• Valerie McDonnell

Haunted by Trauma: How Abuse Inflicts Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Plus a sensory grounding technique for daily use


Memory is a powerful thing. It’s also somewhat a mystery.

The brain houses the mind in a complex web of electrical pathways traveled by sensory input. Each of your five senses contributes to the neural network of stored memory.

Trauma heightens the senses as a physiological response to fight or flight situations. The heightened activity burns deeper pathways in the brain—and those pathways turn into ruts, which manifest as memories firing again and again triggered by any of the five senses.

Smells in particular are rooted in memory. Vodka on daddy’s breath. Antiseptic on a split lip. Couch cushions at uncle’s house. But colors, textures, sounds all can trigger PTSD symptoms.

One recent PTSD client experienced daily panic attacks of unknown origin—until through a process of sensory grounding and self-observation, she realized it was a song on the playlist at her retail job. Repeating daily, weekly, haunting her work hours and undermining her happiness.

Sex therapists help clients manage PTSD from sexual trauma, but many of the mental health management techniques we use are also relevant to PTSD from violence—whether witnessed or experienced.

PTSD is a condition and a diagnosis



The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lays out criteria for diagnosing PTSD after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. The DSM-5 requires certain symptom combinations and duration for official PTSD diagnosis—but manifestations of PTSD are as individual as the sufferer and the experience.

Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks

  • Nightmares

  • Dissociation

  • Hypervigilance

  • Irritability

  • Amnesia

  • Insomnia

  • Intimacy issues

  • Depression and/or anxiety

Such symptoms can interfere with the course of daily life—including interpersonal communication. Fortunately, many different therapy modalities can be used to treat PTSD. And some therapists (in Richmond and elsewhere) specialize in specific types of trauma, like child sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Therapy for PTSD


Untreated memory pathways will continue to burn deeper ruts interfering with life and happiness—sometimes leading to self-harm or broken relationships.

Thankfully behavior therapy can be very effective for managing PTSD symptoms and achieving goals—like re-engaging in interests or overcoming the fear of sleeping home alone. The important thing to remember is, treating PTSD is a process—not a quick fix. Triggers won’t go away—but you can learn to manage your response and overcome your symptoms.

The first step in PTSD therapy is evaluation. During intake a therapist will ask questions about your symptoms and trauma to analyze the complexity. Beyond that, social workers also look at factors like family of origin, mental history, and social support structures. Therapists can go over the DSM criteria with you, delving into how PTSD impacts your life.

Then they’ll teach you about the psychology of trauma and the relationship between symptoms and triggers. You’ll learn about building boundaries and nurturing self-esteem. Step by step and week by week, through self-discovery and practice, a therapist can guide you toward feeling safe and alive again.

5 by 5 Sensory Grounding Technique for PTSD


PTSD triggers can happen anywhere, any time; front of mind or subconsciously. It’s nothing to be ashamed of—about 8 million people live with PTSD at any given time. Memory is tricky and there’s still a lot we don’t understand about how it works.

But next time you feel PTSD symptoms coming on, try this sensory grounding technique. All you do is observe your surroundings with each of your 5 senses.

Identify and name:

5 things you can see

4 things you can touch

3 things you can hear

2 things you can smell

1 emotion you feel

Repeat as needed.

Remember: experiencing triggers and symptoms is normal.

PTSD treatment is a baby steps journey into your wounded core to understand and heal what’s been festering.

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Sex Therapy at Home

Better communication for better intimacy

Exercises for mastering anxiety & facing fear

2567 Homeview Dr

Richmond, VA 23294

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© 2020 by Valerie McDonnell

Wordwork by Quillpower