I recently went to The Oxford Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma to chat with Dr Hannah Murray, a PTSD clinician. Dr Murray is part of a department that evaluates and develops new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder through conducting trials, writing research papers, and training therapists. I am sort of starstruck because I’ve done a good few late-night research sessions to try and understand my own response to the trauma of a brain tumour. Meeting one of the people from the field that I’ve read a lot about feels like meeting a rockstar after spending ages listening to their music.
Dr Murray and I have a lot to chat about before I even begin getting to the questions. Like me, she has studied at Oxford – Teddy Hall. She was involved in her JCR. Dr Murray also has very personal experience with cancer – she is currently going through treatment for stage IV cancer. There is always an ease that comes with speaking to fellow cancer patients, no matter what stage of the journey either of you are on.
“PTSD is a psychological disorder that can develop after really serious traumatic events. And that includes really anything where your life was under threat, such as sexual assault, a serious illness, or terrorist attacks.” Dr Murray describes the “clusters of symptoms” that make up the criteria for PTSD – “avoiding things that are reminders of what happened, negative cognitions (changes to the way you see the world), hyperarousal (your body reacting as if you’re still under threat) and re-experiencing memories. I could ask you about a memory from your childhood and you could bring it back to mind, but you wouldn’t necessarily be reexperiencing it. PTSD memories are kind of like it’s happening again.”
Reexperiencing memories – it feels like an HD film, except you’re slap bang in the middle of it. That’s a big one for me, and all my senses help my brain out to really bring those memories back. Smelling the shampoo I used when I could wash my hair again for the first time after surgery. Tasting ginger, which I ate almost every day to stave off the nausea. And don’t get me started on the scent of medical-grade hand sanitiser.
PTSD is only diagnosed at least a month after a trauma because a lot of these symptoms are totally normal if you’ve just had a terrible thing happen to you. For most people the symptoms decrease, says Dr Murray. I breathe a sigh of relief. Trauma can trigger “all kinds of things” such as increased anxiety and depression. “If someone seems changed in the way that they’re able to live their life after a traumatic event, it’s worth encouraging them to talk to somebody.” That statement fills me with gratitude to my friends who encouraged me to seek support.
“It has a lot to do with the memory system in the brain and the limbic system and to do with the way that memories are processed and stored in the brain. The hippocampus processes and stores experiences in the cortex of the brain – that’s the normal autobiographical memory system, which is why those memories are fairly under control.” When you’re in a highly traumatic situation your brain is in “an evolved threat response mode” to help you deal with the reality of the situation by released chemicals that “fire up your fight or flight response”. It is thought that this can “interfere with the way those memories are laid down”. That’s how triggers can happen. When I smell that shampoo, I’m not recalling a memory, it’s my body recognising that threat. Thanks, brain.
We speak about how the smallest pains or weird feelings in your body can trigger spirals of health anxiety. I guess it adds a bit of spice to life, wondering if I need to call my neurosurgeon because my eyelid twitched. We also touch on scanxiety. It’s a word in the cancer community to describe the intense fear around scan days – I have an MRI every four months and then about ten days of waiting. Dr Murray describes her scan days as a “total roll of the dice”. I wonder if Dr Murray’s work has helped her, in some way, to deal with going through cancer. Not only does the knowledge help her in a way, as she tells me it helps her to process her feelings and the experience. But she also gets a lot of “satisfaction from her work”. Dr Murray is a very intelligent, hardworking woman, and her philosophy towards cancer stayed with me long after the interview.
“I don’t want to live the rest of my life, however long that may be, worrying about dying or being miserable, quite frankly. It seems like an enormous waste of my time.”