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Home > Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Safety

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Safety

Andrew MartinAndrew L. Martin, PsyD

We all have basic assumptions about safety – the dangerousness of other people, our ability to keep our selves safe, and the safety of the world in general. Traumatic events can disrupt these beliefs, leading to symptoms like persistent anxiety, being easily frightened, and social withdrawal. The brain likes to think in very simple terms – yes/no, all/none, safe/dangerous. If prior to a traumatic event, you thought that the world was safe, you could protect yourself, and other people were not dangerous, your brain might flip to the opposite of those beliefs. On the other hand, if you already believed that you could not keep yourself safe, and the world and other people are basically dangerous, then the traumatic event might reinforce those beliefs.

One way therapists treat posttraumatic stress disorder is to help people form more balanced thoughts about safety, and resolve any conflicts between safety beliefs and the traumatic event. For instance, changing “I can’t protect myself at all” to “I can keep myself safe in most situations, and if there is danger, I can usually protect myself from being hurt.” Or if the person believes they are totally safe, and therefore become anxious when they think about the trauma, they may need to start thinking, “although I can be hurt, it is unlikely to happen again, and I am developing skills to help myself emotionally.”

Finally, the brain may tell us the traumatic event is our fault, because we can’t keep ourselves safe. This may lead to persistent fear of many situations, and intense guilt or shame over failing to stop the traumatic event. This is an illusion, because most likely we did everything reasonably well to stay safe, and yet something bad still happened anyway. We can’t realistically be perfectly safe AND live a fulfilling life at the same time. This conflict is resolved by accepting that we didn’t fail to keep ourselves safe – that nobody could have kept themselves safe in the situation.



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