Episode 2: Trauma and PTSD Defined
Episode 2: Trauma and PTSD Defined
A Solo episode in which Alyssa provides a breakdown of what trauma and PTSD are as well as how the symptoms play out in real life (PTDSD can be much more complex than what we often see in tv shows or movies). Alyssa also discusses the long-term physical and psychological effects of untreated trauma. Sadly, if left untreated, trauma can undo us. However, with the right tools and a good support system, we are capable of recovering and thriving.
Alyssa Scolari: Hey everyone and welcome to episode one of the light after trauma podcast. I’m your host, Alyssa Scolari. We are going to dive right in today with a little bit of background on the, what trauma and PTSD is. This world is becoming more and more familiar with trauma. I mean, you know, I’m 28 years old now. And I think back to even like five years ago, I don’t think I had really ever even heard of the word trauma until I got to grad school.
[00:01:17] And now it seems like the word trauma is everywhere. There’s racial trauma, there’s intergenerational trauma, there’s sexual trauma, there’s emotional trauma, but what exactly is trauma? And that’s part of what I’m going to be explaining today is the definition of trauma loosely. Because honestly, I could talk about it for hours.
[00:01:40] There’s so much to go into about it. And then we’re also going to talk about PTSD. And when I was thinking about recording this episode, It brought me back to a couple of really defining moments in my career that ultimately caused me to want to create a podcast and to want to keep spreading awareness on trauma.
[00:02:02] We talk about it a lot, but I think you guys are going to see that through these two stories. They’re going to show that there’s still so much work to be done. So the first story that I have for you is if you didn’t catch it in episode zero, I am not only navigating my own recovery from PTSD, but I also am a trauma therapist.
[00:02:24] And I have one client in particular who last year, about a year and a half ago, she tried to commit suicide. And thankfully she’s doing much better now. She is an amazing human being, but when she came back to see me for outpatient therapy, she was talking about her experience while in inpatient and this client, this patient in particular, she has a history of trauma, not physical abuse, not sexual abuse, but emotional neglect.
[00:03:05] She witnessed her father. Suffer from four years of cancer, which ultimately ended his life. And then her family really fell apart afterwards. And she definitely has shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and she witnessed trauma while watching her father rapidly decline and watching what cancer did to her father and then having to bury him.
[00:03:35] She absolutely met the criteria for PTSD and that’s absolutely a traumatic experience. But she was telling me that while she was in the hospital, the doctor who was assessing her, asked her if she had any sort of history of diagnoses. And she had said that she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and his response to her was no, that can’t be right.
[00:04:03] PTSD is only diagnosed to those who fight in the war. And this was 2019 guys, you know, it, it, it wasn’t 1980. This was like a year and a half ago. And just listening to her talk about this was a really defining moment for me in that I knew I needed to hone in on becoming a trauma therapist. I knew that this was the field that I was meant to be in.
[00:04:32] And then not shortly after that, I had gone to a conference for mental health professionals. And I was listening to somebody speak somebody who’s in the mental health field. And she was talking about the recent increase of talk around PTSD and trauma awareness. And as she was talking, she referred to it as trauma drama in a very derogatory way, basically saying that we’re making sort of much ado about nothing.
[00:05:07] It’s all just trauma drama. Everybody wants to talk about trauma. I remember that as she said that I looked around the room and I, I had seen a couple of different people just putting their head in their hands because they couldn’t believe she was saying less. I mean, according to the American Psychiatric Association, one in every 11 people in the United States experienced PTSD.
[00:05:31] So for her to refer to it as trauma drama was very upsetting to say the least. And I had a couple different thoughts and, you know, my first thought was, well, I could honestly chuck something at this lady, or I could use all the anger that I feel and I could make sure that no one ever utters the words, trauma drama, again.
[00:05:54] This was another really defining moment for me. It set me on fire in the sense that it made me realize it’s not going to be enough for me to just sit in my office and do trauma work. I need to continue with spreading awareness and I need to get the word out there because this isn’t trauma drama, people lose their lives over PTSD every single day.
[00:06:21] And that is what ultimately brings me to this episode. Where, as I mentioned earlier, we’re looking at what trauma is, what PTSD is and how it affects us physically and emotionally. So we’re going to start with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, which is a disorder that is a result of exposure to trauma of some sort.
