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Feb 24 2016

The Dinosaur Suit – My Life with PTSD

During the first three years of having PTSD (2007 – 2010), I felt like I had a Dinosaur Suit on that I couldn’t take off. My reptilian brain was controlling everything, so it was like wearing a suit that I was seeing out of and that was influencing everything in my life.

In 2010, I started to be able to step out of the Dinosaur Suit sometimes. Back then, it was a huge change and revelation whenever I experienced “normal” kinds of thoughts again; it was like breaking out of a prison temporarily before falling back inside.

Now, in 2016, I spend a bit more time in the “normal” place and I experience “The Switch” into the Dinosaur Suit whenever I get triggered. After The Switch happens, I’m inside my Dinosaur Suit and can’t analyze, think, or articulate anymore since I’m back to being a dinosaur.

Here is the cartoon I created in 2010 telling the story of The Dinosaur Suit:

(to read it full size click on the image and then click on the zoom icon)

The Dinosaur Suit - My Life with PTSD

The Dinosaur Suit represents all the changes to the brain and nervous system brought on by trauma that plunge the experience of life down into the lower brain – the survival brain, the instinctual brain, the reptilian brain, the brain stem located at the base of the head. The Command Center for the Dinosaur Suit is the reptilian brain.

So many different triggers turn on this Command Center – I have counted 25 associated with my boyfriend alone and I identified 23 main triggers just associated with where I lived in 2010. If you add all the others, there have been times I have been being bombarded with 60 or so triggers all telling me I was going to die or be harmed in some way. Now there are fewer, however there are enough to cause the Switch over to the Dinosaur Suit enough times a day that it still seems like it’s being turned on all the time.

Stepping out of the Dinosaur Suit represents overcoming all of these brain and nervous system symptoms and opening up the higher mind – rational thinking, analysis, etc., the memory, the perceptions of life that go beyond life and death (beyond survival). I began spending more time out of the Dinosaur Suit after learning to reduce the over-activity of the reptilian brain. Due to Somatic Experiencing therapy I have been able to experience moments in which the reptilian brain was truly calmed, brought fully into calm alert. There is still a ways to go though. When it switches on usually it still has power over me and not the other way around. And so much of the time it’s still unconscious.

How I Can Tell When I’m In the Dinosaur Suit

When I experience intense emotions of fear or anger it usually means I’m back in the Dinosaur Suit and the reptilian brain Command Center has been turned on. These times it’s obvious I’m being triggered.

Much of the time, however, the fact that it’s been turned on is subtle and can slip detection. I can tell it’s been turned on if I sense in my body and feel tension. Sometimes I can also feel sensations in my actual reptilian brain at the base of my head, like slight tingling or buzzing or tension. The tension is the animal body bracing itself and choosing whether to freeze, flee or fight. The environment can seem more blank and gray. If I ask myself whether I can perceive any safety in my environment I won’t be able to at that moment. The environment won’t seem dangerous in any overt way, but there won’t be any safety anywhere in it – it’s like a dead, potentially dangerous environment. Sometimes I feel like I’m holding my breath for long periods of time. This means the Dinosaur Suit is very frightened but isn’t letting on about why.

Dinosaur Suit’s Language

One reason it’s hard to detect what the Dinosaur Suit is up to is that the Dinosaur Suit does not speak in language. It’s trying to speak to its human occupant but it uses things like feelings, sensations and physiological changes to communicate.

This is also why talk therapy, Nonviolent Communication, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or any cognitive therapy that works with the thoughts, which are in words – they may not address this primitive part of the brain that speaks through the body. They do address it in some ways but not directly or in its own language.

Sometimes I feel negative about something – I feel all these negative sensations and emotions inside my body – and I make a mental determination about what is happening. It’s like I’m grasping for an interpretation based on the bad feelings I’m having inside. Then I create some declaration about reality. I’m trying to give voice to the Dinosaur Suit in the best way I know how, without actually understanding what it’s really trying to say to me (since it can’t talk).

Sadly, I generally don’t interpret what it’s trying to say correctly. This is because I don’t know Dinosaur Suit’s language.

It makes me wonder how many things I believe are terrible in my life that are really just Dinosaur Suit trying to communicate something to me.

I’ve been trying to learn Dinosaur Suit’s language lately though so I’m going to go ahead and try to translate some of the things I say in life into Dinosaur Suit language:

Interpretations of What Dinosaur Suit is Trying to Say:

When I say, “I want to break up with you!” “I need space!” (due to being triggered, not due to being with someone who is mistreating me) this can mean:

Dinosaur Suit — “I want to PUSH YOU away since I was at one time powerless to PUSH SOMEONE ELSE AWAY. My arms long to push away the bad thing. I think you are the bad thing since you remind me of it.”

Dinosaur Suit — “I want to RUN AWAY since I couldn’t RUN AWAY before. My legs long to run away successfully from the bad things. I think you are the bad things since you remind me of them. I desperately long to finally successfully escape.”

