I just came back from a dinner party.
A simple sentence with a seemingly simple meaning, unless you have anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) like I do.
The party was a get-together with friends. It was a cold, snowy day and I would rather have stayed in bed, bundled up in the warm blankets, but I knew my family wanted me to go. I mustered up enough energy to get ready and head out onto the icy roads.
We were greeted kindly at the door when we arrived. I took a moment to mentally prepare for the sometimes-awkward conversations which will unfold. Normally I can mingle and make small talk, but I was feeling "off" — like my brain was on overdrive, with the two sides of my brain battling it out like fighters in the ring.
My body's fight or flight response is always 'on', even when it's not needed.
The logical half of my brain is rational and wise, and also funny at times (if I do say so myself). But my PTSD brain is irrational and wild, swirling inside my head like a tornado of self-defeating thoughts. It has ruined many events for me in the past — I hate it.
So on this day, I was determined to have my logical brain win the fight. Alas, it doesn't always work out that way. A look at my internal dialogue will show you exactly why there's nothing "simple" about parties when you have anxiety and PTSD.
First comes the anxiety
Logical brain: "Everyone goes to dinner parties. They are fun and a great way to meet new people."
PTSD brain: "I don't understand why anyone wants to leave the house, let alone go to a house filled with strangers. I will have to talk to about... something. And why do people like meeting other people, anyway?"
PTSD has injured a part of my brain known as the amygdala, which causes unexpected anxiety. As a result, my body's fight or flight response is "on", even when it's not needed. Back in humanity's primal days, we needed this response to stay safe from predators. Those days are gone, but my PTSD brain doesn't want to believe it.
Changes in routine can be a painful process
Logical brain: "Pick a nice outfit to wear and get ready. You don't need a nap today. This is a productive day with lots of opportunity."
PTSD brain: "I don't like clothes. Pajamas are my wardrobe. Why would I want to have a shower? That takes at least 15 minutes. I DO need a nap — like, right now! Why am I awake? Opportunity is so overrated."
Another part of my brain affected by PTSD is my prefrontal cortex. This area controls my reasoning and tries to limit or filter what I should be irritable about — because this part of my brain doesn't work effectively anymore, I can get upset with the smallest change in my schedule/routine.
Stigma can make me feel unwelcome
Logical brain: "Okay, you made it to the house. Go in, smile and make small talk with people."
PTSD brain: "I'm frozen in my car. Come on, legs — don't be embarrassing. Okay, I made it out of the car. There is a stranger at the door. I wonder if they will judge me by my tattoos? How many hours do I need to be here again? Small talk doesn't escape my lips at all. I bet people think I'm weird."
The stigma surrounding mental illness and mental injury can convince me that people are looking down on me, when really they may actually see me as strong and brave because I have challenged my fears and made it to the party.
It's difficult to remember the last time I had fun
Logical brain: "Act normal. It's just a dinner party. Remember how much fun you used to have at them?"
PTSD brain: "I can feel tears welling up in my eyes. My eyes are burning, and I worry that if I make eye contact with anyone I will be a blubbering mess. I don't remember what it's like having fun at these functions."
Another part of my brain which is affected by my PTSD is my hippocampus. It's responsible for processing and storing memories — my brain finds it difficult to remember when something I did was fun, or remembering anything about it at all.
It gets better
Logical brain: "Don't forget, you have anxiety and PTSD — things aren't as easy as they used to be."
... But they sure can still be amazing. I have been blessed to experience so much post-traumatic growth over the last few years. I have learned how to cope with my symptoms and I find some of my personality has become more confident and strong because I push past most of my fears and manage to be successful in many of the goals I set — and I have been known to set a few!
PTSD brain: "I miss you, logical brain."
Logical brain: "I miss me, too."