Complex PTSD — How to Deal With Extreme Intolerance of Loud Sounds

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Reader’s Question

I have Complex PTSD after 18 years of domestic abuse. I’ve been away from my ex-husband for 10 years, but when someone is loud near me — for example on the bus, or where I work, or where I live — I feel scared, my heart races and I feel angry. I feel trapped and helpless. I feel that it will go on and on and I’ll be miserable. I’ve tried earplugs and sound machines, but that gets old — is there some other way of dealing with this?

Psychologist’s Reply

As you know, avoiding things that remind you of your abuse is one of the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While one may wish for triggers to vanish (by using earplugs to block the noise), it does get old, and avoiding it doesn’t work.

There are new techniques to help you deal with this symptom. It sounds like you understand very well what this is about and do not need help developing insight. Rather, you need help to decrease your startle response and increase your tolerance for ‘surprises’. One technique comes from the US Military, which has developed a treatment approach called CPT or Cognitive Processing Therapy. It is not a mysterious technique at all. It’s a process whereby you talk to a therapist about the original trauma, and the therapist helps you remain somewhat calm (or at least tolerably anxious) during the telling. The technique is surprisingly effective. It helps you remember what happened without reliving it, even unconsciously. I do recommend it among other similar techniques.

The other side to desensitizing yourself to the triggers is to respect your feelings and reactions. If you feel angry in response to a history of abuse, then good for you. You have every right to be angry. It’s important to remember that you may have been trapped once, but you are not trapped now. You may have been helpless once, but you are not now. You may have been a victim, but now you are a survivor. You are in control, as much as startling noises might remind you of a time when you were not.

In this, I wonder if your anger can be your ally. In your daily life, are you more assertive, do you feel empowered to advocate for yourself at need? If so, then your anger is a very positive thing. Having survived so many years of abuse, you may never be free of the effect. That does not mean that the effect need be disabling. You can use your anger to sharpen your focus on the remedies of injustice, even by doing nothing more than validating your feelings and your personal worth. However, if you also feel moved to help others who are struggling (and help yourself in the process), there are many, many domestic violence organizations that could use your help. Consider channeling that anger in a direction where it can do some good for all. Together, we can fight this blight that poisons our families, friends and society.

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