That’s the thing about ghosts… and PTSD. Deadly serious reflections on “Supernatural.”

Please read this…it might save your life or someone you know.

No disrespect to Supernatural, the iconic ‘demon-hunting’ show that my wife has recently gotten me hooked on, but I have a few major gripes with writers and some messages of the stories they convey. Especially because the major focus of my professional life has to do with cultivating mental and physical resiliency…and the show may compromise my success to the detriment of others who desperately need help.

My complaints have absolutely nothing to do with actors and actresses as they always seemed to slip in and out of the numerous storylines with humor and grace. Dean’s Impala, too, is wicked cool as is the musical scores they broadcast from within the car or as part of the background energy. Takes me right back to the care-free 80s.

I don’t have a problem with all the story lines, for sure, because some really captured my attention and I think teach us special lessons — in ‘real life’ as well as in fantasy.

The rub here has to do with some of the story lines themselves and how Sam and Dean, and the episode’s unwitting victim(s), get out of their crises, returning to a normal and (apparently) happy life. Fantasy or not, a few of the show’s messages are subliminally wreaking havoc, at the worst, or at best they are subtly undermining the help that many people need.

Supernatural issues and how they relate to PTSD?

The following thoughts might seem like a huge stretch stretch to you, because what the HECK could a sci-fi TV program have to do with PTSD? Hear me out…

This is deadly serious stuff (pun intended). Like some of the spiritual whispers found in the show, the subtle, but insidious, memes that start so ‘innocently’ can completely consume a soul and send it into a hell-like state. Not in a supernatural way but a real-world, natural one.

Pay attention to the whispers, so we won’t have to listen to the screams — Cherokee proverb

What are some of my issues?

First is the belief that we can annihilate (‘kill,’ ‘send back’ or other resulting victory over) inanimate, nebulous, spiritual, ethereal, non-corporeal, or non-material parts of life with tangible, material objects is a load of bollocks. Even when these ‘things’ are zipping through the air toward their target, they are physically pushing the air molecules, dust or the pheromones of Dean’s testosterone-laden body out of their way, never really hitting them. To expect they will magically interact with the non-physical is silly.

For example, firing rock salt loaded in a double-barrel shotgun, dissipating or dispersing a ghost so that it has to then reform/regroup. Or, related, using iron, brass, silver or other metal objects hurled or stabbed into, or otherwise impaling, the unmanifest but ethereal evil entity.

When the physical implements of destruction hit physical stuff, all hell can break lose. But there is a big difference between the physical and non.

In very serious terms, the myth that relatively simple, brute-force physical actions by things made up of molecules can easily and completely eradicate other things not made of matter is what a lot of PTSD sufferers try. Yea, Supernatural is based on myths, you might argue, but seeing this happen on the screen over and over creates the illusion that it can happen in real life.

The physical overcoming the ethereal…Not likely you cheeky monkey writing bastards. Similar to all myth, though, there is truth deeply embedded in this thought.

Read on.

Anyone who has experienced a physical trauma knows that there is nothing that can be done to prevent a physical outcome. Like the silver bullet whizzing through the air, the physical impacts the physical. And when a physical object hits another one, the corporeal, material tissues of the body are instantaneously altered. Not necessarily in a permanent fashion all the time, mind you, but the traumatic shock cannot NOT be manifest at some level.

And no matter how much we think, pretend or believe ourselves immune to the physical sequelae, we are changed.

Now a critically important extension: HOW we think about the physical trauma, during and afterwards, impacts the trajectory of our future. Thinking about things is not some ethereal exercise: thinking about a memory is a good example of physical things altering physical things. The original physical impact creates real physical memories of the event…something called neuroplasticity. The sensory fibers of our body conduct information to our spinal cord and brain and and the way BOTH work is altered. That’s their initial job, but this is not where the changes stop.

When we reflect on the experiences we’ve had, our current emotional state and what we think about the memory gets layered on top of the original physical memory trace of the memory: neuroplasticity of neuroplasticity, if you will. And the more we think about it the more the additional emotions and thoughts get tangled in the memory trace. All of this is physiologically driven. And, critically, this all involves a system that is agnostic to what we’re asking it to do.

