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.
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 HOW – how 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:
- You got distracted pretty much immediately;
- 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.
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…
~ 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.