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Living on the Edge – Snapshots of PTSD: Oysters & Lightning (Cognitive Difficulties from PTSD)

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor


In this article, I go over a number of cognitive difficulties I experienced after getting PTSD.

In the Snapshot (story) part, I describe an experience of riding in the car after my third Somatic Experiencing Session. Then I talk about how my nervous system felt right after getting SE treatment.

In the Discussion, I elaborate more about my experiences at the time with 5 cognitive difficulties:

(1.) Terrible Short Term Memory

(2.) Trouble Comprehending Many Things at Once

(3.) Lost Vocabulary

(4.) Not Understanding Social Issues, Cues and Concerns Anymore

(5.) Impaired Social Skills

Due to the Somatic Experiencing therapy, I was feeling:

(6.) Cognitive Capacities Coming Back

  • Logic
  • Complex Thinking
  • New Perceptions
  • New Perceptions of Safety
  • Greater Perspective; Bigger Picture Thinking
  • New Connections
  • Short Term Memory Improving
  • Long Term MemoryImproving

I also noted:

(7.) Depression – I felt I also had depression because of feeling heavy and down but that might have been PTSD symptoms that just seemed like depression.

(8.) Self-tracking – I talked about how I was tracking my PTSD symptoms.

(9.) Somatic Experiencing Reduced Hyperarousal – I mention that my first 3 sessions of SE helped reduce hyperarousal of my nervous system by 6 percent.

(10.) Adrenaline Addiction – I note that the feeling of adrenaline associated with PTSD may have an addictive component to it.

(If you don’t have time for the Snapshot story feel free to jump down to the Discussion to get the bullet points)

Living on the Edge – Snapshots of PTSD: Oysters & Lightning

November 13, 2010

(Mike was my boyfriend at the time)

I am riding in the back seat of Mike’s verge-of-night gray Honda Accord (whom I named Falco), with Mike and his Dad (who is driving), to pick his Mom up from the San Francisco airport. I feel a little bit like a cage. I realize that the people in his family are actually not depressed. I’m accustomed to being depressed and being in my own depression space, so this new level of contrast makes me feel like a cement block in an aviary.

When we exit the Caldecott Tunnel on the Oakland side, the sky is no longer streaked with a magnificent carnival of orange sherbet clouds wearing many dancing clogs of plum. Now it’s marigold silk and uranium, fast fading into the streaked greenish yellow of turning ginkgo leaves, and as we merge into 880, the sky is yellowed pages of old books behind purple cranes, and then it pales to the tone of a child’s orange plastic toy that has been lost in the yard for 20 years.

Night falls as we flee tollbooths and converge, in a pack, up to the Bay Bridge. Across the water, beyond the festive white lights draped on the bridge’s suspensions, South San Francisco is ash anthills crawling with brightly twinkling embers left over from some giant’s bonfire. As we drive across the bridge the ocean and sky are almost identical secretive shrouds of cerulean blue, the ocean emptier than the sky, boats hanging in space.

Past San Francisco, now jetting up a hill, away from the depressing concrete behemoths just outside downtown, the highway is flanked by trees. A sullen procession of misshapen beasts in dusty army coat green, sleeping. They dream of a steadfast stream of rolling steel bodies blazing through soft suburban complacency.

My third Somatic Experiencing session, on Thursday, November 11, was primarily about how to reconnect with a place of peace, neutrality and self-connection even after the system is disrupted by something. After a trigger, emotion, memory, disturbing piece of information, stink bomb, etc. strikes, there are many different ways to regain equilibrium.

After the session I felt a bit wilted, like a plant that was used to being constantly struck by lightning, held erect in the electrifying zap, and then one day the lightening recedes up into the clouds.

Later that day, Mike and I stomped on sandy truck tracks and oyster shells at Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm, as we navigated past tan picnic tables and rust-encrusted (deep-fried?) equipment tossed into the mulch. Mexican music blaring, seagulls gracefully competing for posts, the water blue silk reflecting lazy strips of sky. Bay and heavens divided by slumbering whales made entirely of reddish and greenish brown clumps of moss.

seagulls gracefully competing for posts

We each slurped up one oyster at the picnic table, where the delicate edges of one wilted plant fluttered in the wonder of the bone white sky, suspicious, ready. But ultimately unable to find one bit of lightning anywhere in it.

Bay and heavens divided by slumbering whales made entirely of reddish and greenish brown clumps of moss.