[00:06:45] The specific symptoms of PTSD are broken down for therapists in what’s basically known as the Bible for the mental health field called the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Otherwise known as the DSM. What this book does is it breaks down all the different mental disorders. It’s a neat little packages to make it easier to diagnose someone.
[00:07:10] The DSM is a great guide, but it’s definitely not the be all end. All human beings are honestly way too complex to have their emotions broken down into checklists and neat little packages. And honestly, I’ve never seen two people whose symptoms of PTSD are exactly alike. But as a general guide to be diagnosed with PTSD, there has to be the exposure to a traumatic event, followed by symptoms, such as nightmares of the event, instrusive thoughts, or flashbacks and feelings as though you’re reliving the event, the experience of dissociation, which is something that we are going to be talking a lot about over the course of this podcast.
[00:07:59] Dissociation is basically a way to disconnect so that you don’t have to deal with the feelings that go along with experiencing the trauma. Other symptoms include strong bodily reactions like increased heart rate or sweating or shaking upon exposure to a reminder of the traumatic event. Sometimes people will avoid thoughts and feelings or any kind of physical sensations that will bring up memories of the event or people avoid places, conversations, activities, or objects that might remind them.
[00:08:34] People choose to try to numb out instead with maybe substances or sex or porn or self-harm. A lot of people also fall into some symptoms that are similar to depression, such as a lot of negative self-talk feelings of worthlessness thoughts that I’m unlovable or this entire world is an evil, horrible place.
[00:09:01] They feel detached from others. And they ultimately just feel like they’re walking around as if they’re some sort of shell of a human being. Other times PTSD symptoms can come out in the form of hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, feeling like you can’t sit still, irritability, you can’t sleep. It might look like ADHD like hyperactivity, but it also could be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
[00:09:32] And I just think it’s important to note that again, not every single person with PTSD is going to experience all of these symptoms. This is sort of like a guide for what PTSD can look like on somebody. Somebody can have all of these symptoms or some of those symptoms, and they are all a result of exposure to trauma.
[00:09:55] So as we shift, I want to talk a little bit more about what exactly is trauma, because I will agree that I think the word itself can be overused. I think people use it in a way that is funny when they’re telling jokes like, Oh my God, that was so traumatic for me. Unfortunately, trauma itself is so far from funny in its purest form, it’s defined as a deeply disturbing or a deeply distressing event.
[00:10:26] Some examples of trauma could include sexual assault, rape, incest, domestic violence, natural disasters, like tsunamis or tornadoes or earthquakes. Watching somebody or you yourself having a severe illness or injury, the death of a loved one witnessing an act of violence. You don’t necessarily have to have the traumatic event happened to you in order to develop PTSD.
[00:11:01] You also can have PTSD, even if you’re just exposed on some level to the trauma. So, for example, first responders, they are often the first ones out in a car accident at any sort of disaster. And while they aren’t necessarily victims of the disaster itself, they can develop PTSD because they were exposed to the traumatic event.
[00:11:28] Also, which I think a lot of people don’t realize is that therapists can develop PTSD because we are exposed to listening to people, talk about their experiences with trauma and what happens to them and their stories. And sometimes therapists can take that on and develop PTSD as a result. It’s not common, but hey, therapists are human too.
[00:11:56] And it does happen sometimes. I honestly could go through the list of about a million different circumstances in which something could be perceived as traumatic, but basically at its core is that somebody can be traumatized when there is a perceived threat or perceived danger. One of the questions that I’ve gotten a lot throughout my career is okay, Alyssa, but there are two people who have been through the same exact traumatic experience and one develops PTSD and the other does not.
[00:12:37] So what gives, and I think that that’s a really important question. It’s so important to note that just because somebody experiences a traumatic event, It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to develop PTSD from what I’ve seen PTSD often develops as a result of what happens after the traumatic event.
[00:13:01] If the person doesn’t seek the help and support that they need, if they don’t process what happened, if they don’t go to therapy or find help for what they went through in some way, even if it’s not therapy, then PTSD symptoms tend to develop. So that is what I would say would be the biggest difference between somebody who develops PTSD and somebody who doesn’t, when two people are going through the same traumatic experience.
[00:13:31] In looking at PTSD from a physiological perspective, it’s really important to note that there are actual changes in the brain of somebody who has developed PTSD. Over the last 40 years or so as the scientific methods of neuro imaging have improved scientists have been able to do brain scans and see the distinct differences that PTSD causes.
