For me, dealing with the hyperarousal symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an ongoing thing. I think it’s the one group of PTSD symptoms that currently affects me the most, even with all of the therapy I have had and the medication I take. In my last post, I wrote about how the brain functions during trauma and how, for those of us with PTSD, it can get stuck in the reactive state . In this post I want to talk about what it feels like to be in the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD and how to deal with it.
What Do Hyperarousal Symptoms of PTSD Feel Like?
Have you ever been driving along in your car, looked away from in front of you for a second, and when you look back traffic has stopped and you have to slam on your brakes so you don’t rear end the car in front of you? You know that feeling you get–startled, tense, heart pounding, cold sweat? That’s what hyperarousal feels like to me, but I don’t have to experience a near-miss car accident to feel it. It’s a feeling that can come on out of
nowhere, with no real cause, or it can be brought on when I am already feeling anxiety or over-stimulated (Triggers Can Make Anxiety and PTSD Flare Up).
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists the criteria that has to be present for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD. There are several categories, one of which is: alterations in arousal and reactivity. It goes on to say that two of the following have to be present for a PTSD diagnosis:
- Irritable or aggressive behavior
- Self-destructive or reckless behavior
- Exaggerated Startle Response
- Problems in concentration
- Sleep disturbances
At one time or another, since I started experiencing PTSD symptoms, I have felt all of those. The ones that seem to linger though, are the hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response (Combat PTSD Symptoms – Hyperarousal [Being Keyed Up]).
Hypervigilance and the Exaggerated Startle Response: PTSD Symptoms
Hypervigilance is the feeling of constantly being “on alert.” I feel this the most when I am somewhere by myself, not necessarily places where there aren’t other people around, but places where I don’t know anyone, and there is no one with me who makes me feel safe. It’s why I don’t like to go shopping or to social gatherings by myself.
The exaggerated startle response is irritating at times. It’s as unpredictable as the sights and sounds that startle me. It doesn’t have to be something loud, or even something that makes noise to make me jump out of my skin. Sometimes it’s just seeing something unexpected, like looking up from a book and realizing that my husband has entered the room, or hearing a car honk its horn in the distance.
How I Deal with Hyperarousal Symptoms of PTSD
Just like everything else about PTSD, there are things that work for me when it comes to dealing with hyperarousal symptoms that may not work for everyone. What I have found helpful when it comes to minimizing them are the following:
- Stop them before they happen–I know that I am more likely to experience hyperarousal symptoms when I am already feeling anxious or overstimulated, so I do my best to address those two things when they come up. When I am feeling anxious, I practice relaxation techniques, close my eyes and breathe deeply, and I tell myself the truth–that everything is okay in that moment (Using Mindfulness in PTSD Recovery). If those things don’t work, I take my prescribed anti-anxiety medication (Should I Take Psychiatric Medication for PTSD?).
- Let others know–For a while at my last job, some coworkers thought that it was funny to sneak up on people and startle them. It is funny to see, but not so much when it happens to me. My fight or flight kicks in, and usually fight wins. So I just let people know that it’s not a good idea to do that to me, as well as the fact that I am easily startled by pretty normal things. Just letting people know helps me feel better, and it lowers the chances of startling situations.
- Don’t wallow in the feeling–When symptoms of hyperarousal do come up, I let myself feel the feeling and then I do my best to let it go. It’s easy to get caught up in the feelings and stay there or to get frustrated with myself for feeling them in the first place. Neither of those things is productive or healthy. I try to remember that whatever the symptom is, it’s just a thing, it doesn’t have to ruin my day or make me feel weak.
I would love to hear what works for you when it comes to dealing with the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD. Please share in the comments below.