11 Visual Representations of PTSD Symptoms Part 1 (1-7)

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by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

I went to my first session of Rapid Resolution Therapy.

In this post I am going to share some of the images that came up for me as part of my healing process during and after the session.

Terms related to generating images of inner states: active imagination, visualization, symbolic representation, guided meditation, visions, visual intelligence

Note: This article and all articles on this blog are based on my personal experience as someone recovering from PTSD.

I have PTSD. While I am not in a constant state of hyperarousal and immobility anymore at an acute level, I still have a trauma-based perception of reality and on an unconscious level have fears and anxiety that are from past traumas going on all the time. And I still get triggered from time to time.

Visual Representation of Being Triggered – Absolutely Terrified Person

The first image is about what it means to feel Triggered:

Fear Level 100%
Fear Level 100%

When I get triggered, I will easily “fall into” acute terror, hyperarousal, immobility etc. Even if I simply know I have to go to a place where there will be something related to the trauma and am not being exposed to it yet, I may:

  • begin to cry
  • I will be unable to sleep
  • then when I do sleep I sleep too much without actually getting any rest
  • I will go 100% into panic space
  • I won’t really be able function anymore
  • I will stop eating
  • have shallow breathing
  • lots of tension
  • and many different anxiety and fear responses.

This can last for maybe 1-3 days.

Here is a working definition for being triggered and reaching “100% fear”:

100% Fear Level definition: feeling very dizzy, feeling like I’m going to faint, crying, bolting from the trigger, shaking, shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, sweating and feeling nauseous or feeling like throwing up. The terror associated feels (metaphorically) as if I have cuts and scrapes, and someone is pouring buckets of salt over me.

Visual Representation / Symbol for Fight, Flight and Freeze – the Bear, Rabbit and Frozen Guy

Next is an image of the Bear, Rabbit and Frozen Guy that represent Fight Flight and Freeze – instinctive responses to danger. These energies are behind why I get triggered.

In this picture it is showing them as trapped or stuck energies which need to be seen, heard and given a pathway to expression in a specific way that obtains resolution of their purpose.

Fight, Flight and Freeze
Fight, Flight and Freeze

Visual Representation / Symbol of Instinct Versus Higher Mind – The Goat and the Snowflake

Here is a visual representation of the concept of the lower and higher brains.

The lower brain is the Goat. The Goat jumps around without self control, reacts to things moment by moment, doesn’t think, and it’s basically instinctive almost all the time.

The higher brain is the Snowflake, which is complex, multifaceted, intelligent, able to understand complex realities, think through things before acting, and can take a reasoned and rational approach to events.

It is helpful to be aware of these two parts of ourselves and how they function.

higher and lower mind

Visual Representation / Symbol of the Trauma That is Still in the Body

I had a vision of a symbol for all the negative stuff – the fear and trauma that was causing me so much trouble in life. I saw a symbol of a piece of black metal that looked kind of like a weapon with dark black clouds all around it.

traumatic memory

Visual Representation / Symbol of Being Healed – Light Blue Stream

I also had a vision of the state of peace I would experience if I was not affected anymore by past traumatic experiences. This includes:

  • the ability to respond consciously to life
  • the ability to reach out to and engage beneficial possibilities
  • the ability to think clearly without the past interfering
  • the ability to retain all of the learning and the lessons from the past experiences but let go of the charge and limitation and triggers, and
  • to have more of my true self being more active and in control of my life.

All of these positive results are wrapped into one symbol. The image that came to me was a light blue stream happily bubbling across smooth brown stones, passing through a leaf covered forest floor. I enjoy the feeling of this symbol.

goal of ptsd therapy

Visual Representation / Symbol of Calm Alert – Mossy Forest Floor

Following is an image of a moment where I felt excited and peaceful at the same time. What came to me was the image of a mossy forest floor, because I had an experience when I was really little — my parents took us hiking to this place where there was a mossy forest floor and this place always felt profoundly safe and wonderful to me. Also when I was visiting my sister we went to Bainbridge Island in Washington State and there was a mossy forest floor there that was very magical.

These feelings of excitement and peace are being generated from within myself, they are not caused by the outside world but they are a part of who I truly am and the feeling I have when I am in touch with my true self.

This symbol feels very good and I feel more deeply connected to myself when in those locations. The feeling of peace and excitement I had while imagining myself in these settings is a way to gain access to life force I had before the traumas (at least that is how I sense it). It also feels safe enough to let down fear and defensiveness.

The following illustration shows my attempt at sensing this, but not being fully able to really be there or totally embody it, because the body still has trauma-related responses (so I drew myself with a dashed line, indicating only a percent of me being there).

The tree and bird are parts of my soul that I lost. The bird is trying to fly back to me, and the tree is trying to grow strong and tall again.

To partially sense this during therapy is nice, the more difficult task is to try to tune into this at home.

Therapy...Stepping into Safety and Self » Healing from Trauma
finding safety, goodness, and self in therapy

Visual Representation / Symbol of Fear Returning

After this session, for 3 days the “100% Fear” was reduced to about 0-5%. After 3 days, the “100% Fear” came back up to somewhere around 15%

fear returning

I hope you enjoyed these symbolic images of inner psychological realities and states. There were more symbols that came as a result of this session. If I have time I will create some more images and add them to this post.


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.

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