Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can arise in response to any stressful, abusive, or threatening situation. Whether one is the victim, first-responder, or witness of trauma, emotional turmoil can echo and resonate with such magnitude that it remains sustained long after the event has past. Individuals afflicted with PTSD can suffer for years beyond the triggering experience. To better understand the experience of PTSD, consider the functions of stress and anxiety.
Stress & Anxiety
Stress results from challenges to the individual, be they mental, emotional, or physical demands. These demands are ever-present at some level and are considered to be of benefit to our health and performance in moderate doses. Exercise, for example, is a voluntary stress induced in the body that can enhance physical conditioning.
Naturally, there is an upper limit to our tolerance of stress. As we approach this limit we begin to experience fatigue and discomfort. When the limit is surpassed, pain and anxiety arise. These are signals intended to draw our attention to an imminent danger. They steal our focus, create a deep sense of unease, and demand urgent resolution.
The proper function of anxiety is transient. As such, PTSD is an anxiety disorder in that the trauma suffered by the individual has elevated their anxiety by such duration or intensity that the state of anxiety is ever-present. In spite of surviving their traumatic experience, the individual continues to suffer the ill-effect and urgency of the anxiety ignited by it.
Living with PTSD
Living in the grips of anxiety results in several characteristic social and emotional problems. For those afflicted, symptoms include:
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions or affect
- Repetitive negative thoughts about one’s self or others
- Overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame
- Feeling emotionally numb or hopeless for the future
- Cognitive difficulties such as impaired concentration and memory lapse
- Flashbacks, recurring dreams, or other sleep disturbances
Outwardly, these traits manifest in commonly observed socio-behavioural changes:
- Being persistently alert, on guard, or easily startled
- Increased risk-taking and self-destructive behaviour
- Increased anger, irritability, or aggressive behaviour
- Abnormal emotional responses
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
Needless to say, PTSD can have a devastating impact on one’s quality of life. However, it is also imperative to recognize PTSD is not a life-sentence and to seek support in order to overcome it.
Recovering from PTSD
To break from the rumination operating as a feedback loop that sustains this state of anxiety, psychological counseling including cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is often effective. Anxiety-provoking triggers can be disarmed by progressively weakening the bonds between memories and emotions, while thoughts can be reframed by correcting the skew induced on one’s beliefs. CBT as a method of resolution can take years. For more immediate relief, medications such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, and sleeping aids are often prescribed.
At its most fundamental level, massage therapy can be used similarly to help reduce the individual’s state of arousal and provide sorely needed sedation. Massage therapy can promote a healthy biochemical balance, which in turn facilitates reduced irritability, improved cognitive functioning, and allows for better quality sleep. Further to this, a massage therapist can create a space in which the individual feels safe and cared for. Establishing a positive relationship thereby provides fodder for the client to dispel thoughts of negative self-evaluation.
The role of massage therapy in treating PTSD can also be deep and profound. When trapped in a state of hyper-vigilance, the brain may link this heightened response to stimuli with feelings of vulnerability. A strong aversion to physical contact can manifest, particularly where the initial trauma suffered involved bodily harm or abuse. In these cases, massage therapy sensitively applied can be the ideal modality for progressively working to normalize the individual’s response to touch.
By establishing normalization of touch as a goal with the client, a therapist can employ a simple body mapping tool to identify areas where the client may enjoy treatment, is cautious receiving treatment, or finds immediately triggering. This tool allows the therapist to work safely within the client’s comfort zones. Repeated assessments through body mapping over the course of several treatments can also reveal a gradual reduction in sensations of vulnerability, and in turn help defuse the experience of hyper-vigilance.
Body and Mind
As a form of bodywork, we may not often think of massage therapy for treating serious mental disturbances. Yet by respecting the mind-body connection as mutually dependent, we provide a causal pathway for the healing potential of massage in treating anxiety and PTSD.