Animals in the wild must deal with anxiety, but observations suggest that they are able to quickly recover, let go of the triggering incident, and go on with their activities. No animal could survive long if it didn’t recover from trauma and had to function in a permanent state of panic and anxiety – and yet humans do just that. Unlike wild animals, humans think about their trauma and hold on to it, causing chronic anxiety and fear. Americans live in a culture that promotes fear from low-level and non-existent threats.
Animals may be truly lucky not to have higher order brain functions: Humans create long lasting memories of traumas, large and small, by making up stories that run like never ending soap operas. Those memories become part of our physical state: chronic elevation of stress hormones take a toll and can lead to serious illnesses. Short of amnesia, the ongoing creation of stories is difficult to stop or reverse.
Wild animals retreat to safety for a period and then go their way. Some scientists think that because the animal experiences the anxiety only in its body, when the physical effects dissipate, the trauma is finished. However, this is not the case when animals, both domestic and wild, are subjected to chronic maltreatment by humans.
In humans, whenever we replay past trauma in our minds, the trauma becomes more entrenched in our bodies through reactivating the fear and anxiety we felt. If the experience was extreme, we may experience the symptoms of PTSD – flashbacks, nightmares, unwanted memories and terrifying physical sensations. Avoidance of anything that may trigger such episodes becomes paramount and restricts behavior.
As an Asperger individual my “worst” symptom has always been severe anxiety, not everyday anxiety that we all experience, but anxiety that is off the charts. The example that closely resembles how I feel is seeing how a wild animal reacts to being cornered, captured, caged or otherwise trapped. When I watch a “nature” show, I actually envy an animal that is shot with a tranquilizer – no lie!
I am aware that my anxiety is out of scale with whatever caused the anxiety, but this knowledge does nothing to keep the anxiety from escalating. Something has reached deep into my memory and resurrected old anxieties. I have thought about this a great deal, and have come up with a possible explanation. I am one of those Asperger individuals who is a visual thinker; my memories are visual. Visual memories are not time bound; they exist always as part of the present and resurface whenever a visual stimulus “matches” – If I see a blue shoe in a store, pictures of blue footwear I have seen will “join the party” and if a fear-provoking event involved that blue shoe, well – it joins the party. This can be a very rich resource for an artist, if painful. Some art appears to me as the manifestation of this process. The artist is drawing or painting unconscious pictures.
The bad news is that when a traumatic picture is “called up” by a present situation, the picture is not buried by time or relegated to the past through language, stories, denial or defense: it is experienced just as it happened. Which leads me to wonder: are visual people more susceptible to PTSD, and are highly visual experiences (carnage in war or natural disasters) more likely to result in PTSD?