Later on, while standing in Mike’s bathroom, I realized that after this session I had come down to 35% hyperarousal (on the hyperarousal scale I am measuring myself on where 100% is flooded and in a complete meltdown of terror with zero functionality). In one week I had gone from 41% to 35%. In this time, I regained cognitive abilities that had been off-limits before. It’s hard to explain because once it comes back it feels normal, because it is normal. But before, I wasn’t privy to normal, not when it came to thinking abilities.

What it seems like is I am starting to have periodic use of the higher parts of the mind, like seeing a wider perspective, holding two ideas at one time, remembering words and concepts, making connections. Developing a perception of reality that includes the possibility of security, rather than 100% danger (“crisis mode”). Being re-introduced to logic. There is a lot to the brain outside of survival, fear, freeze, flight, and fight. Human brains are not solely driven by instinct and reaction, but have many more capacities… There is a lot to being human rather than animal.

At 41% hyperarousal, I was beginning to access these things. Now at 35%, I feel like I’m about 1/3 of the way to full access of what I am just calling higher cognitive capacities. I’m beginning to re-familiarize myself with vocabulary words by reading books.

Even so, at the last Nonviolent Communication class at Bay NVC in Oakland which was on Monday, November 8, I was unable to understand quite of lot of what people were discussing just because of the complexity. The more complex the level of ideas became, concerns of one variety layering upon concerns of another variety, in no time it was beyond my capacity to understand anymore. I could not climb all those ladders at once. Sometimes I couldn’t even climb one ladder. For example, the concern for someone absent to be included, as the conversation might trip into discussing things about her. This issue, although it sounds like something I might have understood easily in the past and may again understand in the future, surpasses me at this time. It’s just too complex; there are too many parts to it.

My short term memory is still abysmal as well. Everybody else was able to listen to five “universal human needs” spoken in a row by a classmate and then give a synopsis, albeit with some effort. I, however, was unable to recall anything but the very last universal human need that the person said; therefore I never gave any synopses and was unable to participate in that class exercise.

Apparently, the memory is something that will take longer; perhaps it relies on more of the brain, more connections to be rebuilt, more areas of storage to be liberated. Perhaps it requires actual practice, exercise. I’m not sure how it works, but as my thinking is unwrapping the higher mind like gifts I wrapped for myself the day before the Fall from the Grace of being able to think, my memory is likewise being excavated, but in this case it’s more like digging about for gold, at a pace of a little silver shovel opening old abandoned mine shafts. Tap tap, tap tap, it unearths a small nugget, like one old vocabulary word for example, each day. And on some days, it unearths nothing.

There is a lot to being human rather than animal.”


In this Snapshot, we see:

1. Terrible Short Term Memory

In the Nonviolent Communication class I mentioned, I experienced one of the clearest demonstrations of brain impairments due to PTSD I ever experienced because there were specific things we were doing with our brains and I could compare myself to a whole group of other people doing the same thing. I had had PTSD for 3 years at this point. Everyone – every other student in the class – and there were a lot of people there like 30 perhaps – every person could do the exercise but it was impossible for me to do it. After I heard 5 words, I was the only one there who could only remember the last word. Every single time the teacher gave 5 words – and she did it many times for the exercise – I could literally only recall the last word given. I am certain I could have done that exercise before I got PTSD. That means that in the time it takes to say a word, I forgot the previous word, which is terrible short-term memory.

I have bad short term memory now in 2021, but it’s usually when I’m both distracted and really stressed out. For example, I sometimes forget if I shampooed my hair yet or not while in the shower because of thinking about other things. Or forget what I went to a room for, where I put something down I had 1 second ago or whether I just did something or not.

The difference in this example is I was completely focused on the exercise and trying to do it. I was not completely focused elsewhere mentally such that I wasn’t aware of what just happened. And I wasn’t totally stressed out which would make me scatter-brained.

I think that at that time the stress I had was a baseline of extreme stress that was constant and that I didn’t really notice. Now I have bouts of normal stress of life and my baseline is low level stress – still stressed but way less stressed.

Issues with short term memory were more severe then perhaps because of this extreme stress that was constant and how it interrupted my brain doing what it needed to to remember things.

2. Trouble Comprehending Many Things at Once

I mentioned that I couldn’t understand something because it had too many components to it. The brain couldn’t track many pieces of information and their various relationships all at the same time – it could understand one piece of information but not all the others. The brain lost its focus on one thing as soon as it needed to focus on another thing. It could only focus on one thing at one time.

