PTSD and the science behind why you can’t just “get over it”

This question comes up a lot. If it’s something you ask yourself, please read this. If other people ask you why you aren’t over it yet – please share this with them, and maybe it will help them to understand.

Trauma memories aren’t like other memories – they don’t fade over time. Every time you think of them, they feel like they just happened yesterday (or worse – like they’re happening now).

Here’s why, in a nutshell:

Think of your brain as having two main parts:

Part 1 is your “Thinking Brain”. The thinking Brain is smart, rational and fact-based. We’re conscious of the thoughts it comes up with. It plans, organizes, and problem-solves.

When it stores a memory, it’s like a librarian – it organizes by theme and date. So, its memories of your senior year of high school might include the music you liked that year; the person you had a crush on; the part-time job you worked; and, oh dear, that goofy haircut you had that was so stylish back then. Remembering these memories feels like you’re looking through an old photo album – there’s a distinct sense of “me-now” remembering what happened to “me-then”.

Part 2 is your “Threat-Response Brain”. We’ve talked about this one before, here, here, and here; it’s not smart, it’s not rational, and you’re not consciously aware of what it thinks.

Your Threat-Response Brain stores memory very differently – and it does so on purpose.

Pretend you touched a hot stove once, as a small child; you burned your hand and cried.

To be good at predicting future threats, your Threat-Response Brain needs to know that “hot things hurt“. Time and context don’t matter: you don’t want a Threat Brain that thinks “Yeah, I hurt myself on a hot stove – but it was Grandma’s old gas stove, back when I was a kid, and she was cooking breakfast; I’m an adult now, in my house, making dinner, and my stove is electric, so let’s try touching it, because maybe it’ll feel good.”

Yeah – that really wouldn’t help much, now would it?

The way the Threat-Response Brain works is: “Every time I see/hear/smell something that reminds me of the time I got hurt, there might be danger.” The threat brain also generalizes to similar threats – so, if you hurt yourself by touching a hot stove, you don’t need to also touch a hot iron, and stick your hand in a campfire – your threat brain learns that hot = pain.

This is why memories of trauma stay fresh and vivid in your mind, even years or decades later: they are kept in a different part of your brain than other memories. The point of the Threat-Response Brain is to protect you – so it makes sure you remember danger as if it had just happened.

So – how do you cope with this stuff, when it gets triggered? You use grounding skills. Remind yourself that feeling triggered means that your Threat-Response Brain is reacting to a memory – it doesn’t mean that you’re in danger now. Tell yourself, “my threat-response brain is reacting right now because this looks/smells/sounds similar to my trauma – but that was years ago, and I’m here now, and that’s not happening anymore.” This helps you refocus on the here-and-now.

To fine-tune your Threat-Response Brain’s reactions, there are no quick and easy tricks I can teach you in a blog post – but, there are specific therapies out there (EMDR or cognitive processing for example) that can help with that.

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Please feel free to share this post, and any other on this blog, with anyone who might benefit.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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PTSD Triggers: Crowds

So – while we’re on the topic of triggers, let’s talk about crowds. From what I gather, most of you are not big fans of crowds.

Like I keep saying, PTSD is basically your brain’s threat-alert system, kicked into high gear without an “off” button. So – you’re constantly trying to size up all possible threats.

Say you’re in a room with one door, one window, and one other person. That’s not bad; you can scan window-door-person, to look for possible threats.

Now say you’re in a bigger room, with ten people. Keeping track is much harder, and it’s easier to get overwhelmed.

It goes up to a whole new level if you’re in a grocery store, a mall, or a football stadium. Now, there’s just no way to keep track of it all. Just thinking about it, you might start to feel your heart rate speeding up a bit – that’s your reflex, getting ready to fight or flee.

Take a moment. Breathe. You’re not there right now.

See what just happened there? That feeling started, even though you were just thinking. Thinking is not dangerous – but your survival reflex is so strong, that just thinking about it makes the danger feel SO real.

When we start to feel like that, we interpret that feeling itself as a sign that there’s danger. If we can’t quickly scan our entire environment, we start thinking the danger must be real, only we can’t see it.

Feeling tense/nervous/uneasy does NOT mean that you’re in danger – it just means that your threat-detection system is reminded of danger.

…That little fact right there folks – that is the key to the universe.

