Is There A Party In Your PTSD Head?
So many of the survivors I work with and talk to express the same idea:
There are more than one of me in here!
Technically, they don’t mean there’s more than one personality inside their mind, so what do they mean?
The Facts About Your Selves
When you experience a trauma both your body and mind undergo transformations. Your body, all the way down to the last tiny cell, records the trauma. Robert Scaer, a foremost traumatologist and neurologist, wrote a fantastic book about this called, The Body Bears the Burden. Babette Rothschild, a survivor and now leading PTSD expert, wrote about it too in The Body Remembers. These are two of the seminal books on how trauma affects the body. (You can listen to fantastic interviews with both of these luminaries in the YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA archives.) The body records and can hold onto pieces of the past you’re not even thinking about.
While your body is busy encoding, your mind also does the same thing. In fact, one of the primary jobs of your mind is to keep you safe. After a trauma your brain works to recalibrate. Part of that job is learning all there is to know about and after your trauma so that your brain knows what to do in the future.
Behind the science of your body and mind something else is going on too: your psyche is working overtime trying to understand, arrange and organize all of the information your trauma presented in terms of who you are, how you function, what the world is like, what the experience means to you and about you, plus about your past, present and future.
A part of this process means that different parts of you step forward and become useful and redefined at different times. For example, there is a part of you that is brave, a part of you that is frightened, a part of you that wants to fight back, overcome and heal, and a part of you that wants to hold on to the memory of your trauma. Each of these parts has a real job and function. They are all useful and full of purpose.
Bringing Healing In Your Mind
During my recovery I really freaked out my mother by telling her there were five women inside of me. She didn’t know what to do with that information! As time went by, I narrowed the crowd down to three: There was my survivor self who felt it was important to hold onto the past (and hence, PTSD); what I called my warrior self who really desperately wanted to be free and healthy moving into the future; and me, the bystander just trying to get through every day. At a certain point I had to just step back and let other two fight it out while I, the third party, observed.
It’s natural after trauma to feel fractured and splintered. At the base of trauma recovery theory is the idea that recovery comes from and with integration. Your job is to acknowledge, validate, recognize, communicate and choreograph these separate selves as you seek to draw them together into the whole of who you are. What does each one want and need? How can they have it in healthy, safe and interconnected ways?
Earlier this week in one of my PTSD support groups a survivor shared where she is in this journey. She said, “This weekend things got bad, really bad. I scared myself with some very bad thinking. And then I let my PTSD self and my healthy self talk to each other and suddenly, my PTSD self understood she’s hurting me more than she’s helping me stay safe.”
This was a huge revelation and led the group member to an incredibly healthy place as we discussed how to trade dangerous PTSD coping habits with more positive and healthy ones. Does this one thought process complete PTSD recovery? No, but it’s in these small instances that we create that leads to recovering from symptoms of posttraumatic stress and eventually lead you to freedom.
Rosenthal, M. (2012, November 7). Is There A Party In Your PTSD Head?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, June 27 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2012/11/is-there-a-party-in-your-ptsd-head
Author: Michele Rosenthal
I am absolutely posting this to my readers on FB later today. Love, love, love this. Definitely going to carry this perspective with me throughout the day and let this sink in...inspiring. Thanks for always providing such awesome content on your blog, Michele!
@Claudia -- I'm so glad this idea resonated with you. The party in my head was truly terrifying at first, so learning to wrangle it left a big impression on me! I'd love to hear more feedback and suggestions for what to do from you or your readers, so feel free to share!
I've been through this sort of thing.
The part of me who makes me good at some aspects of my job is also the same part that was involved in keeping me alive and making choices during trauma.
Recently it was like I had an internal conversation around "look you're not helping by worrying, there's no danger here, just relax". Somehow through it and the work that went before I've finally managed to bring those aspects of me back and working but without the associated symptoms. :-)
I think I'm in a process of orchestration or construction, bringing together different aspects of myself into some sort of coherent whole. Being able to use the positive aspects of survival without re-experiencing is a massive step forward.
Recently I've needed to make some big decisions and it's been good to just be able to trust my instincts once more without triggerring.
@Bob, you've hit the nail on the head, I think! It sounds to me like you're talking about reintegration, which is a foundational element of PTSD recovery. I experienced many fractured parts during my PTSD years. I like how you put it: "different aspects of myself into some sort of coherent whole". That's what I worked on in recovery, too. Here's to finally having one self - with many fantastic internally cooperating contributors!
This post helps me so much! Now I understand and can articulate what it feels like to have "more than just me inside". Thank you so much!
@Trina - Yay! Clarity and the ability to communicate go a looooong way in PTSD coping and recovery. So glad this illuminated ideas for you. And thanks for letting me know this post hit the mark!