Recovering from trauma begins with understanding yourself. Put another way: Self-diagnosis can help a lot.
By Boyd Patterson
As a survivor of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you know the intense feelings associated with PTSD. They rise like tidal waves and crash into your day, washing away all self-control. In those moments of sudden crisis, helpful information about PTSD can be a life preserver. Knowledge may not prevent the emotional waves from occurring but can help you weather the storm. Such increased awareness often comes from therapists, fellow survivors, and recovery literature. Better understanding your condition can help you stay more grounded (or less distressed) during hypervigilance as well as flashbacks.The information in this article can add to your emotional stability during episodes of distress.
1. The Foundation of Recovery
When struggling with a confusing situation, stability comes from defining the problem. Consider the history of how clinicians learned to treat PTSD. The initial terms “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” gave way to the more fitting diagnostic term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Today’s well-established clinical definition of PTSD helps treatment providers by describing:
• Common symptoms.
• An objective understanding of the condition.
• Steps to recovery.
Most survivors remain baffled about PTSD recovery. The condition keeps you spinning in fear, and you can never really get your bearings. The benefit from a stabilizing definition will provide the same stability a clinical description provides to therapists. You can remain more objective during hypervigilance. You can accept the signs of an imminent panic attack and focus on making yourself as comfortable as possible. You can recognize during a flashback that, like riding a roller coaster or watching a movie, it’s just a chemical experience that will end.
Recognizing chemicals create uncomfortable body sensations, and a tunnel vision of “threat” will unlock the ability to see the positive aspects of your surroundings. Controlling the neural pathways in your brain that remain stuck together during a traumatic experience, or trigger will help you separate or get “unstuck.” Ultimately, you want to restore your cognitive versatility to recognize the full range of environmental stimuli and respond with the full range of appropriate emotions.
Using a “survivor-centric” definition to increase emotional stability establishes the bedrock of your recovery. Normal brain functions will remind you of your pre-PTSD mental state and provide a stable goal toward which to work. Consider that the brain operates like a computer. The keyboard sends typewritten data to the computer’s central processing unit (humans’ sensory organs: eyes, ears, sight, temperature, etc.). The computer’s CPU processes the data like your brain processes the input of your surroundings. Based on the processed data, the CPU generates output; based upon the processed information about the environment, neural pathways in your brain release certain neuro-chemicals.
The various combinations of neuro-chemicals released by a healthy brain correspond to the various circumstances of your environment. Key concept: once the environment provides different input, that brain activates different neural pathways that release different chemicals, which facilitate different behaviors. See a beautiful sunrise? It’s no wonder a healthy brain releases chemicals that can create feelings of awe for the whole body. Later, read a positive email from your supervisor. That brain releases different chemicals that create feelings of accomplishment. Still then, argue with a hostile co-worker. That brain releases various chemicals that create proportionate feelings of threat. For PTSD recovery purposes, the takeaway: a healthy mind remains versatile, recognizing the changes in the environment and activating the neural pathways that fit the changing circumstances.
Input. Process. Output.
2. Understanding the Chemicals
It’s essential to understand the mental gear designed to address the dire physical threat. Generally, when the environment indicates extreme danger, your brain activates the survival-related neural pathways, otherwise known as the sympathetic nervous system. Your body then gets flooded with adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These chemicals facilitate increased heartbeat, dumping glucose into your bloodstream, and dulling your sense of pain. You see the world through chemically induced tunnel vision, focused upon a potential threat, ignoring anything unrelated to that threat. When the danger passes, your brain activates the neural pathways that facilitate recovery, otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system — relaxing brain chemicals such as serotonin flush out the threat-related chemicals, eventually transitioning your body back to relative calm. Shifting mental gears from one extreme to another takes time but, again, a healthy brain retains such versatility, matching your emotions to the current environment.
Traumatic stress destroys that versatility, keeping you stuck in the gear of fear. Long after the threat passes, the chemicals remain in the system. Even when you cognitively understand no danger exists, the chemicals maintain the fear-related tunnel vision, forcing you to scan the environment for threats regularly. It’s not rational; it’s chemical. It is possible to recognize it’s just the chemicals talking. You cannot ignore them. Seeing the substances for what they are takes the edge off the experience. You can learn to comprehend that no actual threat exists, merely a chemically induced perception of risk. Over time, repeated instances of such recognition start cracking the tunnel vision apart, eventually providing some daylight during times of crisis. The mountainous emotional waves may still turn your stomach, but you can better ride them out, clinging to the recognition that “it’s just chemicals.”
Knowing this will hopefully keep your head above water during the pounding storm.
3. Meditation Tips for Recovery
Meditation remains one of the most useful tools for PTSD recovery. Focusing on breathing, or letting sounds come without judgment, will help distract the melted wad of nerves back apart, thread by tiny thread. Directing your awareness toward subtle aspects of your surroundings softly tugs at those charred pathways, re-separating the threat-related paths from the non-threat-related ones. Daily meditation that gently transitions through many positive mindsets naturally restores your cognitive versatility, moving you back towards the automatic shifting of mental gears in response to environmental changes. And the best part about meditation: it feels good while you do it.
Building a meditation practice through small steps produces more significant gains. In fact, meditation for survivors often awakens a child-like wonder about the slightest nuances of surroundings. Paying close attention without judgment to the warm breeze on your skin, a bird’s melody and the sharp taste of an orange pulls apart the delicate filaments of your trauma-fused neural pathways. Bit by bit. Cell by cell. It’s progressed over perfection. With almost every bit of progress in meditation, you feel a small, near-perfect drop of emotional relief.
As a therapeutic tool, meditation provides excellent support to primary treatment approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and EMDR. It works by developing your nonjudgmental awareness. Tried-and-true mindsets include observing the small details of breathing, surroundings, and flow of thoughts. Trauma-related emotions will flare up daily. The goal isn’t a perfect meditative focus. Just seeking it, even wanting to try it, allows a positive move forward.
So when the emotions flare during meditation, ride them out. After they pass (again, they always pass), try to adopt the intended, healthy mindset. Continue this practice even when the emotions remain silent, but instead, your mind drifts during meditation. Whenever you realize your attention has moved from the intended mindset, gently guide it back. If you constantly struggle to maintain focus, your expectations may be too high. Reduce them. Value the desired mindset and feel what happens. Little by little, seeking emotional health moves you closer to achieving it.
Boyd Patterson is an assistant public defender in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He has a Master’s in psychology and counseled at-risk youth for more than two years, including child abuse victims diagnosed with PTSD.