Dinosaur Suit — “I want to FREEZE, to be still and silent, and have everything bad vanish. I will ignore you to pretend you’re not here and pretend that I am dead. If I play dead long enough maybe that means the threat you are a representative of will go away.”

***

When I say, “I want to beat you up!”, “I want to hit the wall!” this can mean:

Dinosaur Suit — “AAAAAA! My muscles are FULL of anger! I want a PUNCHING BAG. I want to get rid of and push away the bad thing I could not get rid of in the past by punching something! I want to get through the fight to its resolution, the fight that I couldn’t get through before because I was overpowered! I want empowered resolution in my past but I don’t know how to get there so for now I want to release the tension building inside.”

***

When I say, “I want to die.” “I want to kill myself.” “I want to harm myself.” this can mean:

Dinosaur Suit — “I have so much anger and frustration inside, I don’t know what to do with it all! I feel so uncomfortable, I need relief from this! I need to release all this NOW! I will stab myself! It will let the energy out finally! And I will feel relief. Sweet relief.”

This is what it is in my case. I don’t know about others.

***

When I say, “I feel depressed.” (this is not in the case of clinical depression this is post-trauma related to freeze response depressed state) this can mean:

Dinosaur Suit — “I am overwhelmed and in chaos and I need to pretend I am dead for a while. I play dead when there’s too much and it’s beyond my ability to process. I think if I get still enough, maybe the threat will go away on its own. I believe that praying might help to enlist some outside force to take away the threat, since I am helpless. I’ve learned that flee and fight have no effect, so the only other option is to play dead and pray for outside help. All the energy to flee or to fight is stuck inside me, inside the freeze response, so the stillness is stressful. It’s not restful.”

***

So, Dinosaur Suit is generating intense emotions. When I interpret the Dinosaur Suit language I can see that these intense emotions – the feeling of being frozen in panic, the shaking with terror, the strong urges to commit suicide, the burning rage that completely consumes the body – these are all part of the Dinosaur Suit, not the person inside the Dinosaur Suit.

Of course not all that Dinosaur Suit communicates is intense. Subtle sensations are also part of the Dinosaur Suit and not the person inside the Dinosaur Suit. The tension, apprehension, viewing of danger in many places, and changes to physiology like breathing, heart and stress hormones  – all these subtle things that may go completely unnoticed – are part of the Dinosaur Suit as well.

In the Command Center of the Dinosaur Suit there is a console. The reptilian brain will press one of three buttons: freeze, flee, fight. Then it chooses the intensity level. If it’s only 5 out of 100 then would generate things like low-level tension, wariness, caution, apprehension, a sense of gloom and doom, and a perception of the environment colored with a slight sense of danger and badness. It’s like the Dinosaur Suit puts various filters over your eyes and changes the environment depending on which button is pressed and which intensity level it’s set to. I think if you have the Dinosaur Suit on all the time, like I did for 3 years, it’s very hard to remember how to have the non-colored perceptions you had before the traumas.

I find that I still get the freeze button pushed a lot, perhaps every few days I go into a depression of which immobility is a part and I feel too disorganized and chaotic to cope with anything. The fight button gets pushed a lot as well. I have felt urges to kill myself at least 3 days a week or sometimes more since Fall 2014, which is just an indication that I have a huge amount of anger and fight energy stored in my body that gets to such a high a level of frustration that all I can think of to express it is to hurt myself. And I get obsessed with wanting to flee my boyfriend – to escape the danger, the threat, even though he’s not a threat. It’s just he reminds me of the terrifying and disturbing things of the past. Life would be so peaceful and manageable if these buttons didn’t keep getting turned on. Living day-to-day without the Dinosaur Suit would be amazing. I imagine that it’s the difference between walking through a minefield and walking through a beautiful field of flowers in the country.

My Personal Experience of Self-harm relates to Fight Button of Dinosaur Suit

Just a few observations about self-harm as it relates to my experiences of PTSD.

In my case, I believe during childhood I was taught or interpreted from various things that I should not express anger or other negative emotions outwards to others, so it gets balled up inside – whether it’s from trauma or not. Because my self-monitoring is so strong, and I under no circumstances will hurt another, there is an accumulation and build up of all of the trauma reactions – fight, flight, freeze – in the muscles that feels highly uncomfortable.

I actually have not self-harmed but I’ve felt the urge to plenty of times.

For me, the urge to self harm is trying to do two things:

  1. It directs all this trapped energy at the target of my own body, giving it a place to go and a way to be expressed and
  2. it’s trying to solve the energy accumulation itself – opening up my body somewhere is me trying to open up a place for that horrible accumulation to leave my body.

Self-harm is very complex and there are many factors that go into it. I’m just pointing out two I’ve noticed in my own case.

Note – Dinosaur Suit is One of Many Things Going On

In real life there is more going on than just reactions from past trauma. The trauma related reaction – the Dinosaur Suit – is usually only one factor in a complex multi-factored situation. The trauma reaction can be one of the most potent parts of the experience though. It’s good to bring more awareness to this specific factor that is from past trauma within the whirlwind in order to heal it.

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Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.