I was visiting with a friend the other day when a certain song came on the radio. Immediately, she stopped talking and I could see in her eyes that she was somewhere else. I asked her about it, and she told me that that song instantly transported her to a different time and place – back to a moment she’d shared with her first love.
That memory was a good one, and my friend enjoyed that moment. But all too often, things like a song, a sound, a tone of voice, or a specific action can take people back to a traumatic incident, leaving them filled with anxiety or trembling in fear. That’s why fireworks can be so difficult for veterans of war, or the smell of alcohol can send someone who was abused by an alcoholic parent into a tailspin.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the subject of a great deal of research, and a current headline on the topic caught my eye the other day. A large study involving more than 165,000 US veterans, published in Nature Neuroscience in July of 2019, identified multiple locations in the human genome that relate to the risk of re-experiencing traumatic memories. That’s right, your genetic profile can be connected to the development of PTSD.
This didn’t really surprise me. I’ve long recognized the connection between genetics and how we process past events. In my book, The Core Balance Diet, I talk a lot about how your “issues are in your tissues,” meaning our life experiences take root in our vital organs and impact physical health so much.
I know that these issues can pass from one generation to another, setting up an endless cycle of difficulty, unless they are dealt with. It only makes sense that there is some genetic component that causes us to experience things in certain ways – much like our genetics can also determine the way we’ll react to specific foods.
Although I wasn’t surprised, the article did get me thinking about how this information can be useful in helping women deal with past traumatic events. Knowing that your genetics can have an impact on the way you react in certain situations is the first step in being able to handle these situations differently.
How PTSD and Genetics Are Linked
PTSD research is turning up new information every year, offering valuable insight into the condition and new potential treatment options. In 2017, a large study by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium presented the first evidence that supported the theory that genetic influences impact the risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic incident. This research also showed that the genetic risk for PTSD is higher in women than in men.
This research is important in helping us understand why some people who experience trauma are more resilient than others. The societal impact of PTSD, including higher rates of suicide, hospitalization and substance use, is huge, so this information is vitally important when looking at ways to decrease risk of PTSD. Statistics show that in the US, one in nine women and one in twenty men will meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD at some point in their lifetime.
The study, which included data from over 20,000 people participating in 11 different multi-ethinc studies worldwide, presented strong evidence that reinforced the role of genetics in PTSD previously documented in smaller scale studies.
Can Genetic Information Help Decrease Risk of PTSD?
Knowing the genetic links that increase risk of PTSD can also help professionals make decisions about the interventions they use with individuals who have experienced trauma, according to one of the authors of that 2017 study. Because these interventions require many resources, it’s not practical to offer them to everyone, but knowing the genetic risk allow for more targeted intervention.
Having a specific genetic variant doesn’t mean that you will develop PTSD in response to traumatic events. It simply means you have a higher risk. That’s important to know, because when you know the risk is elevated, you can take preventative steps. Knowledge is power!
Think about it this way: If your family has a high incidence of heart disease, you are likely to understand that certain behaviors will increase your risk of heart disease. You might eat differently, pay close attention to cholesterol and blood pressure, and make a conscious decision never to smoke.
The same is true when you know you could be at higher risk of PTSD. You now have the information you need to make conscious decisions about how you handle stress. Instead of letting stress overtake you on a daily basis, you can put coping techniques into place. You can learn to be more in control of your thoughts and feelings, and pay attention to risk factors that could further increase your likelihood of developing PTSD. That’s a big deal!
5 Tips for Dealing with Traumatic Events Effectively
Anyone, whether genetically more at risk of developing PTSD or not, can use tips for dealing with stress inducing events in their lives. No one lives a life free of difficulties. We will all have to deal with trauma of one kind or another at some point. Here are five ways to handle traumatic situations and decrease potential for developing PTSD.
1. Confront the Pain of Traumatic Events
One of the most common, natural reactions to trauma is to try to push the pain away, forget, or avoid the emotions that the incident creates. This is also one of the most damaging things you can do. When you hold all that pain in your body, it will react physically. I’m not suggesting you do this alone. Find a trusted mental health professional to help you through the process, or a program designed to support your journey. I have come across many fantastic programs and techniques for dealing with past trauma, including the Hoffman Quadrinity Process and Emotional Freedom Techniques.
2. Connect with Others
There is so much power in social connection and having healthy, loving relationships. Research? When you have relationships you trust, you have a support system to turn to. Be honest with your loved ones. Hiding trauma that you have experienced means you are holding on to it. Tell the people you love what you’ve been through, and trust that they will be there to help you get to the other side.
3. The Power of Positive Thoughts
There is so much evidence now that supports the notion “as we think, so goes our life.” The way you view your life can make such a difference in the way your life plays out. When you focus on the negative things you can’t control, you give them far more power than they should have. When those negative thoughts creep in, hit the pause button and change your thinking!
I know this isn’t as easy as it sounds – especially when dealing with significant trauma. But when you can look at those past events objectively, and realize they do not have to be your future, making this shift is possible — and so powerful!
Just think about the difference in these phrases: “I’m a victim of abuse,” and “I’m a survivor of abuse.” When you identify as a survivor, you give yourself hope, courage, and the ability to move forward.
4. Acknowledge Your Emotions and Believe in Your Personal Power
So often, women who have experienced significant trauma feel worn down, exhausted and helpless. Remember that you have the power to choose your reactions. You may not have had any control over the events in your life, but you certainly have a say in how you respond to what happens. You are strong, you are capable, and you absolutely can cope with the feelings that arise.
Emotions aren’t good or bad. You can’t control what you feel. Emotions come automatically, and come from the most primitive part of your brain. What you can control is the way you respond to the emotions that come up. The first step is to stop fighting against these emotions. Let them come. Embrace the feelings – yes, even the tough ones! Allow yourself time to experience the fear, anger, sadness, and disappointment. There are lessons to be learned from these. But don’t let them control you!
5. Find Joy and Laughter in Your Life
It can be so easy to get caught up in the stress of past events, or even just the stress of daily life, that you forget to leave time for the things that bring you true joy. Laughter is a powerful stress reliever, with documented health benefits.
Laughter soothes tension, relieves your stress response by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and stimulates multiple organs in your body, including increasing endorphins released by your brain. Laughter is also a natural pain reliever, can improve your immune system, and boost your mood. That’s a lot of good reasons to find things to laugh about, isn’t it?
When you are doing things that bring you joy, laughter comes easily. That’s why it’s so important to find activities that put you fully in the present. For me, ballroom dancing is one great source of joy – on the dance floor, I can’t help but feel happy! For you, it may be hiking, or spending time with friends, or reading a good book. The activity isn’t important — the feeling it inspires is!
Genetics Offer Information – Intention Offers Relief!
Knowing your genetic profile can give you so much information about yourself. This information allows you to make intentional choices in your life, giving you the best possible change to thrive! I urge all of my clients to explore their genetic profile – after all, the more you know, the more you can do to be in control of your own health and happiness!
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Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD