PTSD is so difficult to explain to someone else. It’s hard to explain how it makes you feel, as most of the time, you don’t even understand it yourself. To those who have an analytical mind, you can try to explain the science behind PTSD – why it does what it does – but even then, it’s a complicated brain function. If however, you’ve watched the latest film from Pixar, Inside Out, it could be a little easier for you to understand PTSD – and sometimes simply understanding can be a real comfort to those suffering with it.
Admittedly, Inside Out is an animated cartoon, about creatures that live in your head which embody joy, fear, anger etc, but the logic behind it is rooted in the truth of how a brain works (to a point). We’ve written this article simply as another means of understanding PTSD, and while it may seem a little rudimentary for some, it’s here to serve a purpose for those who may find it useful.
In Inside Out, each time memories are created by Riley, they pop into her mind as a memory ball – these memory balls can be joyous, sad, angry, disgusted memories – each emotion shown by the appropriate colour (as all memories have a certain level of emotion behind them).
The memories appear in her mind, and are automatically processed into ‘normal memories’ (which get filed away) or ‘core memories’ (which the movie say determine who Riley is as a person. These memories are key in making Riley a family oriented, hockey loving, goofball!)
Memories are processed this way (to a point) by everyone, everyday. However, to explain PTSD, and how it results in an unprocessed memory, it’s useful to understand a little of the science. When a traumatic event occurs, many bodily functions are paused, for the body to react to the issue in hand – digestion, blood flow, and memory processing are some of the bodily functions that stop momentarily to allow the natural ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reactions to take place. The body can easily restart most of these functions, however, if a memory hasn’t been processed correctly, it can find it difficult to do this further down the line.
In our Inside Out analogy, the memory ball has been created and comes into the mind for processing – however, as the mind isn’t sure what to do with this memory (it’s too busy dealing with the trauma at hand) the memory ball stays, waiting to be processed. Other memories and thoughts come along, and as the brain can’t decide where to process this memory to, it falls out of the processing track, and begins rolling around the mind, left unprocessed, and unaccounted for.
One of the most recognisable symptoms of PTSD is the flashbacks, and to continue our analogy, the trauma memory ball that is now rolling around the mind, unaccounted for, occasionally is found – and put into the mind area where it can be viewed (this is where the gum jingle is placed to be replayed back to Riley in the film). Because the memory ball hasn’t been accurately processed, and therefore recognised as a memory, the mind thinks that this is a real life event happening now. You get the thoughts, feeling, emotions and physical sensations that occured at the time of the original trauma. Eventually, as the mind thinks the trauma is occuring, functions shut down again, and it falls from the viewer, and begins to roll around the mind again – still in it’s unprocessed state. This cycle keeps repeating until the memory is successfully treated and processed.
We’ve mentioned previously that for PTSD to be successfully treated, the memory needs to be fully processed – recognised for what it is by the mind, a memory. Treatments such as EMDR can fulfil this processing requirement by allowing the brain the time, space, and restorative peace (similar to REM sleep functions) it needs to process an older memory. Furthermore, this is why treatment for PTSD is possible months, and even years after the original trauma.
As with all memories, it will still have emotions attached to it – be that fear, anger or disgust, but after successful treatment, the ‘charge’ and ‘power’ behind the emotions will have dissipated, and the other symptoms of PTSD will reduce and end too – the founder of PTSD UK can testify to this.
IMAGE: From Pixar Post