Thursday, October 22, 2015

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Part One: Caring for Yourself Through the Darkness of PTSD

by Danetta Kellar @DanettaKellar

The old green Scout was my rescue car that day, the only reliable source of transportation available to make the long trek from our African village across the rutted dirt road, through the river, and finally to the hospital two hours away. I was sick, and I needed to see a doctor. 

Our team leader came to our aid in his old truck, arriving outside our little house as my husband helped me gather my things and climb in the truck.

The smooth vinyl seats were cracked and worn, with two narrow stitches harboring a wide one, right down the middle of each. The smell of old dust and sweat assailed my senses and I began to panic. My breathing increased, my heart beat erratically and forcefully, and I began to look for a way of escape. 

Examining the door handle, I restrained myself from lunging over my husband’s lap and jerking the door open for a desperate leap to freedom. 

Fear began to choke me and tears rose to my eyes. Rage welled up inside of me and I held my hands for fear of attacking the men in the car with me.

You may think I was overreacting to a dusty old truck and familiar, trusted friends. Or that perhaps whatever made me sick that day was frying my brain. What was actually happening was an acute episode of Post Traumatic Stress, pointing all the way back to traumatic events from my childhood that happened in an old Scout.

According to the Mayo Clinic

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while, but they don't have PTSD — with time and good self-care, they usually get better. But if the symptoms get worse or last for months or even years and interfere with your functioning, you may have PTSD.

I had been trained to recognize PTSD and to take steps to overcome its effects on my daily life.

I knew my body’s reaction that day in Africa was to the past, not to the present. 

I took a deep breath and listed to myself what was true right then. I am safe. I can trust these people. I am an empowered, strong, adult, not a weak, victimized child. This truck is helping me get to the hospital, not trapping me. I am safe. I am safe. I am safe.

Slowly my breathing normalized, my heart slowed, my eyes cleared, my fists relaxed. I began to enjoy the sights of my beautiful present. I talked with the safe people surrounding me right then. I anchored myself deeply in the moment of truth that held me right in that moment. 

I allowed the solid, steady truth of Now to replace the terror of Then.

There was a time in my life, however, when I did not always know what to do in these situations. For many years I was even blind to them. I lived life from crisis to crisis, always surging forward on the adrenaline of either dealing with crisis or anticipating it, preparing for it or remembering it. My physical and emotional reactions to life around me seemed real and necessary to survive.

I did not understand then that they were often reactions to present environmental triggers which reminded my body and my emotions of past extreme trauma.

Thanks to loving and wise friends and counselors, I have walked a long journey to health and wholeness. I now know the difference between real crisis and the misplaced anxiety my body and emotions manufacture when they are threatened and reminded of past pain. I will continue to walk this path to wholeness my entire life. But now I am equipped.

Here are the tools I never go without:

  • Accurately Identify PTSD. I used to think my reactions, flashbacks and avoidance of certain places or things was something I could get over if I tried hard enough. The truth is that if untreated, PTSD can worsen, especially during life’s stressful seasons. It can also lead to other conditions such as depression. If you suspect you may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, talk to your health care professional.
  • Watch out for any emotional response that is greatly disproportionate to the present trigger event. For example, an appropriate response to a dusty and sweaty old truck might have been to complain or joke about the need for deodorant, but certainly not to feel rage, panic, wanting to jump out of the car after attacking its occupants. When our response out-measures the stimulus, it is almost always about the past.
  • Recognize any unexpected physical responses in yourself. Sweating, clinching, tensing, sudden headaches, changes in breathing patterns or heart rate can all be signs of PTSD. The responses your body produces are most often responses you had at the time of the actual traumatic event, or wanted to have but were not allowed.
  • Watch for unreasonable thoughts, especially thoughts that are accusatory or blaming toward people who are truly safe and trustworthy in your life. In the midst of a PTSD episode, even trusted, safe people may seem like the enemy to you. Your mind and body wants to lash out, especially if it was not allowed to actually defend itself to the real perpetrator in the past. When this happens, it is best to briefly remove yourself from others and refrain from verbal engagement until you can remind yourself of what is true right now.
  • Remind yourself what is true right now. Go through a mental reality checklist.physical location now (in my example, I was in a truck driving through an African village) safety now (I was with people who were safe, who were helping me, not hurting me who you are now (an adult in charge of her body, not a child)
  • Talk to a safe person.  Tell them you are having a PTSD response, and ask them to help you talk through what is true now. Ask them to pray for you and with you.

People of all walks of faith and levels of maturity struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Praying on your own and trying to get through privately is not enough. It can even distort one’s understanding of scriptural truths. 

PTSD can masquerade as mental illness and cause you to think you are hopeless and insane. 

It can cause extreme anxiety, disrupting one’s relationships with people and with God, diminishing one’s quality of life and ability to function. It can cause people to lose their lives and their faith.

Seek help from your doctor, a licensed professional counselor, or a pastor trained in PTSD and familiar with its symptoms. There is no shame in this need. You would go to a doctor to set a broken bone and start you on the journey to wholeness again. In a similar way, those who suffer from PTSD have a broken reality that needs trained help to set it right again, to start them on the journey to wholeness and healing. 

Professional help is one necessary component to gaining the knowledge and objective support the sufferer needs to see clearly through this pain.

Such help in my own life has enabled me to clear my head and live more fully in the present. It has opened my heart to comprehend more deeply the safe and protective love of God and others in my life right now. It has enhanced my relationship with myself, others, and God.

Things can get better. I know, because they have in my life. Identifying PTSD was a major step in that journey. I hope it can be for you or your loved one also.

Which part of this post impacted you the most? Be sure to join the conversation!

Visit my blog next week for more: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Part Two: Caring for Your Loved One Through the Darkness of PTSD



Psalm Twenty-Five & PTSD: A Journey Into the Darkened Realms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home: Hope and Healing for Families Living with PTSD and TBI

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