Trauma

The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontline of PTSD Science

On today’s episode of the podcast, I am interviewing Dr. Shaili Jain. We cover Dr. Jain’s personal interest in PTSD work, moral injury, causes of PTSD, presentation of PTSD and treatment modalities for PTSD.

Joseph Wong (MS3), David Puder M.D.

An overview of PTSD

PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, occurs when someone experiences, or subjectively experiences, a near death or psychologically overwhelming event, and then goes on to develop specific symptoms because of it. Different types of trauma/stressors that can lead to PTSD include sexual violence, combat experience, medical conditions (e.g. myocardial infarction), and natural disasters (e.g. hurricane) (Chivers-Wilson, 2006; Edmondson et. al, 2012; Grieger et al., 2006; Hussain, Weisaeth & Heir, 2011).

It is characterized by:

  • Direct exposure or witnessing of trauma/stressor

  • Presence of intrusive symptoms post-traumatic experience

  • Avoidance of traumatic stimuli

  • Negative changes in mood and cognition

  • Hyper-reactivity

  • Hyper-arousal (APA, 2013).

Here are a few stats about PTSD:

  • In 2017, over 47,000 Americans died by suicide (CDC, 2019). This number has been climbing about 1,000 new cases per year from 31,000 American deaths by suicide in 2000 (CDC, 2019). One contributor to this statistic are people with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who are at increased risk of suicide (Wilcox, Storr & Breslau, 2009).


Symptoms and Diagnosis of PTSD

Certain symptoms of PTSD, like negative changes in mood and cognition, can be associated with other conditions, like anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder. Using screening tools like PCL-5 can help delineate PTSD from other conditions, although they can come with false positives (more people who are labeled as having PTSD than actually have it). Experienced clinicians can correctly diagnose through detailed history taking. Diagnosing PTSD begins with listening for a history of major trauma, which can take many forms. The patient will usually describe that they felt their sense of normalcy was shattered, and that they felt totally helpless in the face of that traumatic event.

During the first 4 weeks after the trauma, the impact of the trauma should be noted, and the duration of the symptoms should also be observed. The diagnosis of PTSD involves a disturbance of > 1 month with characteristic symptoms such as intrusive nightmares, flashbacks, memories, hypervigilance (APA, 2013). Subtle signs to look for are the patient’s mood states such as shame, guilt, anger, fear, horror, which are particular for PTSD (Hendin & Haas, 1991).

These patients also show a restricted range of emotion (they never show pure happiness, anger or sorrow). Avoidance is another key characteristic of patients with PTSD as they avoid places, people and memories associated with the traumatic event. This avoidance behavior is particularly tricky to deal with as some patients never make it to see a mental health professional.


Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is a subtype of PTSD with complex symptomatology in response to chronic trauma (Herman, 1992). Usually, the patient has an extensive history of childhood abuse where the patient can’t remember a time when they weren’t being abused. Another example of chronic trauma includes victims of long-term intimate partner violence. In comparison with textbook patients with PTSD, who have a distinct life before and after their traumatic experience, patients with complex PTSD are only familiar with the traumatic experience.

Patients with complex PTSD have issues with emotional regulation, and can range from rageful to regretful in a single session, much like patients with borderline personality disorder. Patients with complex PTSD often get caught up in cycles of re-enactment where they act out in their personal relationships, and even in their therapeutic relationships, in ways that mimic the trauma that they’ve felt. In Dr. Jain’s experience, although patients with complex PTSD exhibit emotional lability, just like borderline personality disorder, she would think a diagnosis would lean more towards borderline personality disorder if the classic symptoms (such as identity issues, self-injury, chronic suicidality and attachment issues) were present (APA 2013).


Dissociative PTSD

Dissociative PTSD is a subtype of PTSD that occurs in 15-30% of PTSD patients, in which the patient not only meets the criteria for PTSD, but also exhibit persistent dissociative symptoms (e.g. depersonalization, derealization) (APA, 2013; Armour, Karstoft & Richardson, 2014).

Derealization is the feeling of detachment from one’s environment, while depersonalization is the feeling of detachment from one’s body, thoughts, perceptions and actions (APA, 2013). Patients often describe the feelings of depersonalization and derealization as “they don’t feel real,” or that “the world around them doesn’t feel real.”

Because patients with the dissociative subtype of PTSD experience these symptoms persistently, their day is often derailed as they don’t live in the present, but in their dissociative world. Patients who have had severe childhood abuse tend to have the dissociative subtype, which is associated with a poorer prognosis. Patients can dissociate in many environments, including the therapy environment, thus grounding techniques such as breathing techniques and anxiety-reducing exercises may be useful to bring patients from their dissociative state.


