What Does PTSD “Feel” Like?

In my work as a workplace mental health consultant and counselor, one of my focus areas is PTSD and trauma. Part of what I do is help people understand what the after-effects of trauma look and feel like and how to compassionately and meaningfully engage with people who must spend a considerable part of their lives managing their PTSD triggers and feelings. I train individuals and work groups on how to recognize the signs of trauma being activated, how to understand what is happening when the survivor is triggered, and how to respond compassionately and empathically with appropriate boundaries.

PTSD does not discriminate. It touches the lives of people from every country, race, age and socio-economic group.  It hijacks a trauma survivor’s brain by altering the way the person feels about the world and their place in it. Nowhere feels safe. They are often still “there”, not “here”. Interpersonal relationships become challenging. Survivors are caught in a paradox. They feel safest in isolation but meaningful connections with others are still wanted and are necessary for healing, safety and peace.

The diagnostic criteria and signs and symptoms of PTSD are well documented. A question that is not often explored is, “What does PTSD ‘feel’ like?” What is like when past trauma is triggered, executive functioning is temporarily altered, and fight/flight/freeze takes over? Although the answers may differ slightly from person to person (as each person with the same diagnosis can respond differently), only someone with PTSD can answer these questions.  So, I will give my answer.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful and serene Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson, Arizona. A family member had parked a camper there for time of respite and invited me to come stay. If you don’t think the desert is a magical place, then you have not visited the desert mountain areas of Arizona. In the morning, I woke up early to watch the sunrise over the mountains. As the sun started to light up the desert floor and warm the earth, numerous ground squirrels started to emerge from small holes in the ground. They slowly and cautiously looked up and around with the hopes of enjoying the day. Their furtive movements made it clear, however, that enjoyment and relaxation was not to be. They had one goal that consumed their behavior - watch for danger and take cover. Staying underground is and feels the safest to the ground squirrel. They want to be a part of the world outside but they can only do so with strict coping strategies - enter cautiously, stay vigilant, have exit strategies. They enjoy their time in the sun but with limitations. As I watched the ground squirrels in action, I thought, “This must be what living with PTSD feels like to some people.”  It is for me.

Surviving with PTSD is NOT a life sentence of misery. There are many beneficial and effective ways to learn how to manage the after-effects of trauma. Please, reach out. There are so many caring people ready to support trauma survivors - psychotherapists, clergy, peer support, friends, and family members. Talking is key. Talk to anyone who “gets it” and can respond with limitless support and compassion. Someone who will join you exactly where you are and who will admire you for all you have been through and honor the amazing person you are.