Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’m hoping you can help me with my problems. I have a lot of them – especially over the past six months. It started after my 24 year-old son was in a car accident. Luckily, he was OK, but the fear of losing him has filled my life with anxiety. It reminded me of an accident I was in when I was eight years old. My father was driving, and someone hit us. My family was OK, but the other driver was injured. I remember his face was bloody. I had nightmares about his bloody face in that car for some time after that.
Since my son’s accident I’ve been very nervous, afraid to drive, except in my neighborhood, and have had trouble sleeping. I have vivid memories of the man in the car with a bloody face. Last month I had an anxiety attack – so terrible, my heart was beating so hard, and I couldn’t stop it. I was afraid I would die. I was in the grocery store when that happened. Now I’m afraid to go back there. No one can understand what I’m going through. It looks like everything is fine to others, cuz my son is OK, and everything else is OK in my life, so I feel bad that I can’t relax and be happy. I have to hide my feelings. I feel very alone because no one understands. Can you please help me? I don’t know why I can’t feel the way I used to feel before my son’s accident. It’s frustrating and depressing. I don’t know what to do. Do you think I should try medication?
Dr. Norquist responds:
Your symptoms suggest that you are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I believe it would be relieving for you just to read about PTSD and typical symptoms it generates. This will help to validate, normalize and make sense of all of your symptoms. Classic symptoms of PTSD include terrifyingly vivid flashback experiences of the event, nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, depression, irritability, insomnia, guilt, detachment, intrusive thoughts about the event, hyper-vigilance, memory impairment and deep loneliness. It’s quite possible that your son’s accident triggered a dormant PTSD reaction to the traumatic car accident that you experienced at age eight. It is not uncommon for PTSD reactions to manifest many years after the traumatic event, triggered by some event in that individual’s current life. What’s important for you to know is that this constellation of symptoms is common among PTSD survivors. You are not going crazy. As humans, we have a particular somatic and psychological response to the threat of annihilation, resulting in a particular array of physical and emotional symptoms.
Healing from PTSD requires treating both the body and the mind. A good place to start is finding a professional who specializes in treating PTSD, or a support group for survivors of PTSD. Relaxation training, guided imagery or breathwork are essential in that these modalities directly address the body’s vigilant, biochemically on-edge state and help it to return to a normal, nonadrenalized state. In the same regard, physical exercise is also immensely helpful, either aerobic (brisk walking, running, swimming, etc.) or a mind/body exercise such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or a martial art. Bodywork can help to release accumulated muscular tension, allow for deeper relaxation, and cleanse the body of accumulated toxic stress hormones. With PTSD, it is important to use techniques that address the right, non-verbal brain, such as imagery, prayer, meditation, and artistic expression (journaling, painting, or dance). There are some new mind/body therapeutic techniques that have proven to be especially helpful in resolving PTSD. These include EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), TFT (Thought Field Therapy), SE (Somatic Experiencing), and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique).
Medication can be very helpful, especially the Serotonin augmenting (SSRI) medications, such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Luvox. One of the biochemical side effects of trauma is abnormally low levels of Serotonin. However, using mind-body techniques such as imagery, meditation/prayer, relaxation, exercise, and artistic expression may provide enough somatic re-balancing to alleviate the need for medication. Please call or email me if you have further questions. Thank you for requesting help!
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2012 Chaitanya Counseling Services