[00:14:00] In the brain. So basically what happens is that all of our brains have this internal alarm system and the amygdala is a part of your brain that’s right in the center that triggers your natural alarm system. And this is a really important function to have because if you’re walking in the woods and you see a bear boom, that amygdala triggers your natural alarm system.
[00:14:29] And when your alarm system gets triggered, you may freeze. You may run, you may hide. You’ll basically do anything that you have to in order to keep yourself safe. So the amygdala is this primitive part of the brain. That’s wired to keep us alive. And when we develop PTSD, it becomes very overactive. So it’s kind of instantly triggering that internal alarm system that says there’s danger.
[00:15:01] There’s something wrong and we’re not safe. And then we have the other part of the brain, which is the part in the very front. And that’s called your prefrontal cortex. That is actually the last part of your brain to develop. On average, it takes about two and a half decades for our brains to develop. And that front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is the very last thing that gets fully developed.
[00:15:28] And that’s the part that helps us to think rationally and make decisions. So when we have PTSD and we become triggered. That amygdala, which is in the center of our brain is constantly sounding off the internal alarm system. So all of the blood flow is going to the center part of the brain. That’s saying something’s wrong, we’re in danger.
[00:15:53] We need to act whether it’s fight flight freeze, and there’s very little blood that’s going to the front of the brain, which allows for rational thought. So we’ve got this overactive amygdala and an underactive prefrontal cortex, which causes us to be in our emotions and our feelings and not at all be in the logic.
[00:16:20] So we physically cannot determine if there actually is danger. It feels that way. All the blood flow is going to our amygdala. The alarm is sounding, but we don’t have enough blood flow in the front of our brain to allow us to make rational decisions and say, oh wait, I’m not in my trauma. There really is no danger here.
[00:16:44] Your brain literally rewires itself to perceive everything as a threat. And part of the work that you do in therapy, when you are recovering from PTSD is trying to rewire your brain by first grounding yourself. And trying to get more blood flow into your prefrontal cortex so that you can make a logical and rational decision.
[00:17:10] Am I an actual danger or is this a flashback? There are a lot of great visuals out there on scans of the brain and the difference between what a healthy normal brain looks like versus. The brain of somebody who has PTSD, I’m actually gonna link the image for you guys. I will send it out in the weekly newsletter.
[00:17:33] If you guys are signed up for that, I’m also going to post it on the private Facebook page. So if you guys are interested in checking out that visual head over to my website and sign up for the newsletter, it’s alyssascolari.com. And then once you’re signed up for that newsletter, you will be enrolled in the private Facebook group.
[00:17:54] I do just want to take a moment to emphasize though, that despite knowing that PTSD and exposure to trauma can actually change the way our brains are wired, this is something that’s reversible. So you can recover from PTSD and your brain can go back to its original state. The key to rewiring your brain is in getting treatment, whatever that may look like for you.
[00:18:24] For me personally, right now that looks like being in intensive therapy four days a week with a trauma therapist. For others, it might not look like that. Everybody’s journey to healing is different, but it’s definitely possible to recover from this. The really, really sad thing though, is that many people aren’t aware of the long lasting and detrimental effects of exposure to trauma, and many people aren’t even aware that they have PTSD.
[00:18:58] I know for me personally, I was not diagnosed with PTSD until about a year and a half ago. I had no clue. I had always taken a great interest in trauma and PTSD. And when I was in grad school, I learned all about it and I knew I wanted to be a trauma therapist, but I had no idea that I had PTSD until a couple years ago.
[00:19:26] And I do have to say that over the last couple of years, I have been increasingly grateful for my therapist and my recovery. As I dive deeper into PTSD and trauma and I start to understand the serious long-term effects of trauma when it goes untreated. I want to talk about a website that I often refer to when I’m doing speaking engagements, or even when I’m doing therapy with my own patients.
[00:19:58] And it’s called acestoohigh.com. And again, I will link this website for you guys and the newsletter and the Facebook page. But ACEs too high is a website that talks all about the ACE study. And for those of you who don’t know what that is, ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences. And basically what this study did is it took a list of questions and asked people their experiences from ages zero to 18 years old of trauma. And that includes parents getting divorced, a household member who was in jail, verbal abuse, sexual abuse. And there are others in there. Again, if you guys want to check it out, I’ll definitely link the website for you. But what the study found is that as your ACE score increases, so as your experiences of childhood trauma increase, so does your risk of disease as well as your risk of having social and emotional dysfunction in the future.