When you’re dealing with PTSD, having that feeling that tells you, “Oh no, major danger is coming” does NOT actually mean that anything is coming.

It just means that your threat-response system was reminded of danger.

Remember Dave the Zebra, and his red flowers? Well – crowds are sort of like your red flowers.

So – how do you cope?

Remind yourself that, as soon as you start to think about crowds, your PTSD will start to act up. This is not because thinking is dangerous, or because crowds are dangerous; it’s because PTSD reacts to reminders of danger.

Heading into a crowd, you’re going to feel anxious/tense/wound up. You may even start imagining all kinds of horrible things that could go wrong, and all those things might feel very, very real. Feeling and thinking this way does not mean that you’re in danger, or that awful things will happen. This is a normal part of PTSD; it is to be expected. This is unpleasant, but not dangerous.

Repeat this information to yourself frequently; with consistent practice, it will get easier. (You’ll probably still not like being in crowds, but it will get easier to cope with it.)

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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PTSD Triggers: Trauma Anniversaries

As far as triggers go, few are as powerful as the anniversary of your trauma.

You probably start to tense up a bit just thinking about it. As the date gets closer, you might get this sinking feeling, like you’re a sitting duck and there’s no escape.

To cope with that feeling, you have to realize that even though you can’t stop the calendar, there are things you can do to cope.

Whether you feel uneasy, tense, nervous, anxious… You’re feeling that way because an anniversary is a reminder. Realize that your feelings are unpleasant but not dangerous.

Use your grounding skills to ground yourself in the here-and-now:

What year did that stuff happen? What year is it now? How long has it been since this happened? Asking these three questions is an important part of reminding yourself that the memory is “back then”, and you are in the “right now”, and there is lots of time separating you from that memory. The memory is a painful one, but it can’t hurt you. Your memory is back then. You are here now. It’s over, and you are no longer in danger.

– Where are you now, as compared to where you were back then? What’s different in your life now, as compared to back then? These are different ways of making the point in your head: That was back then. I am here now; now is different from then; and I am no longer in danger.

It helps to do things to keep busy, especially things that are different from what you were doing on the day when it happened. When the memory starts to creep up, remind yourself: “Right now, I’m home, the year is [now], and I am [doing whatever you’re doing right now]. That happened back in [whatever year], and I was [wherever], and I was [doing whatever]. Right now is different from back then. That’s a memory. I dislike remembering it, but it can’t hurt me anymore. It’s in the past. It’s over.”

Sometimes, your trauma anniversary is not just about something awful that happened to you – it may also involve the loss of someone you care about. If that’s the case, then you may also be overwhelmed with feelings of loss and grief for the person or people you lost on that day. You may think about all the good things that have happened since that they missed out on.

It’s healthy and natural to have feelings of grief. Too often, we think that acknowledging a loss is the same as depression, so we try to avoid healthy, appropriate grief.

So give yourself permission to grieve. Realize that the day will be hard on you; take it easy on yourself. Plan ahead of time to do things that ground you and give you comfort.

When it’s over, take an inventory: what did you do that helped, and what will you do differently next year? That way, hopefully coping might get a little easier from one year to the next.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

This post is shared to mark my own trauma anniversary, and dedicated to the memory of my cousin Pete. We miss you buddy.

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PTSD: Dissociative Symptoms

Holy feedback!

As soon as I put up the last blog post, there was a stampede of comments and emails saying, “Yes! Talk about this more!!!”

Okay.

So we left off talking about how the “freeze” response is part of the fight/flight/freeze reflex. It’s how we defend ourselves when we can’t fight or run away; it dulls the pain of whatever is happening.

Let’s put this together with some information we have from before, about how reflex learns: it learns that any reminder of the trauma is a sign of danger.

So – a reminder of your trauma might set off a “freeze” reaction.

Here’s what it feels like: you might feel like you’re not really in your body so it’s not really happening to you (this is called depersonalization); or you might feel like the whole thing is a dream, a movie, or happening in slow motion like it’s not real (this is called derealization). You might feel like you’re just losing chunks of time – ‘waking up’ and not knowing how you got to be wherever you are (this is called, WTF just happened to me?).

