This blog has been a way to creatively express myself. My teacher used to say that creativity is the most important thing we have, and that its expression is the pinnacle of living. While what I write is not fiction, the process of writing is yet another way of connecting to life amidst everything – including PTSD.
Notice that I didn’t say that PTSD makes my life harder – I try choose my words in a way that moves me forward in the direction of healing. By saying that PTSD makes life more challenging, I step into a mode of considering what shifts will help me.
It eventually became clear that I had to plan around PTSD to move through life. Pretending that I will have energy in the evenings, social interactions are easy, and leaving the house is just a matter of crossing the threshold was not realistic.
Here are 5 steps I’ve been taking to meet my challenges.
1. Rest and reflect
While I can’t control my work hours and kids’ and my appointments, I can choose my time to rest and reflect. For me, this starts at about 9:30 pm – I need lots of sleep.
Throughout the day, PTSD causes stress to build up in my body as I flow through triggers, flashbacks, and anxiety. So, when I lay in bed in the most comfortable position, I reflect on the sensations in my body that were accumulated during the day. This is my time to meditate.
I breathe, commune, and surrender everything – daily. This helps me to process most things while I’m awake so that I don’t burden myself with disruptive dreams.
2. Prepare for leaving the house
Many people who have PTSD also have agoraphobia.
To help me with the anxiety that comes with leaving the house, I -first – limit how often I have to leave the house. With PTSD, I learned that I don’t need to wage war on all of my anxieties because they are not necessarily going to get better with increased exposure.
It’s actually a misconception that increased exposure to things that makes us anxious is always the right way to go – especially if the resulting anxiety feels like trauma. The outcomes are not always going to be positive. So, to limit the amount of stress hormones running through my body, I try to limit how often I get stressed.
If I have to go somewhere, I take time to prepare myself for the exit. It’s not like I can just run out – I need to rest, reflect, and anticipate exiting the house for an hour or so prior to leaving. If I do run out, I end up looking like that indoor cat that just escaped from the house and now isn’t sure what to do!
I need to have most things ready the night before to offload my work mornings, and then I just focus on getting out the door. It’s a process – lots of deep breathing, a protein breakfast, and fruits to give me some natural sugars.
3. Prepare for people
The most powerful triggers I experience that result in flashbacks and panick attacks are due to interactions with people. I no longer come to work or social events casually “showing up.” Instead, I prepare before entering work by breathing deeply and imagining a buffer between me and others – an enormous lavender field.
People like to work with someone who is competent and consistently calm, always moving about with grace and poise. Even when others are spastic, they want an anchor that brings them back to feeling steady. So, I need to proactively prepare to be that anchor by separating my PTSD lens on events from being available to people in a positive way. Ultimately, it is the people with poise, grace, and calm assertiveness who help to glue an organization together.
4. Focus my time on what’s important
We all tend to react to things that seem urgent but may not be important. I know this well, having a long history of spreading myself too thin and doing too much. With PTSD, energy is a valuable commodity! PTSD people get exhausted just managing anxiety daily.
This year, I did an exercise where I tracked how I spent my time and how these activities aligned to what I considered important. To my surprise, I spent a greater portion of time dealing with situations that did nothing to support the greater shifts taking place in my life.
For example, I decided I wanted to work in the private sector again, but I wasn’t doing any training or updating my resume to prepare myself for the transition. Instead, I was still sinking time into tutoring clients after my teaching day job! Well, I stopped tutoring and signed up for affordable courses on Udemy to brush up on some skills. I also met with a friend to go over and update my resume.
There are countless other examples where I was doing things simply because I could do them, and not considering whether they were in alignment with my overall life direction.
Now, I try to distribute my energy consciously into activities that feel like they are going to support me – PTSD and all. If I am supported, then I have that much more to offer to those around me. Focus is truly something that I’ve neglected for too long – but no more!
5. Build in breaks throughout the day
Anxiety has a cumulative effect throughout the day. Various stressors come at us and we may do our best with these, but the body just gradually shifts into fight/flight response with each additional hour. I’d be going along and then realize too late how much stress I accumulated. Then, I would get hit by exhaustion and need extensive time to recover.
Instead of reacting to the inevitable realization that I waited too long to pause and regroup, I now have an alarm on my phone for built in breaks during the day. During these breaks, I need to get up, walk around, and connect with the world.
The building where I work is on a wooded campus – I step outside and breathe the air while feeling the sunshine on my face. I bring myself back to that poise and equilibrium that will later serve others.
Recently, a friend labeled PTSD as a mental illness. I reflected on that for some time, wondering why that label felt so inaccurate to me. Sure, a PTSD body is ridden with a level of stress hormones that one can’t just correct by “snapping out of it” – there is a lack of inherent control and our responses must be managed moment to moment. So, in that sense PTSD does need to be treated and managed like any other chronic condition. However, the inherent stigma of mental illness implies that one is going to act “crazy” no matter what. This is simply not true, and living with PTSD requires lifestyle changes that truly support us where we are.