PTSD: “I can’t get these thoughts out of my head”

If you’re getting sucked into a bad memory, here are some strategies that I have shared previously. If you’re finding yourself stuck going over something unpleasant in your head – this post is for you.

Trying to get yourself to not think about something is tricky, because our brain doesn’t know how to “not”.

For example: try NOT to think of a white bear. So, try NOT to picture a polar bear, and try NOT to remember that commercial they had at Christmas a couple of years ago, with the polar bears playing on the icebergs.

…And what happens? Yeah – you can’t get them out of your head, because you told yourself NOT to think of them.

Unpleasant memories are a lot like that: the harder you try not to think of them, the more you get stuck on them.

There are a couple of tricks that might help: the most common strategy is to try to keep busy as a distraction. This works to some degree, but can be really exhausting.

There are also a couple of visualization exercises that will help with a fair bit of practice.

The first one is called a container. Visualize a container, big enough and strong enough to hold the things that you want to get out of your head. Visualize putting those things in the container, and locking the container tightly so that nothing can get out. Finally, visualize putting the container somewhere very far away – like the bottom of the ocean – where those thoughts can’t touch you. Then, any time that one of those thoughts comes up – picture putting it in the container, and putting the container far away.

Another visualization exercise works like this: when an unpleasant thought starts playing like a movie in your head, imagine taking a step back to get a wider viewpoint. Imagine seeing that thought as if it were a movie on a television. Now imagine picking up the remote control, and switching the channel. What would you like to watch instead? A favourite scene from a movie that you like? A cooking, travel, or decorating show? Maybe a sport you really like watching? It doesn’t matter what you choose, so long as it’s pleasant and gives you a chance to “switch the channel” that’s playing in your head.

It’s not magic, and it’ll take a bit of practice – but try these strategies, and see if they help.

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 free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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PTSD, Guilt, and Shame

Whether the trauma is something that happened to you, or whether it was something you witnessed and were unable to stop – feelings of guilt and shame are a very common reaction. Often, you end up going over and over in your head what you could/should/would have done differently, endlessly punishing yourself for whatever you did or didn’t do.

…Ever wonder why that is?

Well – I have an answer for you.

I’ve written previous posts about how PTSD is based on a survival reflex going awry (and if you’ve missed those, go to the “start here” button at the top of the page – they’re all there and you can catch up).

Basically – PTSD is based on a survival reflex. When something bad happens, your survival reflex kicks in to figure out, “How can I protect myself from going through something like this again?” That’s what your survival reflex is supposed to do – figure out how to keep you safe.

…The problem is, sometimes you did nothing wrong. Sometimes, there’s nothing you could have done differently. The reality is that the world is sometimes unpredictable, bad things sometimes happen to good people, and sometimes, we don’t have control over our circumstances.

Unfortunately, our survival reflex simply isn’t designed to understand any of that – it has one job, and that is to keep us out of harm’s way. When it can’t, it assumes that we did something wrong and we should have done something different – so, it sends our mind in relentless circles of should/could/would haves, and fills us up with feelings of guilt and shame over whatever actions we took.

Feelings don’t create facts; if they did, then everybody buying a lotto ticket because they’re feeling lucky would be a millionaire.

So – just because your survival reflex makes you feel guilt and shame, doesn’t actually mean that you did anything wrong. Those feelings, as intense as they sometimes are – those feelings are simply a byproduct of how reflex works. Your survival reflex is trying to make sense of what happened. It’s trying to do its job and protect you, and it’s getting stuck.

Do your best to keep that in mind; it’ll help to put the guilt and shame in perspective.

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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 free 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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Pushing People Away, Part 3

I’ve posted before about why we tend to push people away when we need them the most, here. More recently, I also wrote about how childhood trauma can get in the way of building healthy relationships as an adult, here.

This time, I’d like to try and explain to your loved ones why you might seem to be pushing them away.

Imagine the sound of a fire alarm, screaming so loud your ears are ringing and your whole body is vibrating from the sound. Now imagine that it’s stuck inside your head, so you can’t shut it off, and you can’t get away from it. You’re stuck with it, and it’s driving you bananas.

