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Why PTSD Symptoms Flare Up in Unlikely Places

Any form of potential danger can trigger PTSD symptoms, even if it has nothing to do with the original trauma. More on PTSD at the Dissociative Living blog.

Anytime I’m traveling by car – whether I’m the driver or a passenger, whether it’s a quick jaunt to the store or a half-day road trip – detailed visions of gruesome car accidents repeatedly interrupt my thoughts. These intrusive images are involuntary and a common symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (typically comorbid in those with dissociative identity disorder). Until recently, I didn’t understand why these particular intrusive images plague me so. I’ve never been in a serious car accident. It surprised me to learn what now seems obvious: any form of potential danger can trigger PTSD symptoms.

 

The Symptoms of PTSD Thrive on Fear-Based Beliefs

Adults with dissociative identity disorder learned very young that the world is a dangerous place. Post-traumatic stress can therefore manifest for someone with DID around anything that has the potential for danger, whether it relates to their own trauma history or not. These are just a few of the unlikely places PTSD symptoms flare up in my everyday life:

  • Construction sites. Heavy equipment, tools that could be lethal, and vulnerable human bodies come together for me in a minefield of anxiety. It’s embarrassingly normal for me to turn around and drive back by a site I’ve just passed in order to somehow reassure myself that those guys with the concrete saws know what they’re doing.
  • Rainy days. I live in the Pacific Northwest where it rains six to eight months out of the year, primarily in fall and winter. Those gray months are wet with drizzly rain that makes the roadways slick and impairs vision. I don’t have to be in a car to experience intrusive images of fatal car accidents on rainy days.
  • The state between wakefulness and sleep. I suppose it’s because people are more vulnerable when they’re sleeping that the descent into slumber is so fraught with post-traumatic stress for me. Usually my intrusive images are of others being hurt, but when I’m falling asleep the visions that jar me awake are of my partner stabbing me with a knife, the ceiling abruptly falling and crushing me, and other equally irrational and improbable scenarios.

PTSD Symptoms Don’t Wait for Historical Evidence

I believe my experiences with posttraumatic stress disorder are fairly representative of what a great many people with Dissociative Identity Disorder live with on a daily basis. But it’s not hard to see why PTSD can be a debilitating condition ,whether the sufferer has DID or not.

I’ve never witnessed anyone hurt or killed at a construction site. Rain can certainly contribute to dangerous situations, including car accidents, but it’s never done anything to hurt me. No one has ever stabbed me in my sleep and I don’t know anyone who’s been crushed by a ceiling. Yet these are hotbeds of PTSD symptoms for me. Posttraumatic stress, I now know, doesn’t discriminate between conditions that have been historically traumatic and conditions that merely have the potential to be traumatic, however remote that potential might be.

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13 thoughts on “Why PTSD Symptoms Flare Up in Unlikely Places”

  1. Thank you for this article, and to each of you for sharing.

    Yesterday I shared in a 12-step group about what happened to me both in childhood and as an adult. Although I spoke in general terms, I was unprepared for being triggered. In 20 minutes, I finally confronted the depth and breadth of it.

    Just last week I told my doctor that there was a beginning and an end to my treatment. Now that I confronted it, like everything else I cannot put a timeline on it.

    I am particularly grateful to the author for the description of “intrusive thoughts” and “anxiety’. It was very helpful.

  2. This actually explains a lot for me. I’m not one hundred percent sure if I have ptsd or not (therapist stuff tends to be expensive and I act so normal that no one believes me when I ask for help), but I do relate to this. In an art class, we were learning how to weld with brass, and while I’ve never done anything with a torch before, I couldn’t help but picture the torch suddenly spinning in someone’s hand and burning someone to the bone. I have been burned once, by hot water from my dinner spilling, but this intrusive fear of the torch was well beyond the caution I have for hot water. I’m also unusually wary of knives, despite the fact that I find them kind of pretty. When I first tried driving, I was terrified. I kept imagining myself crashing at any opportunity, or other vehicles slamming into me. It’s certainly not fun to be constantly aware of even the smallest danger.

  3. I am thoroughly enjoying reading this blog. I was searching for an answer as to why flashbacks are happening again after a year of not having them. I found out thats just part of ptsd. I have ptsd from being beaten and raped by my ex in front of my children 4 years ago. I have no trigger i can find in the past three days of flashbacks and anxiety.

  4. Does anyone else get PTSD triggered by travelling or going on vacation?…. Its really awful for me. It feels as though everything is totally out of my control, and seems to throw me back to the exact feelings of living in my childhood home filled with incest and emotional abuse. I feel intense anxiety, hypervigilance, have depersonalization episodes, and start dissociating. Can’t seem to find a clear trigger…

  5. I found your blog today Holly. Thank you so much for putting into words what I have struggled with all my life. I look forward to reading all of your blog.