Here’s what it feels like to have PTSD do this to your life: it’s terrifying. You feel like you have no control over your mind or body. You want to do everything you can to grip onto reality, but you get sucked into this rabbit hole. You might feel angry at your mind for betraying you this way.  You might feel guilty, weak, and ashamed for not being “strong enough” to somehow hang on tighter and not let this happen to you. It can leave you feeling traumatized again and again, every time it happens, because being helpless to stop yourself from dissociating can remind you of being helpless to stop your trauma when it happened. You might feel depressed, useless, worthless.

…Boy, sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Lookit – I’m not gonna try and tell you that getting out of that hot mess is easy, quick, or painless. It’s none of those. If your PTSD includes this stuff, research suggests that, as far as PTSD goes, you won the bleeping jackpot.

What makes it worse is, every time it happens, you might feel disappointed in yourself, like you should be stronger. This just erodes whatever self-respect you have left. You’d never say stuff like that to a buddy to encourage them when they’re struggling…

You need to start by realizing that this happens to you because you don’t feel safe; so, how you start to fix it, is to work on increasing your sense of safety.

The ability to feel safe is like a muscle – and yours is, well… It’s not so strong. You strengthen it with exercises – stuff like relaxation. Grounding skills. These are your drills: practice this stuff. Be patient with yourself. What you’re trying to accomplish here is very hard work, so give it time.

Finally – you know that fine print I put at the end of every post? You know, the stuff that none of you ever read, because you don’t think there’s anything important under the pretty picture?

Yeah; it says that this blog is not a substitute for therapy. If you’re dealing with PTSD with dissociative symptoms and trying to fix it on your own, it’s a bit like trying to perform open heart surgery on yourself. I’m just sayin’ – there’s help out there. Go get some.

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~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions – but before you post, can you take a quick peek at the guidelines? Thanks…

If you’d like to get more updates from me, you can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

Fine print: Reading this blog is a good start, but if you’re having a hard time, it’s no substitute for getting actual help (like, therapy). It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling, and to seek help. Getting help is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

Really fine print: Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Larry Jaipaul, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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PTSD: Reflex and The “Freeze” Response

…You know I’m all about feedback, right? You know this is YOUR blog, and I’ll write about whatever you need?

Well – my stats tracker thingy tells me somebody ended up on Coming Back Home by Googling “PTSD + Freeze response”.

And I thought, Huh – I don’t really have a good article on that. I mean, if I was Random Google Person, I’d be a little disappointed.

So – good suggestion, Random Google Person! This post is for you!

If you recall from previous discussions, PTSD is basically a survival reflex stuck in a loop with no off switch. This reflex has three parts, depending on what kind of threat you’re up against:

fight is where you respond to a threat by beating up on it. Military training works to strengthen this part of your survival reflex.

flight is where you run for the hills to get away from the threat.

freeze is what you do when neither of the above is an option.

In this post, we’re going to discuss the freeze response, the way it happens in the face of an actual threat. Next post, we’ll talk about dissociation, which is what happens when the “freeze” reaction gets stuck, like in PTSD or dissociative disorder.

It’s like this: imagine a goldfish.

It’s in a fishbowl. The cat just jumped on the table and stuck his paw into the bowl. What’s the fishy gonna do?

He’s can’t fight off the cat, and he can’t run away, because he’s in a fishbowl. Poor little fishy. The cat is about to enjoy some fresh sushi.

So – what does the fish do? He freezes; freezing helps him feel less pain, both physically and emotionally.

Freezing might feel like time has slowed down; like what’s happening isn’t real; or like he isn’t really there. The goldfish might feel like he’s floating above his body, watching the cat enjoy his sushi.

Feeling this way is a normal reaction to a situation of extreme, life-threatening danger, where you can’t fight and can’t get away.

If you’re a goldfish who’s about to get eaten by a cat, feeling like you’re floating above your body and the whole thing is not really happening is less terrifying, which is why our reflex is built this way.

