Imagine that you're out playing a game of afternoon football and you fully tear your ACL. No doctor would simply give you a diagnosis and some medications then send you on your way. Instead, you'd likely have surgery followed by regular physical therapy. You'd also learn more effective warm ups and conditioning and use them on a regular basis to stay injury-free in the future.
The same principles apply for recovery from post-traumatic stress injuries, sometimes called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS/PTSD). With the right behavioral health practices, it is possible to experience either total healing or marked improvement for mild to moderate stress injuries.
The idea that PTSD is an unalterable lifetime sentence is neurologically untrue.
Stress Injuries vs. PTSD
Stress injuries are very natural responses to unusual situations and exist along a spectrum. Whether you've experienced a single traumatic event or multiple stressors over a long period of time, your body likely responded in a totally appropriate way by adapting to the threat. Your nervous system kicked into high gear - your body and brain woke up and went into overdrive.
Your response was vital to navigating a stressful or dangerous situation well. However, now that imminent danger is past, your stress response may still activate out of context. When this happens, empathy may disappear, your focus may degrade, and you may struggle to make logical decisions.
It's true that severe stress injury (also known as PTSD) is a complicated disorder. However, healthcare practitioners often apply the "chronic" label to mild or moderate stress injuries - which are 100% recoverable. This label can be psychologically deadly - sapping resilient people of the agency they need to learn and apply tools to quickly de-escalate the body and brain's response to perceived threats.
The truth is that PTSD is not everyone's stress injury. A misdiagnosis suggests irrecoverable brokenness, and can layer on a host of additional anxieties and worries.
Road to Recovery
One of the most empowering first steps you can take toward recovery is to seek out information about stress physiology - work to understand what is happening in your body.
Self education is an incredibly empowering step. You'll discover that your out-of-context responses are natural, and you'll simultaneously find ways to calm your body and mind through a variety of self care practices.
When you put these tools into practice on a daily basis, your body and brain will respond in some really interesting ways. Your neurons will fire differently, you'll shrink the amygdala (the part of your brain that activates the fight or flight response) - your brain will literally start to look different. Stress hormones will drop, too.
Not only will your body and mind change, but so will your behavior. You'll find that you're better able to handle a fight with your partner. You'll be able to focus better and exist with more empathy. Of course, you're still human. Your stress response will still fire. But by practicing effective self care, you can begin to respond to others in a more deliberate way.
But what if my stress injury is severe?
Some people experience permanent changes to their brains. If your injury co-occurs with a Traumatic Brain Injury, depression, or an anxiety disorder, that is totally normal, but incredibly challenging. When you have a major stress injury and you're dealing with a chronic condition, the symptoms can be extremely debilitating.
The symptoms of severe stress injuries can be improved upon, but - much like a bad back injury - you may need to accept that your condition will need to be managed for many years to come.
* For severe stress injury, you will need highly individualized clinical help. Seek medical guidance and talk to your clinician about your specific stress injury and wellness techniques.
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a U.S. Marine veteran and wellness coach who writes about resilience building, creating strong communities, and the science of spirituality. You can find her new book, Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior's Battle for Balance, here.