In this post, I share what it's like to experience these 5 symptoms of C-PTSD.
[Trigger warning: Although I leave out the specific details of trauma, symptoms of PTSD are discussed in depth and elements of trauma are suggested. If you experience PTSD or trauma-related issues, please read with care and self-awareness. Reading about PTSD and trauma can be triggering as well as informative, so please choose your timing and look after yourself whilst reading: read in sections and take time out, walk around, read with a loved one for support. I am not a licensed therapist or healthcare professional; I am simply sharing my own experience of symptoms.]
The Symptoms of C-PTSD
Dealing with mental health and trauma can sometimes feel like navigating a dark and frightening path alone.
Although there is help out there (mental health information, therapy, medication, friends and family) the difficulty with a mental health journey is that it is unique. It takes time to unfold and to help explain what you are going through and perhaps more importantly why. Without a cause or reason, and without a complete or accurate picture of all the unique thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations you are experiencing, it can be challenging to (1) get a diagnosis or explanation, and (2) find the right treatment or help.
In order to help myself make sense of my journey, I have made a list of ten of the most prominent symptoms I experience in my battle with an unprocessed past. I hope that this list will also help others suffering from these symptoms, by forging a sense of empathy and understanding, as well as raising awareness for C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) by explaining some of the symptoms first-hand.
Flashbacks in films are sometimes depicted as clear and unbroken memories of the past, suggested by the flash of white light and the actor's distant gaze.
When I started having flashbacks, I didn't even know what they were. I just thought, "hey that's a random memory." Then the unexplained "random" memories would become more frequent and more explicit, happening at the same time as dissociation, panic attacks, and huge amounts of fear. The very strong emotional and physical reactions to seemingly meaningless and non-explicit memories made me begin to suspect that these weren't just memories my mind had dug up for no reason, but flashbacks to something more traumatic.
The thing about flashbacks as I have experienced them is that they are broken. They "flash" not in the sense that white lights flash in the films, but they appear involuntarily, quickly, and in very short and elusive bursts so that you can't quite make out what's happening.
When they are particularly strong, they often bring a few friends: raging headaches, dizziness, sickness, physical shut-down, and a whole lot of panic. It feels a bit like a violent battle being played out on your brain, where 25% of you would like to remember what happened to you to make sense of your life and to resolve the trauma, and the other 75% is like "no way, this is far too painful. I'm shutting this down right now." It feels like, as much as you want to do the right thing in this battle, it's not clear who the good guy is. Even if you knew, it doesn't seem like choosing one or the other is even an option.
Another interesting thing I have noticed about flashbacks is that the memories always seem to "go around" the traumatic event. I remember things like the rooms in the house, the furniture, the colours of the walls, and then when I get close to the specific memory or memories, a whole hurricane of pain hits me and I can't see anymore. It's like someone's switching the scenes of the horror film on and off and you're just waiting for the shock - but instead of seeing the scare from the comfort of your living room, you physically and emotionally experience it yourself. Then it's like a bus (or sometimes, 10 buses) just crashed straight into your brain. It hurts a lot, to put it lightly, and takes a little while to recover from.
Dissociating, or disconnecting from reality, is a coping mechanism we all use to deal with painful things in life. When trauma is involved, dissociation can become quite severe and extend to times and places when you are no longer in danger.
When dissociation appears out of nowhere, it can be really frightening. A lot of my experience with PTSD plays out as dissociation - I often describe it as feeling dizzy because I feel frighteningly disconnected from the world. Everything just starts to look and feel "off", fuzzy, or floaty. Experiencing dissociation often makes you feel really anxious, physically sick, and generally unwell. It's like an automatic form of physical denial where the body decides to shut off painful memories or sensations, and in an effort to protect itself, pulls the plug on the world just enough so that you can live a kind of half-life where everything is "there", but also nothing is quite "normal".
Sometimes dissociation blends with depression to paint the world in a nice grey mixture of fuzzy monochrome, whilst at other times it befriends anxiety and paranoia to make the floaty, disconnecting world a scary place of unrecognisable human life.