But – suppose just as the cat is scooping up the goldfish, someone comes along and screams, startling the cat. Poor little fishy lives, but is scarred by this near-death experience: he might get stuck in this “freeze” reaction. He might end up with severe PTSD, and symptoms that we call dissociation. We’ll talk a bit more about that in the next post.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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Strategies for Coping with Nightmares

Unfortunately, nightmares are part of PTSD for many people. They aren’t easy to get rid of. However, if you get nightmares, here is a list of things that you can do to try to make them a little easier on yourself:

– Did I mention that relaxation is really good for you? I did actually; so many times that you might be getting tired of hearing it. I even posted a relaxation exercise here. Some people felt triggered by that one (and I thank them for telling me), so I posted a different one here. I keep talking about relaxation because it’s good for you. Try to do some every night before you go to bed. It will make you less tense, and if you’re less tense you’re less likely to have nightmares.

– Anniversaries of your trauma events are likely to be particularly difficult. But, any days when you’ve been triggered, upset, stressed, or even excited (in a happy way), you’re more likely to have nightmares. Knowing this, you can work to compensate: on days like that, try to do more to relax before going to bed than you normally would. Then, as you lie in bed, take some time to look around the room, and remind yourself that you’re home, and that you’re not in danger. Putting this thought in your head right before you fall asleep will make it easier to bring yourself back into the here-and-now if you do wake up with a nightmare.

There’s a couple of things you can do to set up your bedroom to make it easier to cope with nightmares:

– Keep the room dark enough to sleep, but leave a small nightlight on to make it easier and quicker to orient yourself if you wake up from a nightmare.

– Keep the space uncluttered; have a couple of objects around the room that will help you to quickly and easily orient you to the here and now. Any object that you didn’t have at the time that the trauma happened can work; that way, if you do wake up with a nightmare, you can quickly scan the room to know where and when you are.

– Use your grounding skills: usually, waking up from a nightmare means waking up drenched in sweat. Lying in bed, drenched in sweat and shivering will do absolutely nothing to help you recover from your nightmare. So get up, run to the bathroom, and splash some water on your face. Get in the shower, and have a nice warm relaxing shower. Lavender-scented soap is also relaxing. Put on warm dry pajamas. Turn on soft, relaxing music. Fix yourself a cup of tea or warm milk (or another beverage that soothes you). The idea at this point is to soothe and comfort yourself, to help yourself recover as quickly as possible, rather than allowing the suffering to continue.

If you tend to have the same nightmare over and over again, there’s a type of therapy for that.

If your nightmare is overwhelming and terrifying to even think about, please don’t try this on your own – find a qualified mental health professional to help you.

The treatment involves writing out your nightmare in detail, with a different (positive) ending. You basically train yourself to re-imagine the nightmare with a positive ending, and then train yourself to take control of the nightmare. This takes a lot of work to do successfully, and it’s hard to do by yourself. So please reach out to get some help if you need it.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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PTSD and Relaxation: When and Why

So – have you noticed that lately, I’m talking a lot about relaxation…?

Well – today I’d like to talk to you a bit why relaxation is important, and how to use it to manage your symptoms.

If  you’re like most of the patients that I work with, you might think of relaxation as something you do when you’re feeling really wound up to bring yourself back down.

If you use relaxation this way, that’s a great start. The next step is to get into a routine of doing some sort of relaxation every day, even when you aren’t feeling really wound up and you don’t think that you need it.

Think of doing relaxation the same way as you think of brushing your teeth: you don’t wait until you have a toothache to brush your teeth. You do it regularly because it helps to prevent a toothache. Same with relaxation: try an exercise like this every day. If you prefer to relax by imagining a hike in the woods, you can do this instead.

Here’s why: when you have PTSD,  even at your most calm, you are probably still pretty wound up and vulnerable to stress as compared to a person without PTSD. That increased vulnerability can be pretty stressful in itself – you might spend much of your time worrying about how you cope with unexpected stress, or feeling embarrassed about how you react to stressful events.

Put simply, doing relaxation exercises regularly can help to rebuild your resilience. It can help you feel calmer and more centred, so that you can handle stressful events with more confidence. It’s not a miracle; it’s a skill, and just like any other skill, it takes time and practice to get better at it. But it’s worth it – over time and with practice, relaxation can make a difference.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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Guided imagery exercise #2: By the water

Everyone – this blog is meant to be your space. Expressing your needs and preferences is valued here.

Thank you for providing me with the feedback that not everyone here finds the view of the woods to be relaxing.

So, I’d like to walk you through the guided imagery exercise again, but with a different view, for those who prefer to look at water to relax.

If there’s one thing you’ve learned from your own experience with PTSD, it’s that your brain is pretty good at imagining (that you’re in danger). Well – guided imagery is basically taking the brain’s ability to imagine, and using it to help you relax rather than to rev you up.

First, a word about skills: they do not develop overnight. Tying your shoelaces is a skill; you can do it today because – as a little kid with clumsy fingers – you practiced.

This is no different – getting good at it will take practice. So, if your mind wanders the first time you try it, keep trying. You will get better at it with practice.

You can imagine any kind of restful place. Today we’re going to use a walk along the water.

If these images are not relaxing for you, you can imagine a different place that you find restful.

First, find a quiet place where you can sit for at least 20 minutes without being interrupted.

Imagine that you’re standing on a dock, overlooking the water:

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Guided imagery is about imagining the space as vividly as you can — everything you can see, hear, smell, and feel.

Feel the wooden dock under your feet.

Feel the breeze on your skin.

Hear the waves gently lapping at the shore.

Listen to the seagulls.

Look out on the water.

Smell the fresh, clean air.

Take in a slow, big, deep breath… and let it out slowly…

Slowly walk down toward the beach.

Feel the sand under your feet.

Walk along the beach. Take time to explore some driftwood that you come across:

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Feel the sand and let the water lap gently at your feet.

Feel the warm sunshine on your face.

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Take your time to slowly explore these pictures,  to imagine, as vividly as you can, being in that place. Include sights, sounds, smells, and your sense of touch.

Don’t worry if you sometimes zone out or lose track of where you are – that happens, and it’s all good.

You may also find that your arms or legs feel stiff or heavy; you might have small, involuntary muscle movements. You might cough or yawn. Don’t sweat it – that happens too.

When you’re ready, slowly bring yourself back into the present.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photos gracing today’s post were taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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Finding Solid Ground When You’re Triggered

Hi!

Today, I want to tell you about grounding skills – the kind that you use when you’re being triggered, and you’re starting to feel sucked into an ugly old memory. Those of you who are getting help probably have a few of these already; for everyone else, these are your life jacket when you feel that you’re drowning. Learning to use these is an important investment in your well-being.

The key in this type of a situation is to use whatever tricks or strategies you can, in order to remind yourself that you are here in the present and the danger is over.

Some ideas for doing that include:

– look around the room; notice and name some of the things that you see. Becoming more aware of where you are now helps you fight off being sucked back into the past.

– rub the palms of your hands together. Pay attention to the sensation of warmth that this creates in your hands. Usually, our hands get cold and clammy when we’re nervous – so this little trick makes you feel calmer by changing how your hands feel.

– listen to music. You can pick either soothing, calming music to relax you, or you can pick something loud that you can sing along to, something that reminds you of a pleasant memory. (Singing out loud also makes you breathe deeper – and since we often hyperventilate when we’re triggered, this helps too).

– do any kind of physical activity that your pain and/or physical ability allows. Focus on how it makes your body feel. Your muscle tension will go down as you do this, and that will make you feel calmer.

– if you have a pet – touch your pet’s fur, talk to your pet, and/or hug your pet.

– carry something meaningful in your pocket, something that reminds you that you are here now, and that the danger is over. Touch it to re-orient yourself. If you didn’t have your current car or home when the trauma happened, your car or house keys will do: touch them to remind yourself that you are here now, and that event was in the past.

– remind yourself of today’s date. If you carry a cell phone, looking at your phone can be a good trick for this – look at today’s date, remind yourself of the date when the bad memory happened, and then firmly tell yourself, This is now, that was then; I am here now. Feeling scared is not the same as being in danger;  I may be reminded of back then, but I am here now and the danger is over.

(Of course, if the anniversary of the trauma is what’s triggering you – looking at the date is NOT the way to calm yourself. Here‘s some tips on how to get through it).

These are skills – so the more you practice, the better you get at using them…

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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Let’s go for a walk in the woods! (Guided imagery relaxation exercise)

Hi!

If there’s one thing you’ve probably learned from your own experience with PTSD, it’s that your brain is pretty good at imagining (that you’re in danger).

Well – today we’re going to take your brain’s ability to imagine, and use it to help you relax rather than to rev you up.

This exercise is a type of guided imagery.

First, a word about skills: they do not develop overnight. Tying your shoelaces is a skill; you can do it today because, as a little kid with clumsy fingers, you practiced.

This is no different – getting good at it will take practice. So, if your mind wanders the first time you try it, keep trying. You will get better at it with practice.

You can imagine any kind of restful place. We’re going to use a walk in the woods, because juicy delicious pictures of the woods are what the photographer is serving today.

If the woods are not a relaxing image for you, you can imagine a different place that you find restful.

First, find a quiet place where you can sit for at least 20 minutes without being interrupted.

Imagine that you’re standing at the foot of a trail, going for a walk in the woods:

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Guided imagery is about imagining the space as vividly as you can — everything you can see, hear, smell, and feel.

If the first thing that jumps out at you is the trail marker – you’re not failing! You’re on the green trail; what else do you see? What can you imagine feeling, hearing, smelling if you put yourself in that place?

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Feel how rocky that trail feels under your feet.

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Look at how peaceful those trees look. Smell those pine trees…

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Are wild blueberries in season? Can you find some on these bushes?

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Listen to the sounds of that stream. Touch it – think of how cold it would feel on your fingers.

Can you hear birds chirping in the background?

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Take, a big, deep breath of that clean air. Fill your lungs with it.

Feel the warm sunshine on your face.

Take your time to slowly explore these pictures,  to imagine, as vividly as you can, being in that place. Include sights, sounds, smells, and your sense of touch.

Don’t worry if you sometimes zone out or lose track of where you are – that happens, and it’s all good.

You may also find that your arms or legs feel stiff or heavy; you might have small, involuntary muscle movements. You might cough or yawn. Don’t sweat it – that happens too.

When you’re ready, slowly bring yourself back into the present.

 

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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Finding Solid Ground (Part 2) : Photography

It’s been a bit since I last posted specifically about grounding skills, so, if you can’t even remember the previous post, here’s a handy link.

In a nutshell, grounding skills are things that we do to help ourselves stay in the present when an unpleasant memory tries to suck us back into the past. They are your first, most basic tool for managing your symptoms. Usually, grounding skills are activities that keep your mind focused on something in the here and now- so, when a bad memory pops up, your grounding skills keep you… grounded.

Let’s divvy up grounding skills into two basic categories: there’s what you do to cope in an emergency (like when you’re being triggered by things like fireworks or thunderstorms ) – those situations require a specific, immediate response to help you to re-orient that that was then, and you are here now, and you are not in danger.

But – aside from these “emergency grounding skills”, there’s what we’ll call the “everyday grounding skills”: when you feel wound up, your mind is racing, and you need something to do keep yourself from getting sucked in. Hobbies that keep your hands busy and your mind focused are a good way of “everyday grounding” yourself. Photography is a great example.

You don’t need to have a super fancy camera (although if you really get into photography, you may end up buying some fancy stuff).

It keeps your mind busy because you need to think: what do you want to photograph? Where are you going to go, to take the pictures that you want to take?

Once you find some sights that you want to photograph, you need to figure out how you want to capture those sights…

Do you want to focus on the tree in the foreground?

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…Or, would you rather use the tree to frame the scene, and focus on the bridge in the background?

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Which image do you like better?

It’s not a trick question, and there’s no right or wrong answer. But – if you can look at both pictures and have an opinion – then photography might be a hobby for you to consider. So grab a camera (or even your phone to start with), and go out for a hike. Find some stuff you want to take pictures of.

Have fun :-)

 

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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Where PTSD comes from, Part 2: Fight/Flight/Freeze Response, Emotional Symptoms

(Disclaimer: This topic can be a little heavy for some people, so to compensate, I’m going to step up the goofiness today. )

Hi!

So – you know what? It occurred to me that I’m trying to explain the fight/flight/freeze response using zebras and lions, and…

Zebras don’t usually fight lions.

So before we go any further, you need to know more about Dave the Zebra. He’s not your ordinary zebra.

Dave’s had it with the lion bullying his friends. (You all remember what happened to George?)

Dave’s been learning karate. He’s gotten pretty good. The next time that lion messes with any of his friends, Dave’s going to unleash some zebra fury.

When the lion comes along, Dave’s reflex takes over. He feels the adrenaline rush; he hears the theme music from Rocky playing in his head…

He feels fear. Fear is not a choice – it’s part of reflex. Fear is a signal of possible danger.