But your spouse can’t hear it. So, your spouse wants to ask about your day, what you want for dinner, did you pick up the dry cleaning. The kids want to play.

When PTSD acts up, it fills your head with so much stuff that it might as well be a screaming fire alarm in your head. When that happens, all of your energy goes into just trying to shut your head off. You don’t want to smile, make conversation, or even just put up with people being around. It all just feels like more noise, and you can’t bear it. You just want everyone to go away.

To your loved ones, you might come across as cold, distant, callous, and indifferent. They might wonder what they did, and why you seem so angry. Often loved ones react by trying to help or ask questions, because they don’t understand that they didn’t do anything wrong, and you just need to zone out to try to quiet your head.

So, how do you cope?

You remind yourself that it’s not your fault: you’re not trying to be mean, you’re just overwhelmed because of all the noise inside your head.

You share this post with them, to help them understand that it’s also not their fault, and pushing them away is not a reaction to anything that they did.

And – you work hard at trying to practice relaxation, as best as you can, every day. That’s your key to learning to slowly turn down the fire alarm in your head. It’ll take time and hard work – but you’ll get there.

MCC1

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 free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy content, including photographs, from Coming Back Home without permission.

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PTSD: Why It’s so Hard to Talk To Your Loved Ones

One of the worst things about PTSD is how it cuts you off from those who want to be there for you: your spouse, and closest friends and family.

When you’re suffering, your loved ones want to help. They might ask what’s wrong. You know they’re trying to help… Only, you feel like you can’t talk to them.

Your loved ones can’t understand why you won’t talk about it. They might feel shut out and rejected; their feelings might be hurt that you won’t let them be there for you. And that might make you feel guilty, which doesn’t help: now you’re feeling guilty on top of suffering, and your loved one is feeling rejected and helpless. Yikes!

…If this scenario sounds familiar to you, then I invite you to read this post, and then share it with your loved one. Hopefully, it’ll help both of you understand what’s going on and why. And it’ll help both of you feel better.

A big piece of PTSD is avoidance. Basically, that means even thinking about “that stuff” is about as easy as staring directly into the sun without squinting: just like the glare of the sun, the glare of your feelings around the trauma is too intense. It’s not that you’re trying to shut out your loved one; first and foremost you’re trying to shut yourself out, because thinking about your trauma just feels so awful.

Now, add to the pain of thinking about the trauma, the idea of sharing it with your loved one. That takes it to a whole new level: it feels like taking your most horrible, painful thoughts and feelings, and inflicting them on someone you care about. You can’t bring yourself to do it because you can’t bear to even think about that stuff, can’t bear to hurt them, and can’t bear to watch how it hurts them to know what happened to you.

It’s not a choice, it’s a symptom. So, stop beating up on yourself about it – the shame and guilt just makes you feel worse for something you can’t control right now. Instead tell your loved one something like, “Thank you for caring about me. Your support means a lot. I wish I could talk to you about it, but right now I just can’t. Even thinking about it to myself is too much.”

If you’re the loved one on the other end of this, understand that it can be too painful for the person with PTSD to talk about their trauma. It’s not a choice; it’s not a reflection of how much they trust you, so please don’t make it a test of your relationship. Know that if they could, they would tell you. Let them know that you support them, and ask how you can be helpful. Realize that sometimes, being helpful might mean backing off, or helping them distract from their feelings.

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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 free 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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Your Love-Hate Relationship with your Anxiety

In past posts, I’ve talked about relaxation – how important it is; how and why to relax; when to do it. For some people, the basic information on when, how, and why is all they need to start a habit of healthy mental hygiene.

If you’re thinking, “good for those people”, then this post is for you.

When anxiety has been a big part of your life for a long time, you and your anxiety become so tangled up in each other that it gets hard to imagine yourself without it. You develop a love-hate relationship with your anxiety:

In many ways, you see your anxiety as a hindrance: it prevents you from being able to sleep; it turns your stomach inside out when you try to eat; it makes you clench your jaw and grind your teeth. You’re exhausted and in pain, and a part of you is so sick of your anxiety that you just want to get rid of it.

On the other hand, you might feel like there were times in your life when being on high alert saved your bacon (or times when you got hurt that you blame on not being alert enough). So, a part of you may feel like your anxiety is an asset that keeps you safe, and just the thought of letting it go might make you feel exposed and vulnerable to danger.

