Again, if we take a look at our 4 main ‘stress’ responses (below), we’ll see that depending on which stress response the person with C-PTSD has got stuck in, they’ll either react to perceived danger, threats and ‘abandonment’ by others by:
- More bullying, controlling and aggressive behaviors (FIGHT)
- More escapism, running away and distractions, including keeping busy 24/7 or being a workaholic (FLIGHT)
- More zoning out, depression, numbness and attempts to isolate themselves from the outside world (FREEZE)
- Or more ingratiation, people pleasing, flattery and ‘niceness’ (FAWN)
The problem comes when we get STUCK polarized in one particular stress response, and when that stress response is repeatedly triggered by very bland, inane and minor things that truly don’t pose any real danger or threat to us.
Most people with C-PTSD get that way because they grew up with emotionally-absent parents (who may or may not also have regularly mistreated them in some additional, more tangible, way too.)
When a small child doesn’t have an adult in their life they can trust to ‘watch their back’, or help to soothe and calm them when they’re going through their tough times, or when they are left to fend for themselves and to solve their own problems, this creates a lot of anxiety, panic and fear in their internal landscape.
Imagine how scary even something simple like crossing a road is for a small child, if they’d be left to do it all by themselves without age-appropriate instructions, guidance or support. Small children are naturally full of fears, and it’s the job of the parents to help them to navigate through life, and to learn the skills and acquire the knowledge they need to manage new tasks and situations, and then to thrive.
Even from our own lives, we all know how much easier something is to learn when we have someone on hand to show us, and to answer our questions about what’s going ‘wrong’, or not working problem.
For example, a few years’ back, I tried to teach my self to sew some basic stuff on a borrowed sewing machine, using a ‘how to sew’ book for instructions. Dear reader, it was mostly an exercise in mental torture. I felt so anxious about not knowing how to thread the needle propet knowing how to get the zig-zag stitch to work, where to place the foot of the sewing machine, how to leave enough of a hem - and that’s even before getting down to actually making something! After a couple of months, I gave up.
A few weeks’ ago, I decided to try again but this time, I found a sewing teacher to go to - and it’s made all the difference in the world! Why? Because whenever I hit a snag with the cotton, or the material, or the sewing, I can ask for experienced, patient help to resolve it. I’m not on my own trying to figure everything out, so nothing feels like the unmitigated disaster it used to when I was trying to sew alone.
And the same applies to traumatized people with C-PTSD.
When we’re small, if we don’t have a caring adult to reassure us that the cut on our finger really isn’t serious, we panic that it’s going to go green and fall off.
If we go through a ‘down’ and we don’t have someone sharing their experiences of how this is just a normal, temporary (if unpleasant…) stage in life that everyone goes through, we start to believe that we’re always going to feel this depressed, or bad, or lonely.
If there is no-one there to give us the right perspective about our inevitable failures and mistakes in life, and worse, who even punish us, shame us, blame us and criticize us for making normal mistakes and having normal failures, we will be fear-stricken whenever trying something new, or something we could concievably ‘do wrong’.
(Of course, the trouble is this applies to pretty much everything!)
To put this into ‘real world’ terms, these feelings of panic, anxiety, overwhelm and depression can hit you as an adult whenever:
- You make even a small mistake at work - “They’re going to fire me, and no-one else will hire me and I’ll lose my home and end up on the street!”
- You experience even a normal, minor health issue - “It’s something terminal! It’s the big ‘C’! I’m never going to recover from this!”
- Someone suggests (correctly) that you may have been in the wrong about something - “They’re saying I’m a disgusting person! That I always mess up! That I can’t do anything right!”
- You turn something out that is less than 100% perfect - “They’re going to throw this back in my face! I’ll be embarrassed in front of everyone! People won’t respect me anymore! I’ll be a laughingstock!”
Once again, the world IS objectively a very scary place for a young child to have to fend for themselves in, so those feelings were 100% normal at that point in time.
But now, that fear, panic and anxiety has hardwired itself into your brain, and is being triggered by even the smallest issues you experience as an adult.
Depending on what your main ‘stress response’ is, you’ll find yourself fighting, running away, shutting down, or trying to frantically buy affection as a result.
THIS is why people with C-PTSD so often find themselves reacting to molehills as though they were mountains. They’ve ‘flashed back’ to a young, immature part of themselves who was never taught how to put things into proper perspective, or how to self-soothe in a healthy way and calm themselves down, and they are stuck reacting to the world in that mode even as a grown up.
So how can we overcome this particular aspect of C-PTSD? Stay tuned for the next post, when I’ll set out some practical ideas for you.