And then he feels… anger. Rage. Maybe even vicious, blind rage, like he’s never felt before.

(How are you doing? Remember – if this is uncomfortable, take a moment to breathe and remind yourself that we’re talking about a zebra, a little horse in striped pajamas…)

Like fear, feeling rage in a potentially life-threatening situation is also reflex. Rage helps Dave summon every ounce of bad-ass that he’s got, and to focus on neutralizing the threat.

(Hey – if you’re a zebra pulling karate moves on a lion, every bit of help counts, right?)

And aside from that – he feels a whole lot of… nothing. Feeling numb is also part of reflex; you see, when an animal is in danger, it may be cold, tired, weak, hungry, or injured (or arguing with its wife). All of that stuff just gets in the way when you have to focus on survival. So, numbing everything out is important to survival – it helps you focus on the danger and nothing else.

The last emotion involved in the survival reflex results from adrenaline. Adrenaline is basically a drug that the body produces itself. It’s a painkiller, so it allows Dave to keep beating up on the lion, even if Dave is exhausted or injured himself. To help do that, adrenaline makes you feel a little loopy/drunk/happy. This is part of how the body protects itself from stuff like pain or fatigue getting in the way of survival.

Later, Dave might feel ashamed and even horrified that he felt pleasure at beating the crap out of the lion. That’s why it’s really important for him to know that these feelings are a hard-wired part of reflex; they are not a choice, and he is not to blame for how he felt at the time. Shame and guilt don’t help him heal – they just feed depression and keep him stuck.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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Where PTSD comes from, Part 1: Fight/Flight/Freeze Response, Physical Symptoms

We’ve spent a couple of months talking about how your survival reflex works. Well, today we’re going to talk about what it actually does.

The fight/flight/freeze response is a basic survival reflex that is built into every animal. The part of your brain that powers is is called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh. ) It’s a very primitive brain part, and we’re not consciously aware of what it does (ie., reflex is not a choice). Look at your thumbnail – that’s roughly the size of your amygdala.

When the amygdala spots what it thinks is a sign of danger, it goes into survival mode, and activates your fight/flight/freeze response.

Think of our friend that we talked about earlier – Dave the Zebra.

Although I’m sure this might seem goofy to some of you, I want you to use him as a grounding skill: anytime the discussion starts to hit too close to home, just remind yourself – we’re talking about zebras.

ZEBRAS.

Cute little horsies dressed in black-and-white striped pajamas…

So – Dave the zebra and his buddies are out enjoying some pasture. Suddenly, Dave spots that lion hiding behind the big rock.

Dave’s amygdala goes into gear. His adrenal glands kick in, so he feels an adrenaline rush. His breathing gets faster and his heart rate speeds up. His large muscle groups tense up: the idea here is to get as much muscle strength as possible, to give Dave the best chances of survival.

When blood flow is focused on feeding your big muscle groups so you can run or fight, your extremities are not a priority. That’s why your hands and feet might get cold and clammy: they’re not getting a lot of blood flow.

You sweat because sweating is the body’s way of cooling off. Survival reflex expects you to have to run or fight, which heats the body up. So, reflex thinks that breaking out in a cold sweat is a nice, helpful little detail.

Since the survival reflex directs all available energy towards survival, it shuts down functions that are not essential to dealing with the immediate threat. So, your survival reflex will suppress your digestive system and your immune system, because these seem like a waste of energy when your survival is being threatened.

That, in a nutshell, are the main physical symptoms of the survival reflex. When you have PTSD, these symptoms can become chronic: that’s how you end up with chronic muscle pain, (and jaw pain from clenching your teeth); as well as chronic indigestion in some cases.

Next up – the emotional impact of the fight/flight/freeze response.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 3: Reflex has values

Hi again!

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve discussed so far: reflex learns as a result of your experiences; but reflex isn’t very smart, so what it learns as “predictors of danger” is a mixed bag of good predictors and random stuff that was going on at the time that the danger happened.

Today we’ll discuss why reflex doesn’t bother filtering good from bad predictors of danger before learning them: because reflex values speed over accuracy.

To illustrate, let’s revisit our old friend, Dave the zebra.

Dave and his zebra friends are out enjoying some delicious pasture.

