When it comes to post traumatic stress, the brain’s ability to reinvent itself can be a double-edged sword.
At 5:00 AM Saturday morning I was unloading my computer monitor and some other equipment from the back of my hatchback when I noticed a brawny dude in shabby clothing standing nearby.
He said, “I’m gonna need that.”
For a moment I was unclear about his meaning. Then I noticed he was looking at the things I was unloading from the car.
The man seemed out of it so I assumed he was on drugs. I assumed he intended to take the computer equipment to sell it to buy more drugs. My mind raced as I totaled up the cost of replacing the equipment. I didn’t want to fight him for it. I didn’t know if the guy had a weapon, but as I looked at his face, I noticed his nose had been broken. He had been in more fights than I had.
“This isn’t worth much,” I said.
There was more anger in his voice when he repeated, “I’m gonna need that!”
I didn’t like where this was going so I stepped away from the equipment and said, “Okay.”
Instead of calming down, the man seemed more agitated. He looked around to see if anyone was watching us.
There was a gun in my face. My heart raced. He pulled the trigger.
It was over.
I woke up. It had all been a nightmare.
I’m no stranger to nightmares, anxiety dreams. It’s always a relief to wake up and shake them off.
I would have shaken this one off, too, because I can’t think of a form of fiction more interesting to the creator and mind-numbingly boring for everybody else than dreams.
But later that Saturday morning, during a conversation about mindfulness and anxiety, the topic of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arose. Out of curiosity, I read an article entitled “The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness, and PTSD,” by Jennifer Wolkin, which contained the following quote: “I believe that there’s nothing truly disordered about having a reaction to seeing atrocities and tragedies beyond our mind’s ability to fathom.”
This makes perfect sense when we recognize that almost all of the brain’s activity, including the tiny sliver that we can consciously control, is geared to keeping the body alive. Memories of life threatening moments will naturally receive the highest priority. Associations that trigger those memories will naturally create stress. And, thanks to neuroplasticity (the way the brain subtly rewires itself every time we repeat a certain thought process) the more often these memories come to mind, the more we increase the likelihood that they’ll come to mind in the future.
This mental activity becomes a “disorder” only because the physical stress it produces is more harmful than the associations that trigger it.
Virtual Atrocities and Tragedies
Let me briefly recount the “atrocities and tragedies” I witnessed in the hours before my nightmare.
I tour a quadruple murder scene in a hotel suite where bloody hand prints stain a carpet at a dead man’s feet, a second man’s corpse has been sliced at the skull and jawline. A severed arm on the floor. The corpse of the armless man has been thrown against a grand piano with such force that the piano has broken in half. Everything in the room has been smashed. There is blood everywhere. Another dead man’s legs lead to an unseen room.
A young man wakes up in his apartment to the sound of his landlord outside destroying his car with a hammer, he runs outside to stop him but the landlord continued his destruction, demands his $600 rent, and threatens to kill him with the hammer if he doesn’t pay up today.
A woman lay handcuffed to a bed when a stray bullet from a sniper’s rifle kills the man who has apparently abducted her.
Another young man is trying to use his computer hacking skills to break into a secure, remote building, guarded by a skinhead with a shotgun. A woman drives up and hacks the skinhead to death with a machete. She then comes for the hacker.
The first young man is taken on a reckless, life-threatening ride by an oblivious driver.
The machete woman drives the hacker to a gas station where she discovers the attendant has been murdered. When a man with a gun pops up from behind the counter, she shoots him. When a second man with a shotgun emerges from the gas station, she shoots him, too.
The first young man visits his sister. They play music together, he on the guitar, she on the drums. She looks down at her hand and sees that instead of holding a drum stick, she’s holding a carving knife that is cutting into her hand.
A band of destructive marauders with baseball bats and crow bars emerge from a van and start destroying everything in their path to the first young man’s apartment. He cowers behind his guitar as the marauders destroy everything he owns. Seeing he’s lost everything, he smashes his guitar against the wall as well.
The landlord bursts into the destroyed apartment with a gun and threatens to kill the young man. He shoots, and the bullet ricochets off a microwave, several other things, and lodges in his skull. He drops dead.
Another pair of men murder a hotel manager with an electrified crossbow.
All of this stuff is, of course, run of the mill for a dramatic, hour-long TV show these days. What caught me off guard is that this graphic violence and destruction had all occurred during the first episode of a comedy series based on the work of Douglas Adams, best known for the mostly harmless “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Prior to this, “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland” were probably the most violent TV shows I’d watched. It’s likely not the violence that affected me, but the way the violence caught me off guard.
The intention was to watch a light and funny diversion at the end of a more-stressful-than-usual work week. Not exactly what you’d call trauma. Not exactly what you’d call stress.
On two occasions, I’ve been hit by drunk drivers while behind the wheel of a car. After those accidents, I noticed a mild trepidation when approaching the intersections where they had occurred. When I recognized the trepidation arising, I made a mental note that there was nothing special about the intersections (like their proximity to a bar) that made them more susceptible to drunk driving. My brain gradually reconfigured itself so that I could pass through them without undue stress.
I recognize that if someone had been injured or killed in either of those accidents, each time I approached those intersections, the strength of the unpleasant memories might well have reinforced the trepidation.
And it’s much easier to use mindful awareness to supplant a stressful event when you can anticipate a trigger (as you can when approaching a physical location) than when it comes out of nowhere (like unexpectedly graphic violence in a silly comedy).
Ten Minute Exercise
Some of the instructions from the mindfulness literature on building a more stress-resistant mind that are well worth ten minutes before bedtime include:
1. Recognizing the kinds of thoughts and emotions that lead to stress in yourself and others.
2. Recognizing the situations where these thoughts and emotions arise.
(Apparently watching graphic violence in comedy shows is stressful for me.)
3. Either avoiding those situations when optional or being vigilant about proactively supplanting stressful thoughts and emotions by cultivating beneficial thoughts and emotions if the situation is not optional.
(It’s easy for me to avoid watching violent comedies. I try to maintain vigilance while driving.)