She knows it’s coming when her stomach drops, and she starts to feel disoriented and nauseated.
“My brain is racing a million miles a minute, but I can’t physically move and I feel light-headed. It’s a lot of feeling restless, but not wanting to move. Inside my head is a whirlwind, but my body is frozen and just says ‘NO.’”
What Laurissa Rutgers, a San Diego theatre actress known to most as “Ell,” is explaining over a Zoom call, is how she feels during an anxiety attack. At the age of 18, while out for a birthday celebration, Ell said she was sexually assaulted by a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton. In the days, weeks and months to follow, she experienced these attacks more routinely as one of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Anxiety attacks, sometimes more commonly known as “flashbacks,” are just one of many symptoms one can experience when living with PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD is a mental health condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident or sexual assault. The site also states that about half of Americans have gone through a traumatic event in their lives. Of people who have had trauma, about 1 in 10 men and 2 in 10 women will develop PTSD.
According to Ron Freedman, readjustment counselor at Chula Vista Veterans Center, PTSD is how the mind, body, soul and spirit respond to events known as traumatic, such as experiences that are life or death or perceived as life or death.
“In more simplistic terms, it’s a normal mental and emotional response to an abnormal situation,” Freedman said.
Freedman has worked at the Chula Vista Veterans Center for almost 11 years, but has worked with patients suffering with PTSD for many more. He works with veterans but said the symptoms of PTSD are generally similar for all who have it. Until recently, many people assumed it was something only combat veterans had.
“When I began to experience PTSD symptoms, I had no idea I could even have it,” said Cristina Molina, a San Diego management professional and mother. “I thought PTSD was limited to veterans.”
Molina, who nearly lost her daughter at the age of 16 months due to being shaken by her biological father during a visitation, has symptoms that mirror those of many combat veterans.
“I started to have uncontrollable anxiety all the time, anxiety attacks,” said Molina. “I would freak out in traffic and get dizzy and have to pull over. I developed claustrophobia.”
Molina’s daughter Caitlin, now 24, has no recollection of the event, but Molina remembers each moment of her unresponsive daughter being life-flighted by helicopter to a medical facility. Her feelings of anxiety in traffic boil down to the feeling she had of helplessness as doctors told her that her daughter would most likely be brain dead if she ever woke up.
“After that feeling, I had to have control of everything in my life. If I didn’t feel 100% in control then I would freak out,” said Molina. “In traffic you feel the same…helpless and stuck.”
According to Freedman, it was veterans who brought the most attention to what traumatic events can do to a person’s brain. In fact, he said some of the first recorded instances were among Greek soldiers, who referred to the depression, anger and anxiety caused by war as “soldier’s heart.” He said the term PTSD was finally coined after the Vietnam War as medical professionals sought to understand what was going on with those returning.
As the term and the facts about the disorder became firmer, psychologists became aware the mental and emotional responses military members experienced by war trauma were also experienced by those who had gone through non-combat trauma.
For combat vets, anxiety in traffic is a common symptom. But for them, the feeling may stem from their fear of driving in military convoys down the dangerous roads of Iraq or Afghanistan. To a combat veteran, a stopped convoy would make them “sitting ducks” for the enemy, so the symptoms manifest in the same way.
According to Freedman and the Veterans Affairs website, other symptoms associated with PTSD include bouts of depression, angry outbursts, general anxiety, difficulty concentrating, socializing, forming or maintaining interpersonal relationships and unexplained pain and fatigue.
“Right after my assault I was just sick,” said Ell. “My stomach was upset, I was exhausted and I hurt all over, almost like I had the flu. But it wasn’t the flu, it was my body responding to the trauma.”
Ell still has stomach issues, despite the event happening more than nine years ago. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. in his book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” many of the toxic emotions “caught” in a trauma survivor’s body can cause a myriad of phantom illnesses, pain symptoms and even manifest into actual medical disorders such as fibromyalgia or autoimmune diseases.
Freedman says trauma survivors can also experience feelings of worthlessness, shame and guilt. A soldier may feel guilty for surviving an enemy ambush when his buddy did not. A sexual assault survivor may contend with constant shame after the incident, feeling as though they are ruined or worthless.
The most common symptom Freedman associates with his particular clients is isolation. Those with PTSD, because they constantly battle intrusive thoughts, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, often feel estranged from society. Trauma survivors also develop a difficulty ascertaining real or perceived danger. As a result, they keep to themselves and drift further away from the rest of humanity.
“The isolation is a form of avoidance,” said Freedman. “For someone with PTSD, the world is full of triggers that can instantly transport them back in time to their traumatic event(s). So, if they don’t go out into the world, they are less likely to encounter those triggers.”
As one can imagine, PTSD has the potential to put a hard kink into the way one manages daily life. Constant battles with anxiety attacks or unexplained illness can affect ability to go to a job, school or have a normal social life.
“I’ve missed work, I’ve missed classes, I’ve missed auditions,” said Ell. “I’ve missed out on all these things that would have made my life better, just because I have PTSD.”
Many who suffer with PTSD report loss of job. College students who suffer with PTSD may experience a drop in grades and their grade point average. According to an article by Susanne Babbel MFT, PhD, on the Psychology Today website, approximately 4%-6% of young people in the general population nationwide will meet criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD from a traumatic event, including suffering from symptoms such as poor concentration and intrusive thoughts, which can severely interfere with school functioning.
Many who suffer with PTSD struggle with marriage or relationship issues. For Ell, who recently became engaged to her boyfriend of nine years, the feelings of shame and worthlessness can still creep in.
“Even though my fiancé is very understanding and showers me with all this love, in the back of my head I’m like ‘ok, this is too good to be true’ you know?” Ell said. “There have been several times, more than several times that I’ve had breakdowns because I just could not understand how he could love me, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.”
The disorder can affect people in seemingly endless ways. Therefore, the pathways one can use to treat and heal PTSD are equally endless. Freedman said the first step in treatment on any level is for the trauma survivor to accept the trauma has taken place. He said he knows they are on the path to recovery when they finally begin to open up and talk. Eventually, he said, the goal is for them to fully accept their trauma, accept that it affects their lives and develop successful ways to contend with it.
Successful ways to contend with PTSD are as numerous as the symptoms themselves. According to Freedman, a common first line of defense is medication like antidepressants. Finding a therapist is also a common first step.
Across the board, medical professionals and trauma survivors agree there is huge benefit in working with a trained therapist who can listen professionally and offer proven solutions.
“It’s important, though, that you find a therapist you can trust,” said Freedman. “Trust is an important issue for trauma survivors.”
Aside from one-on-one therapy sessions, other types include group therapy and expressive arts therapy. There are also different therapy techniques to help survivors look at their trauma, which include hypnosis and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.
Freedman also speaks often about mindfulness. To be mindful, he said, means you are living in the present moment, not drowning in harmful memories of the past.
“Survivors have to learn to become bigger than the trauma itself,” said Freedman, “Then you have to learn to become proud of who you are now.”
Although PTSD has been healed in many people, the memories and residue of trauma will always remain a part of those who have suffered it. The pathways to healing are all as different as the people who seek them. But, according to Freedman and those who live with it, it is sometimes just part of being human.
“Even the best things in life break,” said Molina. “Even a Ferrari can break. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a Ferrari anymore. You can still fix it up and it will still be just as beautiful, maybe even more so.”
By: Amber Robinson