Most of the time I don't notice how dissociated I am because I've always experienced it as a natural part of life. Ever since traumatic memories and other symptoms of PTSD came to the surface, my coping mechanisim to dissociate ramped up to 100, making it much more explicit and recognisable. Oftentimes, when I experience all the symptoms of PTSD at once, the dissociation will cause me to be so drowsy and disconnected that I almost faint. It is at these times when I most need the help and support of someone else to prevent me from passing out.
3. Panic and Anxiety
Strangely enough (or perhaps understandably) most of my anxiety and panic these days revolves not so much around the trauma itself, or things out there in the world, but the actual episodes and symptoms of PTSD. As you might imagine, the symptoms themselves can be very distressing at times, especially when they peak into an episode which happens every one or two weeks. Knowing that I am on a perpetual loop of feeling unwell and having averse reactions to unresolved trauma is a source of anxiety, especially when I know it can be triggered by a comment, a joke, or a specific reference which sends me on a downward spiral.
Of course, there is also panic and anxiety in relation to the outside world, likely stemming from deep beliefs I hold about the world and other people forged out of childhood experiences.
A big step I have noticed in my ongoing recovery from PTSD is a shift away from anxiety and fear. I suffered for many years from panic attacks and quite severe anxiety, which has now largely dissolved into a different kind of emotion which I would describe as grief or pain. Although experiencing pain is not in itself a positive thing, moving through anxiety and fear to find and confront the pain which underlies it is a big step in recovery and a step towards resolving the underlying cause.
Experiencing physical sickness is also a more recent symptom in my journey through PTSD. This one definitely became more apparent when flashbacks became stronger and more explicit.
Feeling nauseous often accompanies memories and flashbacks which are more subdued, such as nightmares or distant instrusive thoughts around the trauma which have not quite escalated into an episode. When symptoms do escalate, and I am overwhelmed by symptoms of re-experiencing the trauma, then I am likely to feel very sick and sometimes even vomit.
I have noticed that when I try to talk about specific details of the event, that is when I am most triggered to physically vomit. It is interesting just how difficult talking is on a physical level as well as a psychological level - it is almost as if every inch of my body is preventing me from opening up and confronting the truth of the event. Although I would like to open up and share my experience my mind and body act as an obstacle, perhaps in an ill-fated attempt to protect me from further discomfort and pain.
5. Guilt and Shame
When I experience an episode of PTSD, I am flooded with feelings of guilt to the point that I won't ask for help. Guilt and shame are huge blocks to recovery in the sense that they prevent me from reaching out for support. Somehow I feel that I am burdening others when I am suffering, and it would be best for me to just cope with it on my own so others don't have to be dragged down too.
I am aware this is an unhelpful and untruthful way of thinking, but it's a very hard one to shake. These emotions are also fuel for dissociative coping mechanisms - guilt and shame force us to shut ourselves down and act as if everything is ok. I am not sure why PTSD triggers such huge amounts of guilt and shame - perhaps it's an internalisation and misinterpretation of what the trauma says about us. Negative life experiences feed all sorts of deep beliefs such as "I am worthless", "I am weak", "I am unloveable". It may be the case that when re-experiencing trauma and regressing into a very vulnerable state these kinds of beliefs resurface in the form of shameful and guilt-ridden emotions.
As well as acting as blocks to getting help, guilt and shame also prevent me from forging relationships. The mixture of my symptoms, together with a concoction of guilt, brew the perfect recipe for isolation. Knowing that a strong support network is key to recovery, whilst at the same time feeling terribly guilty for not always feeling well enough to hold relationships and take part in social interaction, is a perpetual conflict for many people struggling with mental health issues.
Further Reading about C-PTSD and PTSD
I hope that by sharing a first-hand account of what it's like to live with C-PTSD, I can help to raise awareness and understanding for everyone living through these symptoms. Whether you are facing similar mental, emotional or physical challenges yourself, or if you simply want to learn more about the experiences of others with PTSD or trauma-related issues, then you can read more about my experiences on my blog:
C-PTSD Recovery: Deconstructing Fear
Mental Health: My Experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
To read more about the issues discussed in this article, here are some useful links:
What is PTSD? | Mind
What is trauma? The author of “The Body Keeps the Score” explains | Bessel van der Kolk | Big Think
6 Ways to Heal Trauma Without Medication | Bessel van der Kolk | Big Think
What is complex PTSD? | Mind
How to Overcome Trauma | School of Life