Thursday, May 29, 2014

PTSD, Panic Attacks, and Hallucinations, Oh My

This post is in response to Mental Health Awareness Month.

All opinions posted here are my own. Actually, they're not opinions, they're experiences.

I realized how very few little people understand about psychological conditions that aren't depression. I hear people throwing around facts about everything from PTSD to bipolar disorder, and a lot of what they say is wrong.

So let's clear the air a little.

First: If you don't believe in the psychological effects of horrible experiences, you need to read a scientific journal, not this blog post. This blog is a safe place for people who suffer.


Posttraumatic stress disorder is an umbrella term for people who've been through traumatic events: sexual assault, wartime violence, abduction. It can include flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, self-destructive behavior, suicidal tendencies, depression, and more which occur long-term as a result of the trauma.

Calling it PTSD helps distinguish people who, say, have panic attacks as a result of emetophobia from those having panic attacks as a result of trauma. Same symptoms, different cause.

Panic Attacks

Your fight-or-flight kicks in, responding to fear stimuli, and your body reacts accordingly: speeding heart rate, fast/shallow breathing, muscle twitches, adrenaline, sweats. While panic attacks are caused by your mind, you can't think them away. The body's physiological response to fear is automatic, and worse, it feeds the fear in your mind.

When fighting panic attacks, it's important to identify your trigger. My trigger was men making aggressive motions towards me, usually on accident: a hand flying towards my face, someone taller than me stooping down for a hug. Back in the day, that simple gesture would cause my body to react fearfully. I shut down, curling into a little ball, sobbing and shaking and usually experiencing flashbacks or hallucinations.


There are a variety of reasons to have hallucinations. I know someone with narcolepsy who sometimes wakes up and has hallucinations because of her brain's unhealthy relationship with sleep. My hallucinations, however, were a part of my PTSD. While flashbacks involve vivid memories of the traumatic event(s), a hallucination is made-up. It involves seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, or any combination thereof.

Mine were auditory and somatosensory. I hallucinated people coming to get me, stabbing me, etc. I heard them and felt them, and I knew they were real. At the same time, a part of me knew they weren't real; but that didn't keep the other part of me from believing and experiencing them as if they were.

You might wonder how one can become so disconnected from reality as to believe in a false, mental reality. The fact is, your every perception about reality goes through your brain. You only know reality by what your brain tells you.

When I hallucinated at school, it was my friends who helped me through it. They sat with me and told me over and over that it was safe. That never solved the problem right away. But they gave me a link to reality that helped me get through the hallucinations and panic attacks and back to solid ground.


These are essentially hyper-memories. Do you have things you remember in extra detail--when you were embarrassed in front of a crowd or something scared you as a kid? Flashbacks are a worse version of that: intense, perfect, freeze-frame detail.

They call it a flashback because it flashes at you out of nowhere, like a panic attack that gets triggered. You can get so involved in the memory you tune out from what's going on around you. Flashbacks can make PTSD worse because you're essentially reliving the traumatic event in your head, remembering every sound, every touch, every second of what happened.

Flashbacks can cause panic attacks. If you live with someone who experienced trauma, don't ask them details unless they offer to tell. The telling will still be hard. No matter how healed you are from PTSD, the memory will always be emotional.

Repressed Memories

I didn't believe in these until they happened to me. Now I understand the science. Your brain literally cannot process what happened; it's too emotionally stressful. So the parts of your brain that process memory process this one differently. While you retain the intense detail of the memory, it gets stuffed down and the brain keeps it from resurfacing to your conscious mind.

It still reeks havoc in your unconscious. You experience a sense of duality, as if you can't find a part of yourself, and can often feel lost or depressed. You can start experiencing PTSD before the memory resurfaces, as happened to me: I had no idea why I was having panic attacks and hallucinations.

Have you ever lost your keys? You check by the door, in your purse, on the counter, wherever you normally keep them. Then suddenly the lightbulb goes on: that's right! I left them on my desk! How could I forget?

The return of repressed memories is similar. Once you remember, it seems impossible that it could've slipped your mind. You remember it as clearly and easily as you remember hanging out with a friend last week. It is like any other memory (but stronger); you just forgot it for awhile.

Trust Issues

When reality is getting turned on its head--you're hallucinating things that seem real but aren't, and remembering things that are real but you don't want them to be--it's hard to stay connected with what's true. It's hard to really believe that your friends and family love you, or that life is worth living.

I didn't believe in love. I didn't believe in my value. I didn't believe in a loving God. More importantly, I couldn't overcome these things by self-persuasion.

I told myself daily, "You're good enough. People love you." I tried. And my symptoms of PTSD did diminish. But instead, all the emotional stress was channeled into a deep, suicidal depression that I kept denying I had. By trying to believe I was okay, I repressed the fact that I wasn't. Eventually, my "force of will" act almost killed me when I tried to take my own life in the summer of 2007.

The only thing that heals PTSD, trust issues, and the rest is seeing reality for yourself. If you think everyone's out to get you, the only way you'll be persuaded differently is if people love you instead of abandoning you, day after day. Healing is a long-term process. You slog through the weeks and months and a year later realize that everyone's still by your side like they promised. You begin to believe.

Incidentally, that's why I believe in a loving God. When I went to kill myself, I theorized that a loving God would take away all the things that were driving me to end my life. So I gave God one chance to heal my heart, something I'd never done before. I'd never let anyone into my heart because I was afraid of experiencing the trauma of letdown and betrayal.

But I was about to kill myself anyway, so if God let me down, it wouldn't matter much. I gave him one chance. The panic attacks ended. The fear ended. The suicidal desires went away. I didn't believe, but I didn't have to; God proved his love by acting it out.

Truth is something that is, not something you make. In the same way, you don't have to try to heal yourself from your trauma; healing is something you find, not something you do. I think too often we try to psych ourselves into a better frame of mind. It won't work. Giving up the fight and letting others stand beside you is the only way you'll find wholeness again.

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