PTSD Treatments

Therapy and PTSD

The gold-standard treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy, with an emphasis on a strong therapeutic alliance. In her book, Jain Shaili talks about the importance of the story being given a voice. Many times when someone experiences trauma, it has violated the heart of what they find to be sacred and true, and the effects can be that they have experienced things they find completely unspeakable.

When memories remain unspeakable, even unthinkable, they become sticking points that prevent the brain, and person, from being able to move on. Because of this, many people with PTSD are difficult to reach, emotionally. It’s built into the nature of the disorder that they can be avoidant, don’t want to address the trauma, and are often mistrustful.

As a result of this psychosocial stress, patients with PTSD experience many negative emotions such as guilt, shame and remorse as well as increased suicidality (Hendin & Haas, 1991). PTSD thrives when patients hold it in, rather than talking about it, so an important part of treatment is to establish a therapeutic alliance so that the patient feels comfortable sharing their traumatic experience. Another important factor that contributes to healing is connecting the patient’s spiritual beliefs to their moral injury (Currier, Holland & Drescher, 2015).


The Search for Meaning

In the face of trauma, there are some that show resilience by making meaning out of the trauma and catapulting their lives into a direction where trauma is integrated into their lives rather than directing it.

Although not everyone is fortunate enough to arrive at that place by themselves, trauma-focused psychotherapy can add new learning, adjust maladaptive beliefs and help patients re-evaluate their trauma and its impact on their lives so that they can move forward meaningfully.

Medications for PTSD:

  • SSRIs/SNRIs

    • The most well-studied medication class used to treat PTSD and are 1st line due to favourable adverse effect profiles (Asnis, Kohn, Henderson & Brown, 2004).

    • Sertraline and paroxetine are also both FDA-approved for the treatment of PTSD (Asnis, Kohn, Henderson & Brown, 2004). However, in practice, SSRIs and SNRIs are pretty much equivalent, so tailor fit the medication according to the patients needs. For example, many patients with PTSD have chronic pain, so Venlafaxine (Effexor®) would be a good choice.  

    • Fluoxetine, paroxetine, and sertraline have been found to reduce hypervigilance, emotional numbing, and intrusion levels in clinical trials of over 3,000 participants with PTSD with over 60% of participants seeing a reduction in their symptoms (Kapfhammer, 2014). Many patients with PTSD are mistrustful of medication, so developing a good relationship with the patient through the therapeutic alliance can help convince patients that medications and medication adherence are in their best interest. With a strong therapeutic alliance and good medication management, that 60% can be even higher.

  • Mirtazapine

    • Can be used to treat insomnia at lower doses (7.5 mg - 15 mg). Has antidepressant effects at higher doses.

    • We try to avoid polypharmacy. If treating PTSD with medications, only starts with 1 medication at a low dose and see how that works. Patients that suffer from insomnia can improve dramatically after a few weeks of good sleep from such a medication as mirtazapine.

    • For insomnia, Dr. Jain prefers to use non-pharmacological therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) and only uses medication for the short term to get them to the point where therapy like CBTI can treat the root cause of their insomnia.

  • Mood stabilizers

    • Once again, the general approach is to put the patient on SSRIs/SNRIs at a lower dose and move up the dose as needed.

    • In patients that have issues with hostility, aggression, harm to self and don’t improve on SSRIs/SNRIs, we would consider mood stabilizers as a possible treatment.

  • Second generation antipsychotics

    • Used to be popular in the past to give a low dose for patients with PTSD that exhibited hostility and aggression. Unfortunately, risperidone was shown to not be an effective treatment for PTSD and came with many worrying side effects (e.g. metabolic syndrome, fatigue, sleepiness) (Krystal et al., 2011) .

  • Benzodiazepines

    • In the past, patients with PTSD used to be put on benzodiazepines, but it is now known that benzodiazepines are just a band aid rather than a true treatment for PTSD with especially concerning side-effects in the elderly population (i.e. increased risk fall and impaired cognition) (Cumming & Le Conteur, 2003).

    • In 2012, a study involving over 10,000 patients who were prescribed benzodiazepines were found to have 50% increased mortality with long-term use (Kripke, Langer & Kline, 2012).

    • Dr. Jain would only prescribe very-short term prescriptions (5 day supply) for emergencies like horrific flashbacks and dissociative events.

    • PTSD and addiction go hand in hand due to the addictive nature of benzodiazepines, so education is important in teaching patients that there are serious side-effects associated with benzodiazepines (e.g. impairment in cognition and increased fall risk in the elderly) and that other treatment modalities can be helpful in managing their PTSD.

