Context Matters. Understanding PTSD: Context Is Key

It’s common knowledge that for people with post traumatic stress, post traumatic stress disorder, or complex PTSD, common social situations can cause unexpected reactions. For example, most of us have known a veteran who religiously avoided crowds or went out of town around fireworks holidays.

Some people may see this as an illogical reaction to a harmless situation, but context is important. To you, the crack and boom of fireworks mean good times and excitement. For them, the sound of exploding shells may mean “Incoming! Take cover!!” A seemingly benign situation can have vastly different connotations in the context of our individual experiences– and none of those interpretations are necessarily wrong.

In this post I explain why– but first, a little background.

An Experiment In Customer Relations

I’ve never been a salesperson or particularly involved in customer service. I’m not much of a people person, and truthfully I’m more apt to make people uncomfortable than put them at ease. My current day job involves a lot of duties that require a salesperson’s skill set, and to that end I’ve been slowly absorbing my supervisor’s methods.

When on the phone with someone he needs something from, he’ll use their name and ask how they are. I always assumed it was a subtle way to own the person on the other end– a way of saying, “I know your name. I’m going to set you up with a friendly intro before I launch into the hard questions.”

The other day I tried it myself.
“Wright Air Service, Alan speaking. How can I help you?”
“Hi, Alan. My name is Leland. How are you today?”
And heck if Alan didn’t sound at least 5 degrees friendlier after that. I was shocked.

As the day went on, the technique continued to be met with a unanimously positive response. Why did these people respond positively to a greeting that made me feel uncomfortable? On my way home I dedicated some thought to why it made me feel ill at ease. Here’s what I came up with.

It’s an overly familiar greeting

“Hello, Leland. My name is Steve. How are you today?”
Steve is a guy in a rumpled white dress shirt and tan slacks with a police-issue firearm in his shoulder holster, and smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. I’ve never given him my name. He has zero reason to be interested in how I am, and his eyes show it.

It’s an awkward attempt to catch someone off guard

I shrug, recognizing the question for a trap. Isn’t it obvious how my day’s going?
“So, Lee –can I call you Lee?– I just have a few questions for you. Let’s start with the night of the 5th. You remember the night of the 5th, right?”

This kind of introduction is popular with scam artists, predators, and pedophiles. It’s an attempt to hack the listener’s trust, to convince them that the speaker– a complete stranger– is really their friend. To me, an overly-familiar greeting is an instant warning sign that the speaker is up to no good. In the context of my experience, my reaction makes perfect sense. It also makes sense that not everyone shares my experiences. Apparently my reaction to that introduction is relatively rare.

A Survival Response Older Than Humanity

Post traumatic stress and trauma-induced atypical reactions are side effects of a survival response that’s been keeping humans alive since before we were technically even humans. All mammalian brains have the neurological hardwiring to retain an imprint of past traumatic experiences and use them as an early warning system when encountering similar situations.

This ensures that, for instance, if a bear ambushes your family in a shady ravine and eats your mom, you’ll probably subconsciously avoid places like that for the rest of your life. At the very least you’ll be on high alert when you have to visit them. And because of that, you and your offspring are a lot less likely to get eaten. Eons of natural selection have favored creatures whose brains retain an involuntary response to stimuli associated with traumatic events.

Up until relatively recently in terms of human evolution, this kind of automatic imprint of trauma was a highly useful feature. It’s only in the context of modern life that it has become more of a nuisance than a benefit– and even then, I think its benefits are under-appreciated. The fact that your reactions can be inconvenient to others does not necessarily make them bad.

You Are Not Broken, And You Are Not Alone

We need to be less hard on ourselves for reacting in atypical ways. Understand that your reactions make sense in the context of your own experiences. This is the first step to understanding what’s happening and why. For me, this has been key in coping with my reactions. If I can understand why it’s happening, it’s easier to remove myself from the situation, talk myself down, and/or prepare for it in the future. Knowledge is power.

I’ve also found it a relief to understand why I react the way I do. A lot of us go through life feeling like we’re just weird or defective, and modern society’s treatment of people who aren’t strictly neurotypical doesn’t help.

If you’ve ever been made to feel like a freak, if you’ve ever been told you were being paranoid or over-reacting, if you’ve ever been made to feel like an inconvenience because of how your PTSD caused you to react to a situation, please understand that those things aren’t true. Your brain did exactly what it’s supposed to do. This response kept your ancestors alive.

That doesn’t mean the response is pleasant or one you want to repeat. In the future I’ll go into survival tips and ways to mitigate your reaction to stimuli that trigger your post traumatic stress. PTSD can grab you and drag you down into some very ugly places– trust me, I’ve been there.

Post traumatic stress is not a mental illness, but a wound. And like any wound, it is something you can heal from. I promise it gets better.

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