The brain is made up of tons of different neural networks. We strengthen the connections between neurons when we learn to do something. As a simple example, when a person is learning how to ride a bike, a neural pathway forms that strengthens the more a person completes the action of bicycling correctly. If the person never has any desire to ride a bike, they will never form that neural pathway because they will never give the neurons a reason to connect. And if a person doesn’t ride a bike for many years, that neural pathway will begin to fade away.
Neural pathways do not only form for positive experiences such as riding a bike. They can also form from negative experiences. A psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” after his experimentation on dogs. He locked dogs into kennels with no way out and hit them with repeated electric shocks. The dogs would try to escape by biting the bars or throwing themselves at the sides, but they couldn’t get away from the shocks. Eventually, learning that there was no escape, the dogs would lay down in the kennels and just take the shocks. Even when Seligman opened the dog to the kennel, the dog would continue to stay and take the shocks. The neural pathways formed by the repeated electrocution taught the dog that there was no way out. There are chemicals formed inside the neurons during adverse experiences that aren’t formed during happy times; these chemicals are what make the negative memories last longer. The neural pathways formed by negative memories are stronger, and harder to break.
Post traumatic stress disorder is like that; it’s the formation of a negative neural pathway or pathways caused by exposure to something from the past. For instance, there are certain things that just trigger a vise. Like someone is squeezing the inside of the chest. My chest.
It’s very difficult for me to explain PTSD to people outside of it. Really, it’s my brain being scared. My neural pathways sending me into fight or flight that generally transports me to somewhere other than where the “fight” occurred. I think of my brain as a bit of a firecracker. There is only so long that my fuse can burn before it blows up. Over time, I have grown good at recognizing the signs of an impending blow-up in enough time to escape the situation. It also occurred to me today that I have become better at managing said blow-ups when they do happen.
Example A. Sometimes it’s especially bad, as in, something as simple as a touch can push me over the edge and trap me inside of a memory. And it isn’t just thinking about the memory. It’s being in it. One hundred percent, in it. Breathing it, feeling it. Reliving it. These are the ones I really don’t care for, the ones where it’s hard to come back on my own. When I feel him and want to stab myself in the eye.
Example B. Last semester, I was sitting in a psychology class doing group work when a guy I didn’t know came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. He wasn’t trying to do anything inappropriate, the rational part of me knows that. But the irrational part of me ruled at the time. The snap that occurred was pretty external—I burst into tears and fled. It took me a good 45 minutes to return to class that day, and what amounted to at least twenty minutes of discussion after class on the floor of another professor’s office. Not my proudest moment, but I wasn’t lost.
Example C. One thing after another. Eyes and hair and hands and touching and noises. One trigger after another. Confrontation. And boom. I walked into a class to set my stuff down with my hands literally shaking and I felt my chest snap. My fuse blew. I walked out; I didn’t cry much. I got a drink of water. A second. I did a loop around the middle. A second. And I went back. I shook for a good two hours. But I handled. Somehow, I did that. AND I opened my mouth and presented normally—because that’s how I roll.
There’s a part of me that wants to shield this piece of me from others, that views this as me not being able to handle my shit. But there’s another part of me that sees the progress I have made and the battle that I have fought. That really, it’s not me not handling my shit. It’s me forming new neural pathways. Associating my experiences with different things. Learning that a memory or a trigger isn’t necessarily an electric shock I can’t escape. What I did today I couldn’t have done last year. So instead of saying “I can’t handle my shit,” I need to be saying “go me.” Because I did handle. I was scared, but I handled.
I’m not sure when I became that person who could almost handle. But I like her.