe, more vulnerable, more distrustful of everything out there. It can become cyclic and self-perpetuating.
[As an Aside: Since 9-11 I have had more college students tell me they have generalized anxiety and are afraid something horrible is about to happen. Talking with them, they report no abuse or trauma in their personal history. They have just been rendered hyper-sensitive to the possibility of bad things happening. I think this is due to 9-11 itself and the subsequent scares that Homeland Security caused the population when nothing happened, and in some cases, where there was no credible, intelligence-based threat. People have been rendered afraid when neither they, nor their immediate families, have been directly attacked. I have seen this type of fear affect students in the short term, but it does not seem to stick the way PTSD sticks with a person.]
Worse-Case Scenarios: What Can We Do About It?
The first thing we need to do is to identify that our trust and sense of safety have been damaged.
Then we can try to ask ourselves how likely these worst-case scenarios really are. Many people when facing the scenario, with self-awareness of their PTSD, can nip it in the bud and not have further problems.
Some of my students have had success by writing everything down that they could possibly think would go wrong. List all of the worst-case scenarios and then check them off as likely or unlikely. Listing them means you name them.
You can better control what you can identify and name.
Often this naming and identifying has had the effect of eliminating or diminishing the problem. Being willing to write about them whenever the anxiety comes on us is an important part of inoculating ourselves against their destabilizing affects.
As most readers know, I strongly recommend prayer. Describe what you feel to God. Discuss issues of trust and safety. Lay it on the line.
If you have a person who you can still trust, then have a similar conversation with them. Say out loud what it is that has harmed you and what you are afraid of.
Often, just writing, talking, and/or praying about this can eliminate it or make the tendency to dwell on worst-case scenarios diminish.
With or without the advice I have mentioned, there is nothing wrong with seeking psychological insights from a mental health professional. Not every case of focusing too much on worst-case scenarios will be due to PTSD. My specialty is theology and not medicine. The medical and mental health people have good things to offer as we heal.
Remember that you have value. Don’t run away from relationships just to avoid the risk of new hurt. While it is fine to draw back once in a while and lick our wounds and think about the next day, we must not allow ourselves to become isolated. Things get worse with isolation, not better. With or without PTSD, isolation usually is more destructive than productive.
PTSD can incline us to obsess about worst case scenarions. It can try to compel us into isolation in order to avoid the potential pain of deep relationships, trust, and love. Yet, the redicovery of trust and love can help us heal from our PTSD. It may not be with the person who harmed us, but there are still some good people out there. God does not desire for you to wither in PTSD-induced isolation. God desires your love and friendship and wants you to grow and heal in that journey.
The PTSD-Identity wants us to give up, self-isolate, and then die. We need never give up on love. We should never abandon the knowledge that trust can be real and unbroken, even if others have violated our trusts and love in the past. We have value, we are made in the image and likness of God, created in love, trust, and hope.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z