PTSD can create its own cycle of perpetual fear. We are often terrorized initially by a traumatic experience and the subsequent realizations of fear. PTSD ingests the traumatic event itself and then catalyzes the normal fear that comes from trauma and creates more trauma with it. This can then spiral into negative PTSD coping behaviors which then splatter us and our loved ones with new trauma and new fears. Ultimately, unchecked PTSD destroys our healthy relationships and possibly our lives.
Traumatic Experience Induces Fear
To state the obvious: Trauma can create fear (Trauma can also induce other states of mind, but that is an essay for a different day).
The recognition of our fear may show up at the same time as the initial trauma or it may manifest at some later point. Some trauma, for which we have no preparation or training to withstand, may bang us with fear immediately. Other traumas may only generate fear at some later point, well after the initial trauma.
In this latter case one can include some forms of military trauma. For example, one often is told that during the actual combat experience a person was not afraid, because “my training kicked-in,” or, “I didn’t think because my training took over.”
Later, when they are back from the action, the patrol, or the flight, they may get the shakes, the giggles, or pick fights. Sometimes they become terribly afraid. If they lost some buddies, their own sense of invulnerability may fall away and they begin to fear… a lot.
[Having written that, I should point out that some people will state they were terrified all through combat.]
Fear Stokes Our Sense of Vulnerability
We lose our sense of invulnerability as we are embraced, smothered by fear.
The fear and enhanced sense of vulnerability will make us begin to worry in new ways about:
- Ourselves: Our personal safety, reliability, and reputation.
- Our families: Those who count on us for financial and emotional support, as well as those whom we love and who love us.
- Others: our friends, colleagues, our students, parishioners; anyone else who relies on our steady performance and reliability.
- Events and possible situations that have nothing to do with the initial PTSD-producing trauma may begin to produce intense fear and PTSD symptoms.
Out in movie-land, this incident-fear-vulnerability response is portrayed (surprisingly) well in the 1986 film, “Top Gun.” In the opening flight sequence a US Navy pilot, “Cougar,” is not able to shake an opposing aircraft off his tail. It is “peace time,” but the opposing aircraft could easily kill Cougar, if desired. Cougar realizes that if this had been an actual combat mission in a shooting war, then he would have been killed, his wife widowed, and his unseen baby “orphaned.”
Back on ship, he removes himself from flight duty (As I am not a Navy vet, I don’t know how accurate that scene played out…can USN pilots remove themselves from flight status?). Cougar is later referenced as having “lost it” by his commander and another pilot later says he “WAS a good man.”
Even though Cougar was not actually shot at, he was traumatized. His vulnerability was emphasized to him in a very pointed way. His fear overwhelmed his ability to function. He feared what this would mean to other aviators who relied upon him. He worried at leaving his wife and child bereft. Living through trauma can overwhelm us, and though still technically competent, our sense of vulnerability and its potential consequences can cripple us with PTSD.
Fear Can Induce a Sense of Persistent Failure
We can develop a persistent sense of personal failure after we have survived traumatic events.
Troops who are medevacced often feel as if they have let their buddies down, they feel as if they have screwed up – even when they were doing their job and the accident or wounding was out of their personal control.
In the world of civilian trauma, we may get derided for not healing fast enough from an illness or accident. Or, we may be criticized for still being sensitive to some past tragedy like the loss of one of our children or grand-children, or a divorce.
Our reactions to trauma, our fear responses and subsequent thoughts of being unworthy failures, can create more fear. Our sense of fear and failure can compel us into the negative PTSD-coping behaviors of drinking too much, gambling, pornography, self-medicating, self-harm, and infidelity.
In those behaviors we seek some moment of validation and self-worth, we then realize that any sense of validation here is plastic and artificial and we end up feeling an even worse failure than we did before. Now feeling worse than before, we spiral into even worse behaviors.
These behaviors will serve to alienate our healthy relationships and isolate us. From there we are a short distance from becoming another PTSD casualty.
Driving Out Fear
We need not despair. Some fear makes good sense. But, PTSD-based fear is not about self-preservation, it is about self-destruction.
We can name and control our fears in several ways. When we do, we defang the worse teeth from this beast. The more light and knowledge we can bring to shine upon our fears and vulnerabilities, the better our chances of healing. The better we know and understand our fears, the less power they have over us.
We can reduce our vulnerability to our fears in several ways:
- Prayer: God is a good listener and won’t mind how many different times you discuss the trauma, what it did to you, and how it makes you feel.
- Writing: Although my PTSD Spirituality essays are fewer and far between than I would prefer, it does not mean I have stopped writing. I continue to fill notebooks with personal writing. Sometimes I write about the same things over and over again. But writing about certain events and how they have impacted my life have made my continued day-to-day living easier and less fearful. Just don’t expect one dose of writing to be the cure. Both prayer and writing are like vitamins, we need to engage them daily for best results.
- Any Art or Music Activity: Art and music are creative activities. PTSD hates creative activities. Why? Because creative activities promote life, including your life. Through our craft, we explore things that we may not even know we need to think about. That exploration and presentation (no matter how subtle) of our experiences and our fears will contribute to our healing.
Your Mileage May Vary
Some trauma survivors get this figured out sooner than others. Others take longer. But as we begin to better understand the spiritual dimensions of PTSD and how it harms us, then we can reclaim our own lives as meaningful and viable. We may still hurt and we may have serious regrets, but we need not be destroyed.
Your life has value.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z