Dealing with PTSD: A real-life story from UFC fighter Cat Zingano

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more common than you may think. The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.

According to the National Center for PTSD:

  • 7%-8% of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives
  • Around 10 out of every 100 women develop PTSD sometime in life
  • About 4 out of every 100 men develop PTSD sometime in life

To get an insiders’ perspective on this disorder that affects millions of people the world over, we sat down with UFC fighter Cat Zingano. Cat brings a unique and first-hand perspective as she suffered PTSD after the death of her husband. Below is a recap of the Q&A session we had with Cat.

Question: Please tell me a bit about the circumstances surrounding Mauricio's tragic death—particularly the aftermath and the impact it had on you and your son.

Cat: The experience with Mauricio’s suicide was extremely complicated for my son and me. Leading up to it, there was a lot of fear, confusion, and not knowing if situations were safe, especially because substances and high-level mental illness were involved. The immediate aftermath was another level of fear, loss and sadness, but compounded by having seen such violence, losing the stability and belief of a once healthy home life, uncovering difficult-to-process details, and not knowing if, when, or how something so catastrophic would touch our lives like that again. Let alone...how are we going to recover?

Question: When did you start to suspect that what you were going through was post-traumatic stress? What were some of the symptoms you experienced? 

Cat: I had sudden and extreme anxiety that was most prevalent at night or in public, which affected my sleep and out-of-home wellbeing to the point of needing panic medication. Sounds, lights, or any unexpected fast movement made me startle so hard that it would physically hurt my chest, arms and stomach. 

My son experienced his own stomach pain that would often bring him home from school or have him in the nurse’s office. We went to the Denver Children’s Hospital ER on a few occasions. After intensive testing, we would always be sent away with inconclusive X-rays and exams, being told it was likely anxiety, as that’s where a lot of young children carry their stress. He was seven years old and on edge, angry, sad, and tired. 

I was afraid to leave the house or the car, have a casual conversation with someone, go in to stores, or be around groups of people. I constantly felt a fear of being in danger, that something was “happening,” and that people or my son were going to see me lose control and I’d have to explain something that I didn’t have words for.

"I was afraid to leave the house or the car, have a casual conversation with someone, go in to stores, or be around groups of people."

Question: Was it difficult to seek help? What were some of the obstacles to seeking help? 

Cat: Because of the nature and suddenness of Mauricio’s death and the circumstances surrounding it, I felt like the world was very unstable. To explain it to anyone, let alone tell the whole thing to someone new, felt very vulnerable and exhausting. It was hard to decide what was “real,” being that I couldn’t tell the difference between instincts, intuition, or paranoia. My instincts were “fight or flight” at every moment, my intuition had kept us safe at times, but then when ignored or misunderstood, resulted in some troublesome outcomes. 

My paranoia had me searching for danger, protecting us from all scenarios, both created in my mind and some that were actually possible or potential. It was exhausting and difficult to explain, and letting some of the things I was “paranoid” about become a topic of judgement or an uncomfortable discussion felt like it could be damaging rather than helpful. I had seen such bad things happen throughout my life, including in this case where there were underlying circumstances, and that made even more negative things seem possible. I already felt fragile and vulnerable. 

It’s hard to seek help when you can’t clearly distinguish between what’s real or perceived, or just plain paranoia. Your first instinct is to talk to family or friends, but explaining your thoughts and feelings, and risking being dismissed as “paranoid” when you’re already feeling fragile or vulnerable, is not only exhausting, but also dejecting. The aftermath of Mauricio’s suicide also made it difficult for me to be trusting and open, which made seeking help even more difficult. 

Question: PTSD is more widely known as a military disorder. Did you experience a stigma surrounding PTSD? If so, how did you overcome that?

Cat: PTSD is very unique to each individual. It’s from trauma, the unexpected, feelings of believing in a security that is now untrue. That can have many forms. It’s not something that anyone can think they understand or volunteered for, based on their choices. PTSD is your conjoined twin that sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, hangs from your side, hyping your thoughts and emotions both good or bad...or none. The stigma and difficulty surrounding PTSD, in my experience, is the fact that having these troubles is debilitating, exhausting, and can be extremely embarrassing.

"PTSD is your conjoined twin that sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, hangs from your side, hyping your thoughts and emotions both good or bad...or none." 

When your rational mind knows you’re safe, but your body and thoughts are committed to there being something “wrong” or that it’s “time to be on edge,” that can be very hard to deal with, let alone explain. People also want to assess your PTSD, to compare or insert an opinion of themselves in your shoes with your exact story. Would they feel this way? Should you feel this way? Is it big enough of a reason? Is the story of what you went through an entertaining one? Why? Is your trigger valid? Why aren’t you over it? Have you just always been this way? When will you be over it? . . . etc. 