Our nervous system, in most ways, doesn’t qualify events into good or bad, right or wrong, helpful or harmful. We do, or try to, but it doesn’t.

For example, and a beneficial one at that, if we reflect positively on an experience, even one that started out negative, we’ll layer on the positive emotions/energies. This is the savior for many a traumatized person, but most head down a different route. Most people remember the negative memory, a process that evokes negative emotions, sadness, guilt, remorse, etc., and these get layered on top of the memory, creating more negative associations, that then make the person feel worse…these are because the neuronal networks expand beyond the original memory traces in a network-like fashion.

Just like the super sexy 1982 Heather Locklear commercial for Faberge, they spread ‘and so on, and so on…’

Just because the positive-after-negative can happen is by no means a suggestion that just by thinking positively that we’ll have a positive outcome…that’s bull and, unfortunately, the opposite of the way the system is designed. If we think and feel negatively about a positive OR negative memory, we will heavily influence our already negatively-biased system to remember the negative aspects. As Dr. Rick Hanson says in Hardwiring Happiness, our minds are “Teflon for the good and Velcro for the bad” — meaning we are evolutionarily wired to cling to and remember the situations that either put in in danger or those that simply increased the chance of us being hurt. The positive correlate of happy-go-lucky experiences, however, are not part of the package to the same extent because they’re not evolutionary advantages (as nice as they may feel).

To reiterate what was mentioned above: thinking is not some ephemeral and immaterial activity, regardless of what we ‘think’ about the activity. Thinking, ruminating, worrying, being saddened, angry or even feeling hopeless, are PHYSICAL activities, activating fantastic systems in our head that are designed to eagerly upload and remember what we ask it to. We can’t think a thought or feel a feeling without our physical brain (and body, by the way) being involved. When you think a thought, scores to hundreds (or even more) neurons are activated in an associative networked way within your noggin. Each of these are electrochemical in nature…thus, involving ions and other tangible molecules.

Thinking is the physical manifestation of our own doing, linking our memories (real or imaginary) with the real and current moment; but thinking also has the power to link the unreal (that didn’t happen or hasn’t happened) with the real (our memories or current moments). This means we can create completely unreal worlds (in our mind), but the thinking creates real consequences in us because the unreal thoughts are now neuronally laid down in our brain in very realistic ways with very realistic consequences.

The same link exists between these memories and our beliefs and our bodies. Our beliefs are as neurologically founded as our understanding of math chemistry or statistics and are based on how we’ve experienced the past. We tend to poo-poo the impact our beliefs have on our lives, but we shouldn’t because they don’t impact just our heads, they create disease in our bodies.

We think, believe, calculate or love because we are bundles of neurons that reside in our head, but our head is just one of many physical sacks within our body. Everything is, ultimately, connected to everything else. What we think, therefore, dictates how the system works. Conversely, believe it or not, how the system works dictates how the brain operates.

Thus, there are links between the imaginary and the real, going both ways (the imaginary impacting the real and the real impacting the imaginary). We cannot, however, kill off the imaginary in the literal sense; we can, though, create a new imaginary world by what and how we think.

How does this relate to PTSD?

Many PTSD sufferers have a physical insult or injury that starts the process. The specific causes are endless, but the theme is the same: something physical impacts the person in some realistic, physiological way. A bullet, a slap, a series of insults, a rape, a car accident or a thousand other example traumas alters the system — the whole system and not just the ‘impacted’ part. A slapped cheek or a crushed femur both conduct the sensory phenomenon of pain into the brain where the information is contextualized, memorized and stored for future reference, but the cocktail of stress hormones, immune mediators, pro-clotting and inflammatory molecules, are released across the body, and on the quick. Within moments, the entire inside of the body is transformed.

For good reason, too: the system needs to fight the insult in every way and in every place possible, sparing no expense because life is that precious.

