Responding to trauma is not a mental illness.
I want to boldly suggest that post-traumatic stress response doesn't necessarily have to be framed as a disorder or a mental illness.
Unusual, I know.
But I want all of us to consider that PTSD might simply be one possible human response to a traumatic life experience, such as the shell shock of war or the tragic loss of a child.
Since 1995, some clinicians have begun to call this type of human response to trauma “post-traumatic growth,” which reflects a new understanding of how that trauma can actually help us cross a threshold of personal transformation.
But human response to traumatic stress isn’t exclusive to military combat. It can come from abuse, being a victim of a crime, and many other traumatic experiences.
As with other psycho-emotional responses, there’s no objective scientific test for PTSD. The best diagnostic tools we have are “screening quizzes” for PTSD, like this one from Psych Central, but, before you just go take it, please know this first (quoted from that website):
“This is not a diagnostic quiz or professional assessment…so please do not take these quiz results as a recommendation for treatment for PTSD. However, some people who take this quiz find it beneficial to talk about their symptoms with their doctor or a mental health professional (such as a psychologist). Only a properly-trained physician or professional can diagnosis [sic] a mental health concern.”
Yes, war changes people … and so does trauma that happens outside the life of a warfighter.
But you don't have to see PTSD as a life sentence to anxiety and fear. There are ways to see it as a coping mechanism that can help you heal.
In order for that to happen, it can help to face the emotions so you can move past them.
Try to re-frame your triggers.
When watching a scary movie, we want to get triggered, right? In fact, if the movie isn’t terrifying enough, we often feel disappointed.
There’s a thrill to fright when we know it’s not “real,” but our physiological response to those fear triggers is just as real as in real life, minus the danger of course.
Still, if someone who’s previously been in a real-life traumatic situation re-lives or remembers that experience, whether triggered by a movie or some banal association, the post-traumatic response can be debilitating. How can anyone with such a pronounced response hope to cope?
We are making progress treating post-traumatic stress symptoms, but sad reminders of our clinical failures are everywhere: addiction to prescription painkillers, suicide, and self-medication.
I wonder if, by snuffing out the symptoms, are we also stifling the potential for healing?
What is post-traumatic growth?
Post-traumatic growth suggests that the traumatic response opens up potential for real psychological, emotional, mental, and even physical change.
Here’s an example you can try for yourself:
For this experiment, similar to a scary movie, we’re going to use music — this time, to trigger grief.
(You could intentionally trigger any of the four primary emotions, of course: fear, anger, grief, or joy. Some have started to call our ability to do this “emotional agility.”)
Grief is an emotion that seems to work best to prepare us for healing and transformation. Here’s one way to do this using the music you love.
You probably have a few favorite songs organized into playlists and, if you’re like me, you may have them grouped by activity or mood.
I’d like you to select four or five songs from the saddest possible music you know — maybe they are already on one of your mood playlists.
Find a comfortable chair in a quiet place where you won’t be distracted or interrupted for about a half hour, and put on your headphones.
(If you would like a sample playlist, feel free to take a listen to two of mine. Fair warning: mine are classically-flavored, which is about as deep as music can go IMHO. They are this playlist or this playlist.)
Now, begin to listen. If you have chosen sad songs that really resonate with you, it won’t take too much effort to allow yourself to feel the grief you’ve been collecting since the last time it welled up inside you.
Let your emotions play along with the music.
The music can trigger grief or sad memories, but it also functions to lubricate the process you may recognize as “letting go” or emptying your inner self of stored-up grief.
That’s all a very long way of explaining that, if you are in tears at this point in the experiment, you’re doing it right.
Stay with your music for as long as you need to.
That is, when you’ve finished crying, or feel that the charge around the grief you’ve just experienced has shifted somehow, or simply feel ready to stop grieving, the listening is complete and it’s time to stop the music.
Why does this music exercise work?
People have used music to grieve for millennia.
Why? Because songs of grief somehow enhance and expedite the process of grieving. The grieving process is one of those healthy things human beings simply must do to stay emotionally agile.
Science is doing a great job of trying to explain the musical grief response, as well as other trauma-processing modalities such as EMDR, but the fact is that sad music just speeds up the processing of and recovery from grief, just as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing speeds up the recovery from trauma.
A full experience of any of the four emotions can be incredibly satisfying.
With music, you can give yourself that self-care experience … in safety and with every expectation of great results. Maybe you’ve experienced a similar response by reading a book that changed your life, or watching a movie that moved you deeply.
This process may help you to reach new depths of emotion for the first time.
If that becomes scary, please seek care. You may wish to do this exercise with a trusted mental health professional or support person by your side.
I’ve had help crossing many thresholds so far, and I expect to need more; the therapists and healers available in our age are remarkable, so please find and use one if you are feeling the need to do so.
What I’m suggesting is that each of us finds tools to trigger more and more of these emotional, transformative threshold moments in our individual lives.
We need big dramatic change, yes, but to get there we need to encourage more of the healthy small changes each of us can safely make within ourselves.
Music has been a friend to humankind for millennia; now more than ever, the world needs the results of our music at work … in us.
Bill Protzmann is a speaker and life coach on a mission to raise awareness about the power of music as self-care. Want to join the music care movement? Check out the Music Care website or sign up for lessons.