PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 3: Reflex has values

Hi again!

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve discussed so far: reflex learns as a result of your experiences; but reflex isn’t very smart, so what it learns as “predictors of danger” is a mixed bag of good predictors and random stuff that was going on at the time that the danger happened.

Today we’ll discuss why reflex doesn’t bother filtering good from bad predictors of danger before learning them: because reflex values speed over accuracy.

To illustrate, let’s revisit our old friend, Dave the zebra.

Dave and his zebra friends are out enjoying some delicious pasture.

(I know – last we saw Dave, he was avoiding pasture, because of what happened to George. But he got help for that, and now he’s doing much better. He says thanks for asking.)

Dave catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye that might be a furry tail, like the lion’s. But he only got a glimpse, and he’s not sure.

What should he do – raise the alarm, or try to get a better look?

On the one hand, he didn’t get a good look, it could be nothing, and those other zebras can be pretty snooty if he gets it wrong.

On the other hand, taking a closer look wastes precious seconds that could be better spent getting everyone to safety.

Folks – from the viewpoint of your survival reflex, the only thing that matters is survival. Your survival reflex assumes that it’s better to make a fool of yourself by overreacting, than to hesitate and waste a second.

So – reflex learns by the principle of “better safe than sorry”, and reacts by that same principle.

This will lead to a lot of situations where your survival reflex will be convinced that you’re in life-threatening danger, even though you’re not. It’s reacting to a reminder, even if that reminder doesn’t make any sense to your “thinking” brain.

We’ve discussed how you can have a reaction to a trigger even when you understand that there’s no real danger; we’ve covered how important it is to NOT beat yourself up over this, because it’s an injury and not a personal failing or character flaw.

What you can do instead is use this knowledge to help yourself regain a sense of calm: when you’re triggered, the reaction can make it feel like the danger is very real. So it becomes really important to understand that being triggered does not mean being in danger: you can be triggered when there’s no danger.

It helps to understand that your survival reflex sometimes acts like a kid pulling the fire alarm at school when there’s no fire, but because he doesn’t want to write the math test.

Use this knowledge: when you’re triggered, remind yourself of where you are, and what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you’re safe, and it’s just your survival reflex going off, pulling the fire alarm at a faint reminder of danger. Reminding yourself of where you are and that you’re safe is a way of grounding yourself – and knowing how to ground yourself is an important coping skill.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

 

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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Finding solid ground (Part 1)

Hi!

Today we’re going to start out with some basics – tools for what to do against the avalanche of bad memories inside your head. These are called grounding skills.

Now – for those of you who have been in treatment for a while and have your grounding skills down pat, this will be a review. Please feel welcome to jump in with comments, share what works for you, support others and learn from each other’s experiences. For those of you who are completely new to learning how to cope with this stuff, you’re in the right place, and today we’re going to take some time to cover the basics so everyone is on the same page.

Future posts might cover some stuff that’s a bit heavier – and when they do, I’ll start off the post by letting you know I’ll be digging a bit deeper, and by reminding you to use your grounding skills. By then, some computer whiz will teach me how to add a hyperlink into a blog post, so I can refer back here as a reminder to take care of yourself if you’re upset.

Grounding skills are things that we do to anchor ourselves into the present when a bad memory is trying to suck us back into the past. They are your first, most basic tool for managing your symptoms. Usually, grounding skills are activities that keep your mind focused on something in the here and now – they are meant to keep you… grounded.

There are lots of different things you can do to ground yourself: you can use your senses to be aware of where you are: for example, take the time to notice three things that you see, hear, smell, and touch to anchor yourself to the present. You can also remind yourself of today’s date, and of how long it’s been since that bad memory happened; this will help you realize that you are here NOW, and that bad memory is over. That’s how grounding works.

Keeping your hands busy is a good way of grounding yourself – it keeps you focused on the present. So, you might give some thought to taking up a hobby like woodworking, drawing, painting, carving, gardening, cooking – heck, learn to crochet. Whatever appeals to you, as long as it requires enough focus that your mind can’t wander into the past.

At this time of the year, the weather’s gorgeous out there – so another way to ground yourself is to go outside. Go out for a good long walk. Don’t rush – take your time. Find an apple tree or a cherry tree. Take a deep breath, and take in the smell of spring.

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You know what else the nice weather means?

That’s right…

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It’s gorgeous out there – so jump on your bike and go out for a ride. It’s a great way to ground yourself.

 

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

 

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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