The process of learning and memorizing painful experiences is absolutely a physical event as research that I and hundreds of other scientists have proven. The nervous system (and the body, by extension) continuously scans the environment (even when we’re asleep), keeping itself poised and ready to pounce in well less than a second. When something triggers the system, every part is recruited to help.

By the way, this is such an important tactic to keep us alive, the system doesn’t care if this is efficient, ordered and ‘neat.’ It doesn’t care, and some of the long-term consequences we ultimately deal with are based on this engineering. Better, it thinks, to be alive and dealing with a muddled live than to not have a life at all.

Understanding this might help us understand that some of the most difficult of post-traumatic situations are not really in our control. Yes, they are completely our “fault” because we’re the ones wired this way…but in some big ways we can’t not have the outcomes that happen.

How can this understanding help foster post-traumatic growth?

I really love the episodes when someone’s troubled past continues dogging them but only until they find a way to ‘slay their demons’ and their life magically resumes.

Those who cannot find the way to slay the demons essentially live a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) life. Their livelihood and happiness can’t return because they can’t structure it into a productive and meaningful way. Disorder rules and suffering ensues. Even if the initial insult wasn’t that bad, our negative ruminations lead to more and more negativity, turning it all rather ‘unsightly’ in the end.

Returning perhaps to an analogous example, for those of us who were teenagers in the 1980s and infatuated with beautiful blondes, the iconic and vivacious Heather was slowly transformed (perhaps by her own demons?), ultimately resulting what we now see.

The same, but not quite the same.

How many of us or people we know have gone down this route?

Ghosts of the past haunting us and altering our every moment so we start looking like them ourselves? Or, we start haunting others…moaning and lashing out like we’re possessed?

There is an alternative, call it a ‘saving grace’ if you will, that many haven’t heard of: post-traumatic growth order (PTGO). PTGO is an alternative reality that is far, far from mythical as it is a realistic and natural potential seeded deeply in every individual.

The beginning episode of PTGO begins the same as all other potentially life-altering events — with a trauma. The resultant aftershocks are also critical ingredients…thus begins the PT (post-traumatic) half of the acronym.

In Supernatural terms, the opening scene whereby the life of the unsuspecting lad or lassie is quickly and often catastrophically changed in an instant. In the show, those who survive do so but are not the same, but not in a realistic way: the ones who survive supposedly go through a PTGO route as they end up ‘happy’ in the closing scene without any apparent lingering effects of the haunting/possession/etc. This is clearly fantasy on many levels because this is, unfortunately, by far the more rare of the post-traumatic outcomes. The majority of trauma sufferers experience some form of PTSD.

The PTGO alternative is not some supernatural phenomenon, however, because it is a latent potential that exists naturally within each of us. Sure, the system is biased to seek, amplify and remember the potential harms that life brings but the system will respond to the positive adaptive growth opportunities if it is trained to do so.

These responses exist within each of our bodily systems — the heart, the lungs, the legs, the liver, etc. — as well as the brain (remembering that it, too, is just another ‘body part’). This means that our limiting beliefs, fears, phobias, and even our past traumas are amenable to our desires to become better people. There may be limits to how far we can take ourselves, like none of us could stop a bullet, silver or not, from piercing our body by just ‘thinking it so,’ but we can certainly take ourselves much farther than we have in the past by knowing what we now do.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we can develop ourselves to the point of becoming supernatural because what we define as natural is simply based on what we’ve seen in nature in the past. We can evolve beyond that past and, in my opinion, become supernatural forms of ourselves.

Not necessarily deities…but why not?

How this can play out, this epic battle between good/PTGO and evil/PTSD, is determined, ultimately, by US…the directors and editors and writers of our life story. NOT by some cosmic entity that lives in a separate dimension.

US.

Listen up, you cheeky monkey Supernatural writers because I want you to create an episode around THESE thoughts? I’d gladly star in it…

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Dr. Gary Redfeather (Keil)

Dr. Gary Redfeather (Keil)

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Neuroscientist, chronic pain specialist, mental/physical resiliency training professional, ultramarathoner & triathlete, philosopher, theosopher and chocoholic.