A military spouse once said to me, “PTSD is like a stranger that sneaks into the house and hides in the shadows. For a while you can feel there’s a new presence but because you can’t see it you think maybe you’re just imagining the change. Then something happens; a light shines in the shadows and someone you don’t recognize steps forward.”
This description brilliantly captures the assault on identity that posttraumatic stress disorder causes. Many survivors describe it as a distinct “before” and “after” self. They notice that priorities and values change; interests and activities shift; and desires and objectives alter. When you ask a survivor to explain the transformation he often has no answer. The changes are driven by subconscious needs; survivors watch as detached observers while their lives, relationships and careers experience upheaval and disintegration.
Although there isn’t any one-size-fits-all recovery process there are many ways to heal PTSD. At the center of each unique process lies one universal element: a renegotiation of the self.
The Post-Trauma Identity Crisis
PTSD activates (and then doesn’t allow the deactivation of) the sympathetic nervous system. On a neurophysiological level this alters survivors all the way down to each individual cell. From dysfunctional brain structures to habituated survival responses PTSD puts in place disruptive and addictive behaviors designed to establish a sense of safety and control. Though many survivors are aware of the negative changes they feel powerless to stop them. Here is the core of the identity crisis after trauma: You’re not who you used to be in the past; you’re not who you’d like to become in the future; and you are powerless over much of who you are in the present.
This sensation of powerlessness often leads to self-hate, plus feelings of being less than, uselessness (i.e. unable to protect oneself or loved ones), and an inability to professionally perform with reliability and skill. The light shines in the shadows and suddenly a proud soldier turns into a person he no longer feels good about.
Attempting to heal while experiencing a sensation of self-loathing, loss or confusion makes it even harder to feel safe and in control. There is, however, a way to restore a positive sense of self: A healing process with identity reconstruction as a central theme can help turn your soldier back into your partner in ways that are grounded, deliberate, genuine and authentic.
Four Ways Trauma Affects Identity
When it comes to PTSD recovery it’s easy to identify avoidance tactics, hypervigilance rituals, re-experiencing cycles and frequent mood swings. Beneath these visible manifestations lies a less detectable transformation. Alterations in the following four areas dramatically affect identity after trauma:
Beliefs (concepts we hold to be true): We all experience the world through a belief system that helps us interpret what we see, feel, think and do. In the wake of trauma beliefs related to safety (and especially self-efficacy) realign toward the negative. Since beliefs inform 100% of our behavior and lead to habits that create 98% of our daily actions the effect of what a survivor accepts as truth is critical to how he experiences each day.
Meaning (significance we give to an idea, fact or experience): The meaning we ascribe to an event imbues it with emotional resonance that becomes encoded with the memory. Often, the meaning given to traumatic events reverberates with negative associations from lack of self-worth to larger disruptive concepts about the world at large. Healing benefits from assigning meaning to the past that 1) respects the traumatic experience, 2) includes a larger perspective than trauma alone.
Story (narrative of events): There are many possible stories to tell after trauma. The narrative throughline that a survivor creates illuminates his belief system and affects the trauma’s meaning. While it’s important to honor the events it’s also important to ensure that the story encompasses more than just the negative, powerless perspective. Every remembered trauma also includes survival; positive and negative intertwine and both deserve to be recognized.
Self-concept (personal definition): Trauma alters how survivors see themselves. If before they felt effective and able to handle adversity now they may question their ability to respond to or live in a world in which their survival (or that of loved ones) is not ensured, or in which they feel they didn’t deserve to survive. Rather than recognize the whole self many survivors exist solely through the perspective of perpetual danger. A core concept and central theme in constructing post-trauma identity includes a survivor’s learning to redefine who he is with a full perspective outside of trauma as well as within it.
Some survivors face recovery head on as a battle to be waged, others treat it like special ops and shroud the process in secrecy; still others deny there’s any problem at all. Gently introducing the concept of identity into any approach and working these four elements can help create a shift from survivor to post-trauma identity in a way that causes a transformation from powerless to powerful. In a world of no guarantees this single action roots a recovery process in something that feels stable, dependable and trustworthy—three qualities that introduce sensations of safety and control that enable a survivor to reclaim and redefine his personality not only as someone who has experienced trauma but who has conquered it too.
For more from Michele I recommend purchasing a copy of her new book:
Michele Rosenthal is an award-winning PTSD blogger, award-nominated author, founder of HealMyPTSD.com, host of Changing Direction radio and author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity (W. W. Norton).
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