The Science Behind PTSD And Intimacy

Photo: Getty
The Science of PTSD and Intimacy
Love, Self

Recovery is a process.

Putting things in neat categories does a real number on intimacy. A PTSD sufferer feels safer when things are in tidy, defined boxes.

More rapid reactions can happen by retreating into less attached and complex states-of-being. Primary affects, such as; fear, rage, despair, shame and disgust can be habituated to wall off our later developing, slower emotions such as; love, sadness, happiness and feelings of belonging.

People with an exaggerated sense of endangerment (PTSD) get scared when they feel an emotion. They rapidly, 40-60 milliseconds, utilize more primitive, less socialized strategies to determine their thoughts and behaviors which can facilitate quick action.

Rather than an emotionally informed decision, a survival based choice dominates.

Following 9/11, all of the 5000 First Responders were provide mental health screenings. In follow-up, a few years later, it became clearer what helped people relax with their horrific memories. Statistically it didn't make a difference if they got psychological treatment for their anger, fear, sleep problems, depression or flashbacks.

What mattered was that they were connected with people they respected and trusted. Good psychotherapy for these folks was designed to help them isolate less and to feel more comfortable in social situations.

Friends, family, church, civic organizations, teams, hiking clubs, and etc … are the necessary types of activities for letting the internalized story of yourself, which includes your memories of trauma, sit calmly within you.

The safest haven, or short term solution, feels like the walling off all of the feelings. Committed intimacy is the greatest threat to this armor. However there are disastrous long term consequences to feeling walled off from everyone, because human wiring is relational.

The frontal lobe works by being reflective about our insides and those around us. Our limbic system, or mid-brain, is coordinated around empathy and our feeling states in different situations. The brainstem's instinctive processes seek out interactions with our environment.

Allowing these systems to operate smoothly and harmoniously requires openness. You must love yourself and believe someone else can love you.

This is Attachment Theory 101. To be close to someone means they know deep inside you. The direction of therapy is toward an ability to feel safe as another person gets to know you better. You also have to learn you can share the confusing parts of yourself with someone, go your separate ways, and then reunite with a new shared knowledge of each other.

This is where therapy comes in handy. If you feel too ashamed to let your support system known the difficult things you have lived through, talk to a knowledgeable professional. Then you'll know what to tell your love ones.

You're inviting a person into the sense of being you developed in order to function in the trauma environment you survived.

Rapid categorization is a survival strategy to keeps us out situations that remind us of dangerous present or past events. If we learn to live alone with these self-protective feelings it seems impossible to allow someone into.  This is especially true with a person who was exposed to repeated traumatic events. In its most devastating form this isolation becomes dissociation (the blank stare), an extremely energetic state demanding no action. 

The more garden variety is an inability to recognize and express feelings. Feelings of inadequacy, failure and being flawed (shame) are the most common and intensely painful defenses against getting close to people. Shame feelings are among the easiest to clarify in psychotherapy.

You can use most therapists to explain your earliest feelings of shame or embarrassment. Then notice situations in your life where you have similar feelings. These are defensive processes. Although they feel very important, they are not, and they create habits of thoughts and behaviors that keep you at a distance from others.

Shame patterns will dissolve under investigation. Time allows emotional wounds to to fester and get more painful. The sooner you do the work to heal emotionally the easier the recovery.

Bill Maier is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, OR. Chapters of his forthcoming book on therapy for illuminating your shame and utilizing your Shadow are currently available.