  • Marijuana

    • Although there are many strong personal testimonies and anecdotes concerning the efficacy of marijuana in alleviating the various symptoms of PTSD, there were no high quality randomized clinical trials as of 2016 that have looked at the efficacy of marijuana for PTSD (Wilkinson, Radhakrishnan & D'Souza, 2016).

    • There are clinical trials underway (one in a VA in Arizona) testing CBD for PTSD.

    • 3 things worry about marijuana usage in patients with PTSD

  1. Adverse interactions between psych meds and marijuana are currently unknown and can be dangerous as patients are often taking both their medications and marijuana.

  2. Marijuana impairs driving, attention, memory, IQ, and increases rate of psychosis.  View my prior blog, Youtube and podcast on Marijuana: here

  • Ketamine and MDMA

    • There are currently ongoing studies in the VA, but it’s still too early to tell without seeing the data.


I would highly recommend checking out Dr. Jain’s book:

The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontline of PTSD Science

Here are several of my prior episodes on PTSD:

How to Help Patients With Sexual Abuse

How to Treat Emotional Trauma

Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory



How to Treat Emotional Trauma

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This week on the podcast I spoke with fellow therapist, Randy Stinnett Psy. D, about how trauma works, and how we can help our patients overcome it.  

What is trauma?

Emotional trauma comes from stress that is overwhelms a person’s neurological system. Some stress can be good and formative, or it can be bad and get stuck in the brain, causing someone deep emotional pain.

Think of climbing Mount Everest. Some people choose to do that, and it’s easily one of the most stressful situations you can put yourself in on purpose. That’s good stress if you have trained for years and are ready for it. If someone forced you to climb Mount Everest, it would register in the brain as a trauma.

Trauma is too big for the mind, brain, and nervous system to assimilate. It’s a memory, or experience, that gets stuck because the person believed it would result in their death, or at least serious injury.

The brain has several mechanisms to keep something stuck so that the person will remember it, and try to avoid getting hurt in the same way in the future. It is a survival instinct.

People commonly demonstrate symptoms of trauma when they’ve:

 

  • Experienced a sexual violation

  • Seen violence

  • Experienced violence or abuse

  • Been neglected—experienced the absence of something that they should have had.

  • Been in near death experiences like car accidents or war

People who have PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, have experienced a soul-level of brokenness, and even talking about the event, or having a memory of it, can bring it back with the same force that occured in the actual accident. They often have recurring nightmares, or repetitive symptoms that continue long after the event.

Typical PTSD symptoms alternate between chronic shut down and fight and flight

  • Fight and flight symptoms are:

    • Sweating, nightmares, flashbacks, anger, rage, panic, hypervigilance, tense muscles, painful knotted gut

  • Shut down symptoms are:

    • Dissociation, freezing, emotional detachment, voice trembling, difficulty getting words out, numbness, apathy, fear, helplessness, dizzy, empty, nausea

  • Moments in connection mode look like:

    • curiosity, exploration, relaxed and full breathing, feeling grounded, true smiles

 

Body movement and trauma

We’ve all heard the reference to Pavlov’s dogs—the bell rings and the dogs salivate because they know it is dinnertime. Pavlov discovered many more things than that dogs drool. Once, his lab was flooded with freezing water that nearly filled the cages of the dogs. When they were finally able to get the dogs free, the dogs interacted differently with the world around them. They seemed hopeless.

Humans work the same way.

PTSD rates were 16% for survivors of 911, and 33% for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Why? Traumatologists speculate it was because during 911, survivors were running away from the catastrophe to save their lives. In Katrina, the victims were airlifted out and placed in gyms, for sometimes months at a time. Those in lower socioeconomic levels had no money, no home, and nowhere to go—they were trapped.

The body is designed to move away from danger, but if the body can’t move, trauma can set in.

 

Attachment based trauma

Having a negative attachment with parents often sets people up for later traumas in life to be a bigger assault on the nervous system and psychological functioning, than it would have been as a standalone event.

Patients who experience unhealthy attachments often struggle with emotional regulation and boundaries.  

Many people, as children, were not heard and mirrored in their emotions and experiences. When they discussed their problems with their parent, and it was met with disdain or shut down, the patient has most likely developed the idea that they have no voice. The stress was not contained and thus all the raw emotion is still there and unprocessed. This leads something to continue to be traumatic in the brain.  

This follows the same pattern as polyvagal theory. When we are in connection mode, we are open hearted and happy. When we feel stress, or lack of connection, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we switch into fight or flight mode. If that disconnection continues, our parathetic nervous system takes over and we go into full-on shutdown. When children are repeatedly ignored or abused, they switch in and out of shutdown mode, causing trauma.

