When I think about trauma and the different types of trauma we face; sexual abuse, the sudden death of a loved one, suicide, domestic violence, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, childhood neglect & family harm, to name a few, I’m starting to wonder if there’s anyone alive who hasn’t been affected by at least one of these events.
Trauma permanently changes who we are and how we feel; trauma re-wires our thinking and can change our behaviours and reactions on the back of one single event or compounding events. Trauma creates triggers, anxiety, depression and a heightened fight/flight or freeze response.
A few years ago now I was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This is a label in the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual), which is the “big book” health professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders. It seems a lot of people are given this umbrella label for a host of reasons.
When I thought about PTSD in the past, I had associated it with war vets who would duck for cover at the sound of fireworks or ex-police officers who had been held hostage and couldn’t face returning to the front line, but it’s actually a widespread diagnosis that many people live with and for a host of different reasons.
So what is PTSD?
PTSD is a disorder characterised by failure to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
What does this mean for day-to-day life?
For me, being diagnosed with PTSD has been a real-life changer and a huge learning curve. When you get a label to wear after feeling like there is just something inherently wrong with you, it’s like you get to join a club, a club with existing members, a club that has already got some of it figured out. There’s information available that is often relatable, and it feels good to have some support and reasoning as to why you’ve been feeling a certain way.
When I was first diagnosed 6 or so years back and started in therapy, I would read up a storm, all the self-help books, anything I could find on Google, and I was on a mission to get from where I was to the finish line. I was going to find the answer, implement the winning strategy to delete the problem and wash my hands of it. Wishful thinking that was.
I tried avoiding people and situations to avoid any possibility of being triggered, I’ve tried confronting people to resolve uncomfortable feelings, and I’ve tried leaning into my hypervigilance to keep me safe.
It turns out it doesn’t actually ever end or finish as such, but PTSD becomes better managed for me. I’ve learned what triggers me; I can recognise when I’m being triggered and manage the situation in the least stressful way possible.
I use many self-care tools that help prevent my feelings from becoming overwhelming and have a huge amount of support in places that I can draw on when I need to. I’ll share a few of my resources here for anyone who might like a helping hand on their own journey with PTSD.
My Tips for PTSD Self care
- Journaling everyday. This really does help. I just do one page every morning and blurt out any narrative on my mind, sensical or not.
- Getting out in nature. The beach, the bush, the country. Anywhere you can breathe fresh air, feel the sun and be among nature.
- Get some sun. For me this is huge, whenever the sun is out I want to be drawing it into my skin. Vitamin D is essential for mood.
- Alone time. I’m good spending time with people for an hour or 2 and then I need to be alone. Even just for 30 mins, this helps me to regulate myself and maintain my balance.
- Good food = good Mood. This is 100% accurate. You cannot maintain stable mental health on a diet of crap food.
- Water. This one gets me every time. If I feel low energy and start feeling irritable and I realise my water intake has been low there’s a sure chance a litre in will turn it around quickly.
- Connection. We humans are social creatures. We need to feel a connection with others where we feel safe, heard and comfortable. Spend more time with people who feel like sunshine.
- Boundaries. Set them and stick to them, always. If you start feeling like your space is being invaded, it is. Set another boundary. This is liberating and very stabilising for PTSD sufferers.
Living with PTSD
During my experience, I’ve had up times and downtimes for different lengths of time. Having experienced multiple traumas over my life, I sometimes think when one is triggered, they all go, and I start ruminating about a whole series of events simultaneously, which creates a bit of an avalanche, leaving me to feel snowed under.
Some triggers I experience are aggressive yelling, confrontations, particular songs, the smell of cigarettes on clothing, feeling fear, feeling in an unsafe situation, unexpected physical contact and the sounds of idling motorbikes. My response nearly always is to freeze. Even now, this can be very frustrating. I know what’s happening, but I still feel paralysed to react. Something I’m working on.
For me, my support systems have been key to maintaining a balance. Therapy has been very beneficial to me in navigating day to day situations in a less reactive way. I’ve learned to step back and take a breath before launching into a defensive narrative to protect myself. I still often get the urge to behave in this way, but I don’t allow myself to act impulsively, and this has been an absolute game-changer.
There’s nothing worse than misreading a situation, responding in an overreactive manner, upsetting someone, and then experiencing the feelings of guilt and shame that follow. This cycle of behaviour is damaging to relationships with others and your relationships with yourself. It leaves you questioning your judgement and soundness of your thinking which is so self-destructive.
- Book: The body keeps the score by Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D
- Book: What happened to you by Bruce D, Perry M.D PhD & Oprah Winfrey
Learn more about PTSD in this 15 minute TED-Ed video
If you suspect you or someone you love has PTSD, the best way to help yourself or help them is to visit your GP and discuss your feelings. They will be able to point you in the right direction for medical support. Then it’s a journey to learn and understand more about your triggers, symptoms and management strategies.
Our brains are amazing and very complex parts of our body, but they are also structured in a way that will protect us first and foremost. Unfortunately, sometimes the default way our brain does this, post-trauma can actually keep us in a state of ongoing stress.
The good news, though, once you figure out your own triggers, learn how the brain tries to protect you and put supports and strategies in place, you can manage it. For me, PTSD is not constant; it comes and goes and to varying degrees. I am very consistent with my boundaries, self-care and am consistently talking with people about their experiences and learning every day. Throughout this whole experience, I’ve learned a ton of resilience and am happy to share my learning with you.