You Could Be Suffering From Environmental Illness-Related PTSD.

Over the past several months, I have described many chronic sinusitis patient experiences: disturbing neurological symptoms; inflammatory responses; and mood disorders.  These long-term disease symptoms complicate diagnosis and treatment for physicians and lead to confusion and frustration for patients, because answers and a path to wellness are elusive. I have also written numerous articles discussing toxicity in the body and other immune system-related illnesses that may be triggered by indoor mold.  Thus, many fungal sinusitis patients are dealing with a myriad of symptoms, both systemic and neurological, making their suffering much more debilitating than simply a “sinus infection.”

Today, I want to address patients with chronic sinusitis or mold sensitivity who have achieved relief, and have a handle on the cause of their symptoms, but who, out of nowhere, feel panic and a fight-or-flight response whenever they encounter a moldy environment. Many of these patients describe this experience as, while feeling well, they enter a building and suddenly have “intense sinus pain, burning eyes, and an emotional panic response.” They “have to get out of the building” immediately.  Does this sound like you or a loved one?

In addition to the physical symptoms of mold illness, patients often encounter a medical establishment that often does not believe them or recognize mold as a legitimate cause for health symptoms. Patients are often referred to countless specialists, asked to undergo expensive diagnostics, and suffer side effects from unnecessary medications. Symptoms and side effects remain while the patient still waits for any healthcare professional correctly diagnose the problem.

This is just the beginning.  The emotional toll from anxiety and depression that accompany environmental illness, and the strain on relationships can be devastating.  Financial insecurity from the inability to work or care for a family can cause hopelessness and guilt. There is also the anger and painful consequences of being “labeled” as a hypochondriac or just a “sickly” person.  Collectively, it looks and feels like devastating and traumatic to for a patient to contemplate this incapacitated existence. All of these reasons address the Title of the article where a person encounters the anxiety and guilt associated with telling their loved ones they have to leave a location for a planned event because an unexplainable panic when entering a building.

Getting properly diagnosed, treated for mold sickness, and making a home safe is a major challenge and undertaking for all patients with environmental illness and remains the critical path to getting well. This article was inspired by a mold patient and her physician’s concern over her having possible PTSD from the severe sickness and hospitalizations she endured as a result of her mold exposure.  During a separate discussion with her physician (a Mold Specialist), he described the commonality of his PTSD concern as it relates to mold patients

PTSD Defined

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that are commonly known to trigger PTSD include violence, abuse, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, and/or military combat. PTSD can be extremely disabling and tragic to individuals and their loved ones.Some psychiatrists now recognize that severely and chronically ill patients, such as mold or mycotoxin poisoned patients, who deal with difficult insurers, lost their homes, moved from place to place, all while having to be taken care of; fit the same criteria as listed on the PTSD DSM IV diagnosis.

In recent years, there have been several natural and man-made disasters that have created large populations of victims seeking treatment for environmental illness.  Several hurricanes, the Gulf War, 9/11,  and the BP oil spill are examples.  In the past, PTSD was reserved for veterans of war, violent crimes, and tragedies; however, these large populations concentrated in local geographies are providing the data required to do proper research.

Patients with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares and frightening thoughts when reminded of the trauma. People with PTSD also experience emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common.

PTSD and Mold 

If, in fact, PTSD can be caused by severe environmental illness, mold poses a particularly troubling challenge.  In the article, “Unexplained Neurological Symptoms Can Be Caused by Mold,” I describe the complex and very sensitive olfactory nerve system and the way it provides immediate access to the blood system and cerebral spinal fluid (blood brain barrier).

Innervation of the Nasal Cavity

Since mold exists everywhere and mold contamination often can be sensed by smell, an unconscious reaction to mold in our sinuses is certainly probable. Humans are capable of detecting certain substances in dilutions of less than one part in several billion parts of air.

In my article “What do Lady Gaga, Fibromyalgia…The Limbic System,” I describe how the brain’s “fight or flight” response can be triggered by our olfactory senses in our noses, alarming our body’s stress reactions and causing physical anxiety, fear, and other emotional responses to a perceived threat.

This happens prior to the hippocampus being triggered. Explicit memories can be drawn to a conscious conclusion. Thus, a very minor or major exposure to mold in the air can trigger an emotional and physical stress reaction that draws from previous trauma experienced from environmental illness suffering without the patient truly understanding what is happening or why.

Anxiety and flashbacks can occur when triggered by a similar, less traumatic event.  In these cases, the “thinking brain” cannot register that the danger is over or in the past and that the current danger is inescapable, temporary and everything is fine. When the communication from the amygdala (“fight or flight”) and the hippocampus (the thinking brain) is disrupted, a continuous loop between the two can make recovery from severe mold exposure very complex. Sometimes it feels impossible for the patient to put the illness behind them.

PTSD and Limbic System Recovery

PTSD research has demonstrated the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, and exposure therapy, in which the patient gradually and repeatedly relives the traumatic experience under controlled conditions to help him or her work through the trauma. A study of 12,000 school children who lived through a hurricane in Hawaii found that those who got counseling early on were doing much better 2 years later than those who did not. Patients can seek professional help from those trained to treat these challenges with therapy.

In addition, a relatively new field has recently emerged to address similar illnesses such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Lyme Disease, Food Sensitivities, Anxiety Disorders, Chronic Pain, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and many other conditions.  Annie Hopper’s Dynamic Neural Retraining System and Ashok Gupta’s Gupta Amygdala Retraining™ Program both focus on limbic system retraining.  These programs involve a curriculum and exercises to re-establish a normal limbic system response and breaking the faulty communication loop between the feeling and the thinking brain.  These programs require time and hard work; but, there are numerous success stories documented in research involving these programs. (Note: this is not an endorsement of these programs nor do I have any first-hand experience with these programs.)

The Bottom Line

If you or someone you love has overcome severe environmental illness, but still experiences trigger episodes of panic and anxiety and fear of recurrent sickness that affect wellbeing without explanation, there’s hope!  Patients should research the limbic system and limbic system retraining and/or seek help from mental health professionals who have an understanding of the complex brain functions and PTSD.  After all, patient vigilance is a requirement for the environmentally ill to pursue diagnosis and treatment in today’s traditional medical environment.