PTSD often induces a fair amount of thrill seeking. Why is that? Could creativity, non-verbal arts as well as writing, help us find meaning, validation, and survivability at less risk than bungee jumping and thrill seeking? To this end, I was asked a valuable question, which I then turned into this post:
“DR. Z. What would your response be to someone that has suffered being in a war for years or abused for years and, still has a rush or thrill to do something on the edge. So far no evidence or theory has been mentioned by this and, I am very interested to hear what you have to say. … What truly make a person want to seek that thrill even at the age of 70 or 52. I know chemicals in the brain have a lot to do with this but our critical thinking has to play a role as well. In talking with Veterans with PTSD they still have that adrenal rush to do something like a bucket list per say. Not a death wish by far but just the thrill of it. Any advice would be appreciated.”
Many of us will seek the risky thrills as they are ways we can try to still feel alive, that we know we are alive. Our trauma has made us both hyper-sensitive and blunt at the same time. In order to feel something, we keep pushing the envelope.
At other times, moments, events which other people are very sensitive to, may not feel like much to a PTSD survivor. Sometimes, what seems like an horrific event to most people, may not make much of an impact on us. it’s not that we are callous, rather we have been desensitized and blunted by our trauma and the reactions to our traumas later on by other people. In order to “feel” again, we may take on risky and dangerous behaviors.
While these links may not speak exactly to your question, they may still be helpful:
This need for adrenaline rushes can also be channeled into behaviors which are not usually thought of as thrill-seeking. While it is difficult to do, one may re-channel this need to feel alive, the sense of aliveness, into creative avenues. Much of my own voyage over the last decade or so has been through creativity. For a while I painted and made drawings. While these tended to be non-verbal and done either sitting or standing in one place, I can say that in some cases the sense of danger, thrill, ecstatic experience, equaled any thrill behaviors I had earlier undertaken due to PTSD.
Within art (and also within prayer) one has the opportunity to consider their existence and the meaning of their lives and experiences up to that point. This can be rather frightening at times. I would wager that more people would choose to go bungee jumping than try to catch the essence of an experience through artistic endeavor. We can seek meaning and a sense of aliveness in other non-verbal ways such as music and sculpture (I spend perhaps way too much time playing a note on the guitar and then following it with another, trying to appreciate the notes in and of themselves, but also in their relationship to one another, they create a third thing in summation that does not exist as two simple notes…man, can I run off at the mouth sometimes!). I find in story telling and poetry, the same channeling of the thrill-desire can occur.
Ultimately, beyond the brain chemistry, I think these acts of seeking an adrenaline rush – for the PTSD survivor – are attempts to find personal meaning and the validation that their lives still have value. For those who do it simply because it is “fun,” well, have at it. In my own journey, I find arts and spirituality provide me with a sense of meaning and validation which last longer than the act of bungee jumping or thrill-driving…they are also less likely to harm someone else by accident. The act of getting to know my self through art and spirituality is much scarier, and more thrilling, than anything I have experienced as a soldier.
As in all things, your mileage may vary. Feel free to follow up with your thoughts.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z