Content note: this post is completely focused on trauma and mentions some causes of trauma. Please tread carefully.
In the last article in our series on Visibility and Your Ability to Concentrate, I spoke about managing two external factors affecting our collective concentration; the pandemic and technology.
In this article, we’re turning our attention to trauma, specifically Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the ways it impacts concentration.
Is trauma really such a big deal?
It is indeed. Let’s start with the stats. There are currently vast swags of people across the globe impacted by trauma. Here’s what’s happening in just a few of the English speaking countries in the world today:
In the USA
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults every year. That’s approximately 8 million Americans in any given year. When you break down that statistic you find that women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD. U.S. Latinos, African Americans, and First Nations people are also disproportionately affected.
According to the Australian National Centre of Excellence in Posttraumatic Mental Health (Phoenix Australia), about 5-10% of Australians will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. This means that at any one time over 1 million Australians have PTSD.
According to Mind – a mental health advocacy service in England and Wales – in any given week 4 in 100 people in England will be suffering from PTSD. That’s 2.2 million people.
A 2016 report on lifetime PTSD and trauma exposure, found that Canada had the highest prevalence of PTSD of the 24 countries included in the study – 9.2 percent of Canadians (over 3.4 million people) will suffer from PTSD in their lifetimes. The Netherlands, Australia and the US followed. Nigeria, China and Romania had the lowest levels.
In taking these statistics into account, let’s remember one more thing; the US, Australia, England and Canada haven’t had a war on their shores for a very long time.
There have been terror attacks, horrible levels of gun-related violence in the US, and an epidemic of sexual violence in such countries, but all major wars in the last 80 odd years have happened in other parts of the world (not in small part because the people who start wars often have the advantage of determining its location).
This means that the levels of PTSD mentioned above are resulting from what we commonly refer to as ‘normal life’. If we take account of the levels of PTSD showing up amongst people living in war zones, the global number escalates exponentially.
And what are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?
According to the Phoenix Australia, the main signs of PTSD include:
- ‘Re-living the traumatic event through distressing, unwanted memories, vivid nightmares and/or flashbacks.
- Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, including activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings that bring back memories of the trauma.
- Negative thoughts and feelings such as fear, anger, guilt, or feeling flat or numb a lot of the time.
- Feeling wound-up, which might mean having trouble sleeping or concentrating, feeling angry or irritable, taking risks, being easily startled, and/or being constantly on the lookout for danger.’
And here’s another helpful page from Mind on PTSD symptoms.
In short, when you’re suffering from PTSD, your body is constantly in a stress response. And the greater the stress, the more cortisol is shooting through your body.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone. It’s produced by the adrenal glands and puts you into a state of fight, flight or freeze. Which is great when we’re actually in physical danger. It can help us to engage in superhuman actions to protect or save ourselves and our loved ones.
When cortisol is coursing through your body all the time however, it’s an entirely different story.
Your fight, flight or freeze response is supposed to turn off. And when it doesn’t turn off, it’s sooo difficult to feel grounded, to come to rest, to feel easy in yourself, to experience genuine and easeful levels of confidence, to be clear-minded, or to concentrate for any significant length of time. You’re in a state of reactivity, it’s more difficult to regulate your emotions, and you’re unsettled in yourself.
A short diversion into Kakadu National Park (NP)
Many years ago I was travelling in the Northern Territory for work. I was suffering from chronic fatigue and really limping through my days. I’d work as much as I was physically capable of and then I’d sleep. ALL the time. If I pushed too hard at work, I’d have a ‘relapse’ and was physically unable to get out of bed for at least a week at a time, often longer.
Because I had to travel a bit for work, I always created recovery time at either end of a journey. (Travelling on planes was beyond exhausting.) And so, one day, in the lead up to a meeting on improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal people across Australia, I took myself off to sit by a billabong in the middle of Kakadu NP.
(If you’ve not been to Kakadu NP, I recommend popping it on your bucket list. It’s breathtaking.)
Here I was in the middle of one of the most extraordinary landscapes in the world, with nothing to do but enjoy the environment, and my body just could not rest. I’d been practising yoga for about 15 years at that point and had trained as a yoga practitioner so I was used to clocking what was happening in my body. It wasn’t good. I felt anxious. My mind kept jumping from one thing to the next. My breath was high in my chest.
‘Be here now,’ I kept saying to myself. ‘Be here now.’
And I really did my best to let go and be fully present.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the cortisol shooting through my body was working against me. It was constantly draining my battery, keeping me on high alert, and had me jumping at the merest sound.
It took me a few more years, and a whole raft of modalities, to meet the kinesiologist who would uncover the fact that my fight or flight switch – which he advised is supposed to turn off in the first year of life – had not turned off for me. It had been on constantly for over 30 years.
Fortunately, he was able to address that problem and the effect was instantaneous. It was like all the white noise had suddenly stopped and I could finally see and hear the world clearly.
I walked out of that kinesiology session like a new person. I was comfortable in my body in a way I’d never been before. I could sit still and listen to other people without my mind distracting me. I was at ease when I walked into a room full of strangers. I was able to sit down to work and focus on one task at a time without looking for distractions. I was able to rebuild my energy levels and actually maintain them. And finally, I was able to be fully present to my environment, to the task at hand, and to the people in my life.
What causes PTSD?
According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, ‘PTSD can develop after a very stressful, frightening or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience. The types of events that can lead to PTSD include:
- serious accidents
- physical or sexual assault
- abuse, including childhood or domestic abuse
- exposure to traumatic events at work, including remote exposure
- serious health problems, such as being admitted to intensive care
- childbirth experiences, such as losing a baby
- war and conflict
In my own work, I’ve encountered other forms of trauma which may result in PTSD including intergenerational trauma, birth trauma, the trauma of being a parent to very sick children, and something I call ‘identity trauma’ which is connected to the collective identity of a group (eg; the trauma so many women experienced when Sarah Everard was murdered).