  6. I have PTSD due to being abused as a child and recently as I witnessed my best friends death. The recent event is really causing me lots of problems. Not only am I having to deal with his passing, but having to deal with the acute post traumatic stress that it’s causing me.

    I am working diligently with a psychologist and trying to solve some of the PTSD issues, so that I can move ahead and mourn for him. I miss him dearly.

    What is difficult for me is, being home between the hours of 5-6:30 at night. Every night with the exception of 3 nights, I have been gone those hours. To me, it’s easier to not be home than it is to have to ‘relive’ those final moments of his!

    I vividly remember his last words spoken to me…so yeah, PTSD can cause lots of problems…physical and psychological. It’s not an easy thing to ‘get over’ if one really and truly does!

    Thanks.

    1. Hi Beverly,

      I’m sorry for your loss. I think if you’ve already experienced severe trauma, and especially if you already have PTSD, you’re much more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress. Which makes sense, but seems decidedly unfair.

      PTSD certainly isn’t easy to get past. I question whether it’s possible at all for me.

      Thank you for your comment, Beverly. I hope with the help of your psychologist you’re able to ease some of your symptoms enough to mourn your friend’s death and move ahead.

  7. Once again I see me in your post. I have, for as log as I can remember, experienced what you described. I didn’t know it had a name. I just assumed that everyone had thoughts like that. Horrible events happening in my mind that I don’t recall ever happening in real life. I have to talk myself out of it or go hide somewhere until I can get a grip & rejoin the world w/ a smile.

    Up until the last few years, I thought everyone heard voices in their head. I can’t remember not hearing someone screaming & crying. It gets louder when my stress level is up & other times when I’m doing good, I have to listen for it. I’m so use to the noise, it really doesn’t bother me. I can push it back most of the time.

    My stress level has been up the past couple of days, so it helps to get it out here.

  8. Really interesting Holly…

    PTSD is a constant battle between irrational and rational fears for me. It gets further confused when I had a rational fear about something in the past, but it’s proven time and time again to be unfounded in the present. Some of my biggest ones are fairly typical PTSD things – I always have to have my back to a wall and know where everyone is within the room, etc. But it’s interesting that you mention the drowsy state as being an issue. That is a huge one for me… I have to either be fully away, or fully asleep, none of the in-between drowsiness. It just feels too unsafe.

    I also have a PTSD thing which I’ve been told is common for psychologically abused children; of having to have the bedcovers pulled right up over my neck. I’ve no idea why this is predominantly in psychologically abused children, or the reasoning behind it. But I remember my first therapist telling me about it. In my case it goes along with some pretty irrational fears of what will happen if the covers slip, but there you go 🙂

    Take care,
    CG

    1. Hi CG,

      “PTSD is a constant battle between irrational and rational fears for me. It gets further confused when I had a rational fear about something in the past, but it’s proven time and time again to be unfounded in the present.”

      Both of those sentences articulate well how I experience PTSD too. The battle between irrational and rational – it’s maddening. It feels, particularly when I’m in a traumatic stress response, impossible to discern the line between what fears make sense and what fears don’t.

      I understand the back to the wall thing. I prefer to have the door (assuming there’s only one) in my line of vision as well.

      “I have to either be fully away, or fully asleep, none of the in-between drowsiness. It just feels too unsafe.”

      I’m wondering if this has to do with being really vulnerable and knowing you’re really vulnerable. When I’m asleep, I’m vulnerable but because I’m asleep I’m not conscious of my own vulnerability. That in-between state is different. Perhaps too it’s feeling the gradual loss of control. I’m not sure ….

      That’s interesting about the bedcovers. Perhaps it’s because the neck is such a vulnerable spot? I don’t think that’s one I’ve ever experienced.

      Thanks for your comment, CG.

  9. Really well written piece, thank you for the information. I’m now only starting to look into my own symptoms of PTSD so it is helpful to read about how others experience them. I’ve been plagued by nightmares all my life. Really disturbing ones. And when I’m really stressed and tired I’ve heard voices as I’m falling asleep. I wasn’t sure if they were memories or just voices. I’ll have to keep paying attention to other things as they come up. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Ana,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Nightmares are a problem for us too but fortunately for me I don’t often have them myself. Only if I sleep during the day, which I rarely do (I avoid it precisely because I have nightmares if I sleep during the day).

      I also relate to what you said about hearing voices as you fall asleep. I don’t usually hear voices the way most people think of hearing voices. When I say that I hear people in my head, I don’t mean I hear an auditory sound like someone has a microphone in my head. However, when I’m falling asleep I do hear them in an auditory way. It can be very intrusive and loud. I think a lot of people with DID have that experience all the time. I don’t know how they manage to think straight!

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