(I know – last we saw Dave, he was avoiding pasture, because of what happened to George. But he got help for that, and now he’s doing much better. He says thanks for asking.)

Dave catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye that might be a furry tail, like the lion’s. But he only got a glimpse, and he’s not sure.

What should he do – raise the alarm, or try to get a better look?

On the one hand, he didn’t get a good look, it could be nothing, and those other zebras can be pretty snooty if he gets it wrong.

On the other hand, taking a closer look wastes precious seconds that could be better spent getting everyone to safety.

Folks – from the viewpoint of your survival reflex, the only thing that matters is survival. Your survival reflex assumes that it’s better to make a fool of yourself by overreacting, than to hesitate and waste a second.

So – reflex learns by the principle of “better safe than sorry”, and reacts by that same principle.

This will lead to a lot of situations where your survival reflex will be convinced that you’re in life-threatening danger, even though you’re not. It’s reacting to a reminder, even if that reminder doesn’t make any sense to your “thinking” brain.

We’ve discussed how you can have a reaction to a trigger even when you understand that there’s no real danger; we’ve covered how important it is to NOT beat yourself up over this, because it’s an injury and not a personal failing or character flaw.

What you can do instead is use this knowledge to help yourself regain a sense of calm: when you’re triggered, the reaction can make it feel like the danger is very real. So it becomes really important to understand that being triggered does not mean being in danger: you can be triggered when there’s no danger.

It helps to understand that your survival reflex sometimes acts like a kid pulling the fire alarm at school when there’s no fire, but because he doesn’t want to write the math test.

Use this knowledge: when you’re triggered, remind yourself of where you are, and what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you’re safe, and it’s just your survival reflex going off, pulling the fire alarm at a faint reminder of danger. Reminding yourself of where you are and that you’re safe is a way of grounding yourself – and knowing how to ground yourself is an important coping skill.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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PTSD Triggers: Dealing with Fireworks

Hello again!

Today we’re going to talk about specific coping skills for dealing with fireworks.

If you’re ever been in a position where loud noises mean bad stuff is going on, then you might react to the sound of fireworks, because your threat-response reflex has learned that loud bangs are a predictor of danger. (For more background on how reflex learns, read this previous post.)

If your survival reflex at one point learned that a sudden, loud bang means danger, the sound of fireworks will probably make your reflex react, even if the conscious, “smart” part of your brain realizes that it’s just fireworks.

So – what do you do?

Let’s start off with what NOT to do. Your worst bet is to just pretend like it’ll all be fine and do nothing to try to prepare yourself. That’s avoidance, and it doesn’t help. So – give yourself a pat on the back for being proactive and reading this to help yourself prepare.

We’ll talk about two parts: (1) what to do about your feelings; and (2) what to do about the noise.

(1) You might feel shame and anger at yourself for reacting. If you’ve read any of the previous posts – then I hope I’ve drummed into your head that fear is a reflex, and that you do not choose to feel fear. Fear is part of the reflex that responds to threats. It “learns” to respond to triggers based on what happened to you. You don’t have control over it, and blaming yourself for it makes as much sense as feeling guilty that your toenails grow – it just happens, you can’t control that. So – let’s work on getting rid of that shame and guilt, okay?

A more helpful approach is to accept that you’re going to react to triggers; you’ll be more prepared to cope if you expect to feel fear in response to triggers, and manage it when it happens.

If you hear fireworks, your reflex might be to hit the deck and keep your head down. If that noise had been enemy fire, your reaction might have saved your bacon. Respect your reaction for what it is – a survival reflex. You can help calm your fear by reminding yourself that feeling scared and being in danger are two separate things – your fear in this case is a false alarm, and you are safe.

(2) With fireworks in specific – you may actually find it much easier to cope if you look up and watch them. Seeing the show will make it easier to know where that noise is coming from. You can help to ground yourself by saying (or thinking), “These are fireworks. This is a celebration. I’m home, and I’m safe”.

If that’s not an option – on a holiday weekend when you can expect fireworks, finding ways to mask the noise may be your best bet. That might mean staying indoors, windows closed, playing your favourite music loud enough that noise from outside doesn’t filter in.

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Please feel welcome to share this post, and any other on this blog, with anyone who might benefit.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy content, including photographs, from Coming Back Home without permission.

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