What is known, is that sexual violence is a key contributor to PTSD. According to an article published in the McGill Journal of Medicine for example, the prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in sexual assault survivors in Canada is drastically higher than the national prevalence of PTSD.
In other words, of all the things that may cause PTSD, sexual assault is one of the most prevalent.
Responding to PTSD
According to PTSDUK, ‘it’s important to understand that PTSD is considered to be a psychological injury rather than a mental illness. This is because neuroanatomical studies have identified changes in major brain structures of those with PTSD — the amygdala and hippocampus – showing that there are significant physical changes within the brain as a result of trauma.’
People aren’t born with PTSD. They develop it in response to a traumatic incident or incidents.
This is important to understand because it tells us that PTSD is treatable. It can absolutely be a life sentence for some, but for many, it’s not. It’s treatable with the right kind of therapeutic work.
Therefore, whilst learning how to better manage your levels of concentration as discussed in the first article in this series is important, if you suffer from PTSD or have experienced any level of trauma in your life, healing your trauma-related wounds is likely to have a more significant, longer-term impact.
(This is why one of our primary objectives here at the School of Visibility is to raise the voices and profiles of people who facilitate healing. Because we know that the more people focus on healing, the better the world becomes.)
A note about being triggered
If you suffer from PTSD or have unresolved trauma in your life, your concentration levels and by extension, your efforts to become more visible, will be negatively affected while the inner work of healing remains undone.
You may find yourself jumping from one thing to the next, unable to rest wholly in the body (the body feeling unsafe, filled with uncomfortable emotions, and not a pleasant place to dwell). Your neural pathways will affect your ability to do deep focused work, and that all-important component of visibility – consistency – may remain ever elusive.
Additionally, you’ll likely find yourself triggered from time to time. This means the path you’re walking is derailed more regularly than people who aren’t recovering from trauma. When you’re triggered by something, your nervous system responds with the freeze, fight or flight reaction. Without an understanding of how to address that quickly and effectively, you may find yourself falling into unhealthy behavioural patterns, or stuck in bed recovering, or unable to function or accomplish simple tasks.
Have you ever read the book ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara? I loved that book a lot, but my goodness was it filled with triggers! There was one scene that triggered me so badly I was physically shaking as I read it. My entire nervous system went into overdrive and I had to spend the next three days doing intense clearing and healing work to be able to settle back into my body and feel safe again.
In a less extreme example, not so long ago a teenage boy came to my front door seeking donations on behalf of a charity. Our interaction was perfectly fine – he was very polite and friendly – but the fact of a stranger coming to my door when I was home alone with a toddler triggered me so much I had to spend the rest of the afternoon clearing out the terror that was circulating through my body.
These are two of SO MANY incidents I could share where simple experiences – reading a book, answering the door – have triggered a PTSD response in me. In each of those moments, I’ve had to set everything aside whatever I was working on, or planning to attend to, to heal the wounding that was rushing to the surface of my awareness. As a younger woman, with less awareness of how PTSD worked, I dealt with these moments with much less grace. Normally I would self-medicate with alcohol and that would, in turn, lead to a whole other raft of problems. It really is a miracle that I was able to achieve anything in my life at that time.
The point of sharing these stories is this; any effort at focused work can be negatively impacted by PTSD. I know that I work best when I’m grounded, comfortable in my body, settled in my soul, and emotionally stable. Recovering from PTSD means you have to develop the skills and awareness to know how to keep resetting yourself each time you’re triggering. Of course, the more healing work you do, the fewer things trigger you and you’re able to find your equilibrium much more quickly. But yes, your attempts to expand your reach and grow your visibility will absolutely be affected and it’s important to create a visibility strategy and approach that’s able to accommodate that.
Time to do some more healing work yourself? Or to get started?
We’re currently developing a page on our site featuring the work of our Women Speaking Up students. On that page, you’ll find a number of therapists and healers in the mix (including practitioners who specialise in intergenerational trauma, birth trauma, and sexual trauma). When that work is complete we’ll be sure to link to it here.
And if you’re a wellbeing professional and are looking for support in becoming more visible to the people who need to know you exist, be sure to pop over to Women Speaking Up and join our waitlist. We take a holistic approach to your visibility efforts, focusing on both the inner and outer work needed, and would love to support you as you support others.
Regulating your nervous system is a core tool in your work to living with, and healing from, PTSD. One key tool I’ve used for many years and which, during my time as a yoga teacher I would regularly teach my students in class, is nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). I recommend it any time you feel yourself unsettled or unbalanced, when you’re tired or your wired. It will help to bring the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems back into balance and act as a general reset for your body.
I’ve created an audio recording here which takes you through the process.
In encouraging you to focus on your healing journey as a core aspect of becoming more visible in the world, please note that I’m in no way suggesting that healing from trauma happens quickly or easily. My own experience is that it takes years, requires you to commit a significant portion of your resources in the process and/or a great deal of resourcefulness, as well as a strong commitment on the part of the trauma sufferer to search out appropriate therapies and modalities that will support them.
But you know the good news about that when it comes to visibility? While you heal from the trauma in your life, you also develop a transferable skillset; commitment, dedication, resilience in the face of hardship, resourcefulness, ability to pull together a support team, and more. Happily, these are also the skills that are essential to building a strong and thriving business and life.
NB: This article is part of a series on visibility and concentration. Click here to access the full series.