[00:21:07] So, for example, it puts you at greater risk of being a perpetrator for domestic violence. It puts you at greater risk for developing underlying chronic depression for developing alcoholism. It puts you at a greater risk for suicide attempts. A greater risk for impaired work performance. And it also can put you at a greater risk for having more physical elements like liver failure or COPD, and to get even more specific, according to the ACE study as the number of childhood traumatic experiences increases so does your likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease by 390%! So as you can see, this study was really groundbreaking. And the really interesting thing about this study is that it all came out of a doctor who was just trying to run an obesity clinic.
[00:22:07] This clinic had thousands of people signed up and for the most part, everybody was successful in losing weight. However, what the doctor noticed is that more than half of the people ended up dropping out and he couldn’t understand why people were losing all this weight and being very successful, but they were still dropping out of this clinic.
[00:22:32] So, what he did is he started to go around to all of the people individually who had dropped out and started interviewing them as a way to find out what ultimately caused them to leave. And when he was interviewing one woman in particular, one of the questions that he meant to ask her was how old were you when you first became sexually active?
[00:22:57] However, he misspoke. And instead of asking him that, he said, how much did you weigh when you were first sexually active? And the woman responded with 40 pounds? And at first he didn’t understand what he was hearing, but then the woman broke down and started talking about how she had been sexually abused by her father from a very young age.
[00:23:24] And she couldn’t have been more than 40 pounds when she first started becoming sexually active. One of the things that the woman had said that really struck the doctor is that she had dropped out of the clinic because she was losing weight and she became terrified. Her response was overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be.
[00:23:52] And this right here was a really enlightening moment for the doctor, as he realized how much instances, not just of sexual abuse, but of any traumatic event can affect people in the long run, including when it comes to their outward appearance. The doctor went on to interview more people. And he started to change the questions that he asked and the questions that he asked were more geared towards their experiences with trauma.
[00:24:24] And it turned out that the majority of these people did have experiences of childhood abuse. So this ultimately is where the inspiration for the ACE study came from while the obesity clinic was being run in the late eighties, the ACE study that came as a result of it, didn’t really make headlines until about 2011 and 2012.
[00:24:50] So a lot of this research is fairly new within the last decade to two decades. So it really is very recently that we are finally starting to understand what trauma is and the long lasting impact that it can have on us. And as sad as some of the stuff is that we’re talking about today, it also paves the way for so much hope because now that we understand the impact of trauma and we understand how real PTSD is.
[00:25:24] We can focus on ways to treat it. And we are coming up with more and more ways to help people who have been traumatized like EMDR, brainspotting, trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy, all of these things that we’re going to talk about in future episodes. It’s so important for you to remember that yes, the effects of any kind of adverse childhood experience or even adult experience can be devastating.
[00:25:56] However you can recover. The goal of today’s episode was really to lay out the groundwork and help people to understand. What is trauma, what is PTSD and what can happen if we do not get the help and support that we need with this information in mind, we can start to take steps forward towards finding light after trauma.
[00:26:23] Our experiences are valid and they affect almost every aspect of our lives. But choosing the road to recovery will be the best decision that you ever make for yourself. I know it’s definitely the best decision that I’ve ever made for me. If you’re somebody who thinks that you may have PTSD or that you may have been exposed to trauma I truly hope that this episode was helpful today. And I hope that it encourages you to get the help that you need, whatever that may look like. So that is all for today. I know I’ve thrown a lot of facts and information at you, but again, this is going to lay the groundwork for all the future episodes.
[00:27:05] Next week, I’m really excited because we have a guest speaker, Valerie, Ashley, who is coming on to talk about trauma and how it affects us in the workplace. So I’m really excited for that hope you guys tune in, and I hope you have a great rest of your week.
[00:27:21] I hope you enjoyed today’s episode for more information on today’s discussion and to sign up for the light after trauma newsletter, head over to my website at alyssascolari.com.
[00:27:31] Also be sure to check out my Instagram for additional tips and resources at Alyssa_ Scolari_ LPC. Thanks again for listening and take good care.