This could also be called:

  • Inability to Multitask
  • Tunnel Vision
  • Uni-directional Focus
  • Only One Task at a Time
  • Only One Concept at a Time

I believe what happened was a student was upset by something and she left the room. The other students were attempting to use their NVC skills to address various aspects of the issue that could be going on with the angry student. Some people didn’t want to talk about her when she was out of the room and wanted to bring up the issues with her directly, I’m assuming in order to not talk about her behind her back and to have transparency within the group. Probably some people were OK with not being direct and transparent with her and others were not and really wanted complete transparency so that she was included and aware of what people were thinking. I couldn’t understand what was going on at a certain point because of how many elements there were that were being discussed.

This issue also happened when driving. I could compute what was going on, say, to the right of me. But while I did that I didn’t also retain what is going on to the left, behind, etc. – other directions. So, too many things at once.

Now in 2021, I most likely could understand what was going on in that class. If I was in the same situation now I probably could follow it – I’d still have a little trouble but I wouldn’t completely fall off the train as happened before. Prior to PTSD I’m sure I didn’t have problems with that – I was very intelligent before, as I can see when I read things I wrote when I was in my twenties.

I rarely drive anymore, so I’m still not that great at driving and still have a tendency not to be able to compute what is happening in all directions.

I’m sure drivers who don’t deal with these kinds of cognitive issues get angry with drivers with PTSD or other mental issues who have to take a little extra time to make sure they are understanding what is happening in all directions before they do anything. Honestly, I think it’s better to look for a couple seconds longer than to just drive headlong out into traffic because the people behind you can’t handle how long it takes you to completely process information in every direction. I was an excellent driver before, so the foundation of driving is still there. I think it’s OK for someone who is basically a really good driver to take a moment more to make a left turn. I can feel people with road rage go crazy at that idea but it’s true. The same is true for elderly drivers who are still mostly fine and just a tiny bit slower once in a while. But when any cognitive impairments become a true danger, then it’s not fair to others to continue to drive.

3. Lost Vocabulary

I was noticing that I lost some vocabulary words and was slowly re-learning them.

4. Not Understanding Social Issues, Cues and Concerns Anymore

With the issue with the woman outside the classroom, yes, it was the many elements at once, but I also couldn’t understand the idea itself. What is the reason for not talking about someone when they are gone? Why not just talk about what might be going on with her? Why would she care? How would she be harmed by that? I had absolutely no idea and this added to the confusion. This reminds me a lot of Asperger’s. I could understand literal things and information. But something about social relationships was escaping me.

5. Impaired Social Skills

As I just mentioned, my comprehension was limited in general but especially regarding social behaviors. I was unable to understand complicated issues pertaining to social skills and interpersonal relationships anymore, and this made it harder for me to socialize.

6. Cognitive Capacities Coming Back

Although I still suffered from pretty bad cognitive impairments, they were improving markedly with every therapeutic experience I was pursuing at the time (both self-therapy and seeing a therapist). I was observing a link between the reduction in hyperarousal and the re-accessing of lost cognitive capacities. I observed that when my hyperarousal reduced, I experienced improvements in such capacities as:

  • Logic – logical, rational thinking skills,
  • Complex Thinking – having more complex thoughts with more components at once,
  • New Perceptions – new perceptions of reality,
  • New Perceptions of Safety – perceiving safety instead of only danger,
  • Greater Perspective; Bigger Picture Thinking – reaching a greater perspective on things,
  • New Connections – making new connections not possible before
  • Short Term Memory – possibly improvements in short term
  • Long Term Memory – slow improvement in long term memory.

7. Depression

Along with CPTSD and PTSD, I was noticing in this Snapshot that I was feeling something like medium depression which may be somewhat common for people with PTSD. This may or may not be depression. It could be feeling the weight of un-grieved losses accompanying the traumas, the overall exhausting effect of trauma and all the brain impairments, and the sadness and confusion resulting from having brain impairments suddenly.

8. Self-tracking

I created a hyperarousal scale for myself and was using it as a way to increase self-awareness. I highly recommend self-tracking in general for personal development.

9. Somatic Experiencing Reduced Hyperarousal

Going to my first 3 sessions of Somatic Experiencing (1 per week) had the effect of lowering my hyperarousal by 6 percent, 41 to 35 percent, which I was measuring on the hyperarousal scale. Note that sadly that was not a permanent reduction as I experienced more traumatic events in the years following this Snapshot.

10. Note about Adrenaline Addiction

Not Being Triggered can seem unusually calm at first. No adrenaline, drama, crisis, activation of the nervous system, “lightning striking”. It could feel alien to the person at first, a great relief but possibly also a sense of boredom, feeling the absence of something one is accustomed to. It would be interesting to research adrenaline addiction/adrenaline junkie in relation to PTSD recovery, although I have never felt that being triggered was voluntary like physical exercise.

Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer located in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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