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PTSD in mountain guides isn’t a given. Most people are able to move past dangerous situations and move forward. Let me explain what happens.
The brainstem (aka the reptilian brain) is the most primitive part of our brains. It’s responsible for all the things a newborn baby can do—sleep, wake, eat, poop, pee, cry, breathe, feel temperature, hunger, wetness, and pain. It plays an important role in trauma.
The limbic area of our brains is involved in emotions like fear, motivation, creating meaning, memory, attachment, relationships, and orients our attention to things that are important.
The brain stem and limbic areas together have the key task of protecting our welfare. But they do so by making quick and sometimes faulty assumptions. They would be responsible for making someone jump as he’s walking to a bluff in Skaha assuming he had seen a snake when really it’s some discarded cut rope.
The limbic and brain stem areas are also responsible for fight, flight, and freeze responses. When anyone gets into life threatening situations, our bodies react. The first thing we often do is make some kind of sound like, “Holy sh…!” At the same time, out brain shoots out adrenaline and cortisol throughout our bodies and pumps blood away from non-essential areas into our muscles. It gets us ready to act.
We have no control whether this happens or not. Our bodies, using our brain stem and limbic areas, protects us by putting us into fight or flight. That’s a key idea. Diffuse physiological arousal or fight and fight happens without us consciously making it happen. It’s not a matter or being in control or not and it’s a mechanism we share with other higher mammals.
When we’re in situations where we feel helpless, trapped, and completely overwhelmed, we can also freeze. It serves a protective function for us. But it’s something that’s often terrifying for people because it’s like being dead—and dead not’s something we want to be.
Let me give you an example of fight, flight, and freeze in people who have different responses to the same event. Let’s say a group of people witness other skiers get caught in an avalanche. The guide throws off her pack, turns on her beacon to search, and puts together her probe. Her stress hormones are released, her fight and flight response is automatically enacted. She instructs others in her group what to do.
While they’re searching, adrenaline and blood are surging through their bodies. They may be shaking. They feel like they want to run and get out of dodge but they have to be methodical. Their neocortex or higher brains helps them stay with the group and methodically search with their beacons.
Let’s say they find someone partially buried and alive, and another whose fully buried. They uncover the first enough so that he’s able to breathe and then dig like hell to get the other skier out. DPA helps them to be able to dig like hell. It helps them keep going even when they want to collapse. It helps them have the strength to do what needs to be done.
Now let’s go back to the partially buried skier. He is in a hell of a predicament. He can’t move or free himself. He’s trapped. He can breathe, but that’s all he can do while he waits for the group to dig out the other guy. The adrenaline and blood is pumping through his veins too but he can’t act. He can’t do anything! His fight and flight responses keep firing even though the danger has actually passed. By the time the group is able to dig him out, he seems to be in shock. The freeze response has taken over.
For a lot of people, it takes a bit of time for their bodies to go back into relax mode. They may have a hard time sleeping after something life threatening happens, they may feel that nervous energy coursing through their bodies, and they might have random flashbacks of the experience. Most people though, have their bodies regulate eventually and go back to homeostasis.
Whether someone develops PTSD from a traumatic experience depends on a whole lot of factors. As I said before, most people don’t. Two people who experience the same trauma may respond very differently in the months and years after. Things that can play a role are:
We now know that being able to move and do something to protect yourself is critical in determining the impact the event will have on someone.
If you are a mountain guide and an event in the outdoors has shaken you or you’re wondering whether you may have PTSD, talk with a counsellor with experience in working with people who have experienced trauma. Approaches like EMDR or mind-body approaches can be really helpful in moving past traumatic experiences.