I became a devoted believer in Dialectical Behavior Therapy and mindfulness exercises during the time when I had no funds for trauma treatment. This was only several months into developing full-blown PTSD and my trauma therapist introduced me to this way of training my thoughts. I ordered a workbook online and began practicing many of the tools I learned, as well as teaching them to my girls. Eventually, I became proficient enough that I would come up with my own tools and techniques that fit with my life.
I’m going to give you primer on how to begin using these skills to help with your symptoms. Even if you don’t have full-blown PTSD (and I sure hope you don’t), these can be adapted to help with any traumatic or high-stress situation.
Number One Rule? Listen To Your Body!
Remember that this is not a mental illness. This is your body’s natural response to trauma. It is how our brains try to keep us safe and remove us from a dangerous situation. The fact is, our brain doesn’t automatically know that we sometimes can’t get out of a situation. So while your Amygdala is triggering your flight-or-fight response repeatedly, your Cerebrum is trying to fight it with logic and reason. That’s quite the grudge match! So your job becomes acting as referee between the warring factions of your brain. Without tools to handle the two sides, your thoughts become like a tangled ball of yarn.
Stop, Observe, and State
Whenever I see a car with a New York license plate (Captain Crazy lives in Amsterdam, New York, and I’m a bit over 1,000 miles away), my brain wants me to flee. I feel the familiar sensation in my solar plexus that wants me to break into a full-on sprint, even while in my car. My process goes something like this:
“Is that him, Aubrey?”
“If it was him, what could you do?”
“Hit the gas, turn in the other direction, go to the police station, and get an escort home.”
“And can your car outrun his car?”
“In a heartbeat.”
Sounds simplistic, I know, but in the midst of the experience there is also an entirely separate conversation going on. It’s the conversation we all tend to have, admonishing ourselves for being reactive, or unreasonable, or hypersensitive… all those things the abuser told us we were. It’s in those times when you have to actively remind yourself that you are having a response to trauma. Your body is doing what it’s designed to do.
This technique also works for me in handling night terrors. Although most times I don’t remember what I was dreaming, I awake screaming, shaking, sweating, and frequently crying. I practice the stop and state tools by stating where I am, who is present (or if I’m alone), that I am unharmed, and making verbal commentary on what is around me. “The TV is dusty, the dog is wagging her tail, the chair is green, my desk is black.” This helps give you a quick sense of reality to counteract what happened while you were not conscious. Couple it with consciously slowing your breathing, mentally telling your heart it’s okay to beat less, and essentially having a mental conversation with your body’s natural processes. “It’s okay, lungs, you can slow down and expand fully. It’s okay, chest, you can relax.”
Have An Evacuation Plan… For Everything
One thing I learned when I first got into healthcare management was the critical nature of having and practicing a solid evacuation plan. Just like you need a fire evacuation plan for your home, you need both a physical and emotional evacuation plan for handling your triggers. When things first escalated with Captain Crazy post-divorce, one of the things I did was buy two fire ladders for my house. I told my kids they were in case we had a fire and since everybody should have a fire evacuation plan, this is a good idea. The truth was, I put one in my bedroom and one in my younger daughter’s room so we would have a way to escape from the top floor if he came into the house.
Psychologically, you need the same escape ladder. If you make a list of your triggers, you can then begin to design a plan to deal with them. Here is what I used for the never-ending legal wranglings:
1. What is the worst thing he can do to me through this action?
2. What can I do about it if he actually accomplishes what he’s after?
3. What is the worst case scenario if he “wins”?
4. How will I survive or come back from that?
In the case of the $2 million lawsuit that actually helped to cement my PTSD, I went through this exercise and realized that the only thing he could take from me was money. While it sucked and was unconscionable that he would take away the financial resources for the children he claimed to love, I knew that even if he took it all (which he did through legal fees), I would still have my children (I do). I would still have two college degrees, skills, and experience to land a great job (I did), I would still have a huge circle of friends who loved me and had my back (yep), and I would have the self-respect and backbone to prove to him that he could not control my life.
This was my evacuation plan. With each of his crazy antics, I went through the questions to determine the worst case scenario, what I could do about it, and how I would come back from it. This exercise had a surprising amount of power. Still does. Only now I also do it in reverse by adding one thing, “Will this ever get him what it is that he is after?” The answer is a loud and resounding, “NO!” He will never, ever destroy me and he will never, ever have the wonderful people that I do.
It’s Okay to Feel It!
Want to hide? Do it. Don’t lecture yourself or reason with yourself. Go in the closet, the public restroom, the office, whatever you need to do. You’re not nuts, you are a survivor of a life experience that you wouldn’t wish on anyone. I promise you, though, if you set up and practice your own mental evacuation plan, you will not only feel empowered, you will gain a healthy control over your symptoms.