Polyvagal theory and attachment theory, and how they affect children (and adults too), are demonstrated best in the Still Face Experiment video (link to prior article I wrote on that experiment).

Attachment trauma is repeated trauma. It can occur in childhood, or any other time throughout our lives within relationships.

 

Notes to therapists on dealing with PTSD

Studies show that having an emotionally connected therapist, while someone is reprocessing their traumatic memories, can help heal the emotional damage of those memories.

Displaying emotional stability

Patients often superimpose all of their abusers onto their therapists. As therapists, we need to realize this, and stay steady during the entire course of therapy. Remaining calm, safe and empathic is one of the most healing things we can do for them.

It is a way of being, not just an action, or a reaction, towards our patients.

Receiving feedback

As therapists, it’s important to be able to receive feedback from our patients about what is working for them without it being an adversarial situation.

We must respond in a way that allows the patient to have their own voice. First, validate their emotional experience of the patient. Next, thank them for being honest with you. Ask for the whole story behind their feedback.

I am not saying this as some sort of technique, but rather this should come out of the belief that 1) their emotional experience is valid and needs a voice 2) it takes courage to voice any feedback and this is important for their growth and success.

When these things are truly believed, we are empathizing and thanking them, out of the core of our being, and not just as a technique.  

Where they were expecting rejection, you end up validating their experience. Finally, ask them how it feels, in the moment, to be heard and to be able to safely express their opinion. Allow them to experience a felt difference between you and their abusers. This provides a corrective emotional experience!

Know when to limit the stress

Understanding the different nervous system’s functions will help you know when enough is enough for your patient.

Study the symptoms of the activation of the somatic, autonomic, sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous systems. This is imperative, and if you cannot slowly uncover the stressful situations in a way that the patient can manage it without engaging shutdown mode, you will end up doing more damage than good.

Emotional connection

One psychiatry resident asked my mentor, Dr. John D Tarr, if it was better to keep inpatient people at an emotional distance, so the patient would not get attached and want to continue to stay in the hospital. My mentor responded that we always want to be connected to our patients, to be empathic. When we feel they are getting attached and don’t want to leave, we need to open up that dialogue to how we can help them experience connection outside of the hospital.

Studies show that patients who feel connected to their doctor are more engaged in treatment—they go to therapy, take their medications, and continue their mental health journey.

Trauma-based memories are different from normal memories, like knowing what you ate for breakfast this morning. Trauma-based memory has a sensory aspect to it. They are stored in a different part of the brain than where we function for our daily, normal connection mode.

As therapists, when we access those memories with patients, the patient begins to switch to a different part of their mind, and demonstrate symptoms of trauma physically. They may tremble, sweat, and sometimes even their voice changes—it can be hard to get the words out, they whisper, they sound child-like.

To understand how people respond to trauma, we have to know that emotions have primacy, or first dibs, on our reactions. Our brain deems them more important than our executive functioning—our ability to reason and plan our lives’ daily tasks.  

If the patient is open to it and we have established a good, trusted attachment and connection, we will talk about their traumatic memories. If we do not have a connection in that way, I will not explore deep traumatic memories with them. It is more important to build a safe, secure relationship first.

Trauma gets stuck in the non-analytical parts of the brain—our emotions, creativity, experiences, art. It’s image-based, somatic (physical body), it’s non-verbal. Parts of the left hemisphere of the brain deals with logic, reasoning and language. To integrate this part of the brain, the patient will have to access the emotional parts and then put words to their experiences.   

In that conversation, these are some of the questions I will ask:

  • What did you see?

  • What did you feel emotionally?

  • What did your body experience?

  • What do you believe about yourself as a result?

Allow for freedom

Also, when we require our patients to do anything, even to stay for the whole hour of therapy if they do not want to, we are reinforcing the trapped feeling. Keep an open dialogue about what your patient is feeling throughout the therapy session.

If the patient is suicidal with a plan and intent, they likely need a safe place to get through the intense time. I will tell them, “My goal is to not keep you here indefinitely. We will come up with a plan to get you out of here, and for you to be healthy.”

In general, try to give your patients, especially the PTSD ones, choices. Create boundaries and give guidance, but allow them to have freedom in their choices.

Summary  

In this first discussion with Dr. Stinnett, I wanted to highlight some introductory understanding on trauma.  We discussed how trauma is stored differently in the brain and how the polyvagal theory is connected with this journey.  We highlighted the importance of emotion, connection and feedback. Please leave comments below on your thoughts regarding this blog and podcast!  

 

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