If this is you, then step #1 is to stop thinking of it as all-or-nothing. Start thinking of your anxiety on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being none and 10 being the worst possible anxiety. Where on this scale might you be on a typical day?

Try to imagine turning the dial back by just a smidge – maybe 1/4 of a point, or even less if that seems like too much. You’re still alert enough to react quickly when necessary, but you’re starting to very gently balance that, so you can work towards being able to sleep better and have less pain.

The idea is to very slowly dial back your anxiety, one tiny bit at a time, and help yourself learn to tolerate calm. Gradually, you will teach yourself that you don’t need to be wound so tight to stay alert and keep yourself safe.

Simple, right? Yeah, but simple and easy are two very different things… Be patient with yourself. And if you have trouble doing it all alone – please seek out a professional to help you.

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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 free 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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Getting through November 11th: A brief how-to guide

Note to my American Readers: In Canada, November 11th is Remembrance Day. It’s a bit like Memorial Day, but without the mattress sales or backyard cookouts; it’s a somber occasion that can be challenging to cope with. 

Hi, everyone!

With less than a week to go before Remembrance Day, some of you might be looking at the calendar and hearing that music from JAWS playing in the back of your head.

I know – you don’t want to think about it. But, not thinking about it means you rob yourself of the opportunity to prepare.

Here’s a few ideas for how to get through it:

Start with a review of what you did last year. Who did you spend the day with? What did you do? What parts of that worked, and what parts need improving? This is your best starting point for getting a sense of what you need: if you spent the day with friends but felt exhausted by the end, then perhaps you need some more time to yourself. If you were by yourself but felt isolated, then consider spending part of the day with people.

This is going to sound cheesy, but: give yourself permission to feel. Military culture means that you expect yourself to be this unwavering wall of steel, where nothing gets under your skin. Well – this is a day that’s supposed to get under your skin, because you care.

So – this year, instead of telling yourself to suck it up harder and make sure you don’t choke up or let a tear slip out – tell yourself something like this: “Hey, you know what? This day is to remember all the sacrifices. Yeah, I’m going to get choked up – and if anyone’s got a problem with that, then they need to get their compassion chip adjusted!!!”

That way, you don’t have to worry about getting emotional – it takes a lot of pressure off of yourself, and might make it easier to get through the day.

 

Now – that’s all pretty light and fluffy so far, right? Heads up – this next part digs deeper, so give yourself some time to read it in a quiet space. 

 

Lots of people struggle with a sense of guilt and shame about fallen comrades, because you lived and they didn’t so, somehow, your brain twists this into being all your fault. Maybe you even realize that these feelings don’t make logical sense, and you kick yourself to stop feeling this way but can’t let it go. That makes getting through this day particularly tricky.

If this is you, then here’s a tough question to ask yourself: what are you doing to remember and honour the fallen today… and what are you doing just to punish yourself for having lived?

There’s a difference. If it feels like you’re punishing yourself, then you’re not genuinely honouring anyone.

So – switch gears. Work hard to remember one happy memory about your friend. Try to remember it in as much detail as you can. Do your best smile like you mean it. Spend a little less time and energy on punishing yourself.

There – you’ve just honoured and remembered them. Well done.

 

MCC12

Please feel free to share this post, and any other on this blog, with anyone who might benefit.

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 free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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“Others have it so much worse than me”

The title of today’s post is the bane of my existence. Seriously – if only we could give up those words, the world would be a healthier, happier place.

I hear some version of it every day.

Usually, it goes like this: something happens, and you feel sadness, disappointment, frustration. And then…

“…I shouldn’t feel that way, because others have it so much worse than me.”

Well – you’re half right. The world is full of people who have it worse than you: if you’re reading this, then you have access to the internet. You probably also have other luxuries, like running water, electricity, food, and shoes. Other people don’t, and that’s awful.

But… How exactly are you helping them by laying the guilt on yourself?

Think about it: if you’re feeling sad, frustrated, nervous, or whatever, you are reacting to something, and that emotion is real. Sure, yours may be smaller than somebody else’s, but it is no less real.

