Understanding PTSD if you’ve seen Pixars’ Inside Out
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 Inside Out, from Pixar, 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 – and may be particularly helpful in explaining PTSD to a child or young adult.
In Inside Out, each time memories are created by Riley (the human being), 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. Any experiences we have during the day (what we ate, where we went, who we saw) are processed (usually at night during the REM part of sleep) – they get filed away for later if we need them. However, to explain trauma, PTSD, and how it results in an unprocessed memory, it’s useful to understand a little more 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 over time, however, if a memory hasn’t been processed correctly, it can find it difficult to do this part further down the line.
In our Inside Out analogy, the memory ball has been created, but not put into the right place, as the mind wasn’t sure what to do with this memory initially (it was too busy dealing with the trauma at hand), so the memory ball stays floating around, waiting to be processed later on. After a trauma, if the body is still left in this state, the brain can’t decide where to process this memory to, so it ignores it, and 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, when something like a smell, a noise or other sense reminds us of it – and it’s 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 it isn’t 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 occurred at the time of the original trauma. Eventually, as the mind thinks the trauma is occurring RIGHT NOW, you go into a trauma response, 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 will keep repeating until the memory is successfully processed through treatment.
For PTSD to be successfully treated, the memory needs to be recognised for what it is by the mind, a memory, and the body can return to a state where it isn’t in a perpetual trauma response. 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. To put it in it’s rightful place. Furthermore, this is why treatment for PTSD is possible months, and even years after the original trauma.
In Inside Out terminology, this means putting the memory ball into the right ‘place’, so the mind and body knows it’s a memory.
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. It can still be recalled, it can be talked about, and may even be a ‘core memory’ but it won’t cause the intense symptoms and flashbacks that it can cause when it’s floating around, and being popped into the viewer at inconvenient times: the body and mind will know it is a memory, and not something happening in the moment.
Following successful treatment, because of the processing of the trauma, the other symptoms of PTSD will come to an end too.
If you like a more science based explanation for PTSD, you can find this here.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.