Some people are extremely understanding, some people have positive or negative opinions of the diagnosis, some people have even used it as a weapon to create more hurt. These are all things that made it feel easier to keep my experience to myself, but keeping it to myself would never have led to me finding my relief and solutions in order to have a better, more functional, and enriched life. I needed the help, so I asked trusted people for direction, did my research, and made the uncomfortable, but necessary, phone calls. 

Question: What helped you cope? How did you get help? 

Cat: To cope, I continued to go to my physical therapy (I had recently had a knee reconstruction surgery from an MMA injury). My trauma was extremely public due to my career. I didn’t feel like I could “entertain” while being in the state I was in, so I went dark for a while other than confiding in friends and family. I was able to start working out with close coaches and teammates that were familiar to me. Martial arts training was the only thing I could do that felt like it was a contributing to getting me back to my career, to being active, to keeping me feeling connected to the positive things I could think of with my husband, and to showing my son what “perseverance” I had, which felt like very little at the time.

So many people and fans were looking to me for strength, because I looked like I was handling things so well. I didn’t want to let anyone down, but inside I felt clueless and like being the “strong one” was getting harder and harder each day. Some days I just wanted to scream, “I don’t have it. I’m not ok!! Please know that I’m hurt. I can’t carry more. I’m sad. My boy is sad too!!”

I moved in with a family that helped me and my son, because I realized I could no longer live alone at the time and for a couple years after my husband’s death. I finally decided to seek help when I realized that I was only living in fear and completely missing the present. My son was losing another parent, because I was stuck in my head with my fears, adrenaline, and my PTSD version of detective work. I finally decided to go to a trauma psychologist and to get the proper diagnosis, treatments, and medications to start moving forward. 

I have also found a lot of relief in getting a service animal. To have a dog that’s been in tune with me and my emotions, while still processing our new normal, has been a game changer. Dogs paired with PTSD veterans is truly changing the lives of many. Just because PTSD doesn’t give you stitches and blood, doesn’t mean it isn’t disabling or doesn’t leave the kind of scars that change your way of living forever. It’s an injury. A real one. Along with the proper professionals, healthy habits, openness to healing resources, and the companionship of my trained service dog, my upsets are fewer and my life feels closer and closer to being on a path for successful parenting, social interactions, and setting and achieving the same goals that I had found purpose in, and some new ones.

"Just because PTSD doesn’t give you stitches and blood, doesn’t mean it isn’t disabling or doesn’t leave the kind of scars that change your way of living forever."

Question: What compels you to speak out about PTSD? Why do you think it's important to raise awareness?

Cat: I speak about PTSD because it truly sucks! It can feel unfair, it can feel alone, it can feel irrational and inconvenient as hell. 

I wish I could say that I want people to understand, but more so, I want people to be grateful that they don’t understand, that they don’t know what it feels like, and that they never take for granted that they feel safe. I share my story with the hope that it helps people live with patience, compassion, and empathy for others, not pity nor judgement.  And to make good decisions for themselves and towards others. 

I also choose to speak publicly about this in order to help break the stigma of shame and judgment that is often passed on those going through PTSD that they are weak or broken. I had a fear of people judging me, or anyone else who is facing trauma, for not coming out of it as a badass. We can emerge better, smarter, and stronger. I have to stand tall for everything that brought me to this point. We cope how we need to cope so that we can grow. It’s important to connect and heal, and there are many ways and paths toward feeling better once being affected by PTSD, but the most important part is to communicate and open your mind to solutions. They are there. Whether it’s traditional therapy, old medicines, spiritual connections, new science, etc. The resources are endless, the healing can happen, it just takes finding the right fit. 

Concluding thoughts

Cat’s story represents the inner strife that people struggling with PSTD experience every day. We can all learn from and be inspired by her vulnerability, bravery and strength of mind. Whether you are suffering from PSTD from a traumatic event in your life or simply are living in fear and chronic stress, we hope Cat’s story will give you some useful ideas to navigate out of a life filled with uncomfortable inner strife.

If you need to talk to someone about how to cope and manage PSTD, we encourage you to visit our provider directory. You can also visit our online community resources hub to find tools and outlets to improve your mental, physical and spiritual well-being.  

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Our behavioral health experts offer virtual and in-person consultations to bring you convenient, confidential mental healthcare options. With Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Providence Mental Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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