Look at it another way: say you’re out in the sun on a really hot day. You get a little sweaty. Would you feel guilty for sweating, because other people live in the tropics or the desert and they have it so much hotter and you?

… Yeah. Probably not.

Feelings are a natural, reflex reaction to what happens. We don’t choose to feel them – if we did, no one would choose to feel jealous, disappointed, or sad, because it’s not enjoyable. Feelings are reactions – same as sweating is a reaction to being too warm. We cannot stop or control them.

If we were able to just accept our feelings, we’d be much happier (this is why I talk about mindfulness).

Unfortunately, we usually judge ourselves for having feelings: feeling guilty for being sad because “others have it so much worse than me”. Feeling ashamed for being scared, frustrated, angry, whatever.

Sure, sometimes your feelings are as inconvenient or unpleasant as bad breath, body odour, or pimples. But like it or not, your feelings are real.  Feeling guilt or shame about them doesn’t make them go away, it just makes you feel miserable.

try out your new mindfulness skills. Give yourself permission to feel. Observe your feelings, without judging them. If you catch yourself thinking stuff like, “Isn’t that horrible? What kind of a person would feel that way?”, tell that judging voice that a healthy person would feel that way – because having real feelings without guilt or self-judgment is a healthy thing to do.

It won’t be easy at first – you might catch yourself criticizing and judging a LOT.

Don’t give up – keep trying!!! It will get easier with practice, and it will make a difference.

MCC8

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 free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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Mindfulness: Learning to Observe Without Judging

As I was saying a couple of posts ago – mindfulness is about learning to be fully present in the moment.

Tall order, I know. Hey – it’s a skill. You know how you develop skills? Through practice.

One of the things that often keeps us from being fully in the present is a tendency to constantly critique what we’re doing and how we’re doing it: chances are, whatever you do, there’s a little voice in the back of your head. Let’s call it The Critic. When you’re trying to do something, The Critic may offer up all sorts of unhelpful commentary:

“Seriously? What’s taking you so long? Do you realize how many other things you need to get done today? You’re already running late! You’ll never get it all finished at this rate – so you’ll have to do some of it tomorrow. You’re already late for tomorrow – you’ve just ruined the whole week!!!”

The Critic quickly fills up your head with unpleasant thoughts coming at you a mile a minute; when you’re drowning inside your own head, it’s hard to focus on what you’re actually trying to do. Your brain is spending a great deal of time and energy bullying you and slowing you down.

So – one important step toward mindfulness is learning to silence The Critic.

How do you do that?

You remind yourself that The Critic doesn’t help you get things done; it just fills your head up with negativity and worry, and slows you down and distracts you.

Start by just trying to notice The Critic when it starts coming at you. When you get good at doing this, you might be shocked at how it criticizes your every move.

Then, once you get good at noticing that it’s happening – start responding. Basically, every time you hear The Critic inside your head – tell it to go pound salt, and tell yourself to go back to paying attention to what you’re doing.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Yeah – well, simple and easy are two very different things – and this will take lots of practice.

Then, mindfulness is basically paying attention to what you’re doing as you’re doing it, without The Critic commenting on your every move.

MCC11

Please feel free to share this post, and any other on this blog, with anyone who might benefit.

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 free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted.  The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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Relaxation: How to Actually *DO* It

UPDATE: This post was originally published in 2014. Since then, I have had the privilege to learn much more about the struggle of establishing calm from my patients with severe PTSD. If this post you read the post below and find that it doesn’t seem to apply to you, please try this one, as it might be more relevant.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about relaxation; how important it is; what to do; and how doing it regularly can help manage your symptoms.

Basically, if you’ve been a reader of this blog for a while, then you’ve heard that relaxation is good for you so often that you almost think it’s low in fat and full of fibre.

What I haven’t covered enough is the HOWhow do you actually relax, when you’re so wound up that you can’t relax?

Obviously, if you could just calm down when you wanted to, then you would just do so. And then you’d be fine, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

The problem is, for too many people with severe and chronic PTSD – you can’t relax just because you’d like to.

