Five ways I have turned complex PTSD into my superpower

Feel free to connect to me via my LinkedIn profile, where I originally published this piece. Also, here is a quick disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and this post should not be considered medical advice. Please see your doctor if you have any concerns about your own mental health.

Today is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day, which is especially relevant to me as a person with complex PTSD (cPTSD). This is a chronic mental health condition that is not very widely known; it has only recently been included in the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases.

cPTSD has the same core symptoms as PTSD:

  • Re-experiencing: flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience(s).
  • Avoidance: trying to avoid reminders of the traumatic experience(s) or suppress the memories (which ultimately makes the issue worse).
  • Hyperarousal: being very anxious and constantly aware of potential threats (to extend the superhero metaphor, it could be thought of as a way-overdeveloped “spidey sense”!).

However, there are a couple of key differences between PTSD and cPTSD:

  1. PTSD results from one or more life-threatening traumatic events (e.g. a car accident or being in a war zone), whereas cPTSD results from chronic exposure to trauma that was not necessarily life-threatening (e.g. abuse or neglect).
  2. In addition to the symptoms above, people with cPTSD struggle to regulate their emotions and sustain relationships, and also experience feelings of shame, guilt and failure.

Because of the clear impact it has had on my life, and particularly on my education history, I am relatively open about my experiences with cPTSD. In the past I’ve interacted with people who treated this experience as a weakness and my openness as a liability, particularly for my career. To some extent I understand this as I’m sure there are organisations who would use it as a reason not to hire me, but in my mind I wouldn’t want to work for such an organisation anyway.

I’d much rather not have cPTSD, but since I’ve (thus far) failed to build a time machine my only option is learning to live with it. With the right support I have been able to develop some useful skills that have helped me reframe my negative experiences and take back some power from a situation where I have experienced powerlessness all too often. Here are five of them to hopefully show that having mental health issues like cPTSD does not mean you can’t survive and thrive, including at work.

1) Resilience

I feel having cPTSD has prepared me to deal with anything. Many times I’ve been dealing with severe symptoms but kept going anyway, because the alternative was giving into the avoidance instinct and getting lost in my own thoughts (I’m still working on the balance of doing this vs. taking time to recover). I am used to feeling disappointed and trying again anyway, as well as going outside of my comfort zone and adapting when things don’t go my way. Because I faced trauma as a child, many of the issues I face as an adult don’t feel all that bad because at least I have some degree of agency. This puts something low-stakes like performing in an improv comedy show into perspective and makes it easier to challenge myself when I’m scared.

2) Concern for others’ feelings

I try to be conscious of people’s emotions and act in ways that won’t make anyone feel bad, which as I get older I am seeing as a positive (and not necessarily something that everyone does) rather than being “too sensitive”. Sometimes it can be a bit too much and I struggle with feeling responsible for other people’s wellbeing, particularly as working remotely lacks the nuance of face-to-face communication, but I am working on the balance and would rather care too much than not at all. Eventually I want to get to the point where I can use my experiences to help children and young people in similar circumstances to me, which I’ve done previously as a volunteer on Mind in Harrow’s Mindkit youth wellbeing project.

3) Independence

As a child I had to grow up fast and learned not to rely on anyone else, which has proven a double-edged sword. On the negative side, it makes it hard to ask for help, something I’ve spent years working on in therapy and with those close to me. However, on the positive side it means that I am always willing to learn and try things myself and am very happy managing my own workload.

4) Thinking differently

I have to be creative sometimes in finding ways to be productive and stay healthy despite my challenges, which I hope translates into having a different perspective on things. I also have to be flexible as a rule, so am comfortable with things changing if there is a reason for it and those affected are consulted beforehand. (If those things aren’t the case, my overinflated sense of justice takes over…)

5) Gratitude

Just to be clear: I don’t think the solution to mental health issues is “just be grateful for what you have”. I also don’t think that you should feel grateful for going through trauma – one of the biggest journeys I’ve been on is learning to feel unqualified anger for how I was treated as a child. However, I do think that cultivating gratitude can be a really powerful tool in recovery, through gaining a sense of perspective and taking back some control over the situation. This is especially helpful at work when I need a reminder of how far I’ve come, how hard I’ve worked and how much support I’ve received along the way.

To reiterate, I would much rather have developed these skills without experiencing trauma, and have been privileged to be able to access appropriate support and remain in full-time employment (not that these things should be a question of privilege, but that’s a different article). However, I am a big believer in finding something positive in any situation and reframing negative experiences as learning opportunities. Today, I challenge you to do the same in a way that feels authentic and helpful to you!

Resources for people in the UK

I’ve called and emailed Samaritans on many occasions and always found it helpful to talk through or write down my feelings. They even have web chat now! I have not called any other helplines, but Mind has collected a list of crisis support lines. I would also recommend checking out your local Mind, many of which have information helplines that can support you to find services in your area.

Finally, this is not strictly mental health-related, but if you are a student with a disability like me I’d highly recommend MyPlus Students’ Club, which has had a big impact on how I perceive my experiences with cPTSD and the value I can bring to the workplace because of them rather than in spite of them.

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