You might have tried the relaxation exercises I posted earlier; chances are, here’s how it went:

  1. You got distracted pretty much immediately;
  2. Once you got distracted, a little voice in the back of your head said, “Seriously??? It’s been like, half a second. Not even a whole second, and I’m already distracted. Well, that’s useless. I can’t do this. I’m NOT relaxed – I’m even more stressed out than I was before I started trying to relax, because now I’m ticked off that I can’t even relax for half a second. I’m done with this, all it’s doing is making me feel like a failure.”

Look – relaxation is about learning to get to a state of calm. And when your threat-response system is going off all the time, getting to a state of calm is – at first – just about impossible.

When you first start trying to relax, expect to lose your focus almost immediately: don’t be disappointed when this happens – relaxation is NOT about seeing how long you can go without getting distracted; the goal is to try going back to it when you do lose your focus, and trying again.

At first, you’re going to feel like you’re falling off the horse as soon as you try to get back on. That’s normal; the trick is to resist the temptation to get sucked into frustration about it, and go back to try again.

What you’re watching for is a feeling of restlessness, a sense of “get me out of here” – when that pops up, that’s enough for now. You don’t want to keep pushing past that feeling (that’s trying to trap yourself in a relaxed state, and that’s counterproductive).

Eventually, if you keep working at it, that half a second will turn into a whole second, then two, then five, and then even more.

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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 free 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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PTSD and the science behind why you can’t just “get over it”

This question comes up a lot. If it’s something you ask yourself, please read this. If other people ask you why you aren’t over it yet – please share this with them, and maybe it will help them to understand.

Trauma memories aren’t like other memories – they don’t fade over time. Every time you think of them, they feel like they just happened yesterday (or worse – like they’re happening now).

Here’s why, in a nutshell:

Think of your brain as having two main parts:

Part 1 is your “Thinking Brain”. The thinking Brain is smart, rational and fact-based. We’re conscious of the thoughts it comes up with. It plans, organizes, and problem-solves.

When it stores a memory, it’s like a librarian – it organizes by theme and date. So, its memories of your senior year of high school might include the music you liked that year; the person you had a crush on; the part-time job you worked; and, oh dear, that goofy haircut you had that was so stylish back then. Remembering these memories feels like you’re looking through an old photo album – there’s a distinct sense of “me-now” remembering what happened to “me-then”.

Part 2 is your “Threat-Response Brain”. We’ve talked about this one before, here, here, and here; it’s not smart, it’s not rational, and you’re not consciously aware of what it thinks.

Your Threat-Response Brain stores memory very differently – and it does so on purpose.

Pretend you touched a hot stove once, as a small child; you burned your hand and cried.

To be good at predicting future threats, your Threat-Response Brain needs to know that “hot things hurt“. Time and context don’t matter: you don’t want a Threat Brain that thinks “Yeah, I hurt myself on a hot stove – but it was Grandma’s old gas stove, back when I was a kid, and she was cooking breakfast; I’m an adult now, in my house, making dinner, and my stove is electric, so let’s try touching it, because maybe it’ll feel good.”

Yeah – that really wouldn’t help much, now would it?

The way the Threat-Response Brain works is: “Every time I see/hear/smell something that reminds me of the time I got hurt, there might be danger.” The threat brain also generalizes to similar threats – so, if you hurt yourself by touching a hot stove, you don’t need to also touch a hot iron, and stick your hand in a campfire – your threat brain learns that hot = pain.

This is why memories of trauma stay fresh and vivid in your mind, even years or decades later: they are kept in a different part of your brain than other memories. The point of the Threat-Response Brain is to protect you – so it makes sure you remember danger as if it had just happened.

So – how do you cope with this stuff, when it gets triggered? You use grounding skills. Remind yourself that feeling triggered means that your Threat-Response Brain is reacting to a memory – it doesn’t mean that you’re in danger now. Tell yourself, “my threat-response brain is reacting right now because this looks/smells/sounds similar to my trauma – but that was years ago, and I’m here now, and that’s not happening anymore.” This helps you refocus on the here-and-now.

To fine-tune your Threat-Response Brain’s reactions, there are no quick and easy tricks I can teach you in a blog post – but, there are specific therapies out there (EMDR or cognitive processing for example) that can help with that.

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Please feel free to share this post, and any other on this blog, with anyone who might benefit.

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 free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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