PTSD: Reflex, Roses, and Zebras

Hi there!

Today we’re going to put together what we’ve learned so far. To help us do that, we’re going to re-visit our new friend from last week, the zebra who was triggered by the red roses because his friend George got eaten by a lion while stopping to sniff red flowers.

Well – last week, his survival reflex learned that red flowers are dangerous (because reflex sometimes “learns” to mistake random things for signs of danger). So, his survival reflex sees the roses as a threat, and reacts automatically: before he has a chance to think, his reflex tells him to RUN!!!

Because reflex is automatic, it’s not his choice to feel this way. In fact, the conscious, rational part of his brain might be telling him, “WTF!!! Why am I freaking out? What’s wrong with me? I need to get it together!!!”

He might start worrying that he’s going crazy. He might blame himself, and think that if only he had tried harder, trained harder, or if he was a better, tougher zebra, this wouldn’t have happened to him. He might even tell himself that other zebras have been through worse and seem to be coping better, so he should just suck it up.

So next thing you know, he’s struggling not just with fear, but also with shame and guilt; that’s the foundation of not just PTSD, but depression too.

Look – the point of the story is – don’t be that zebra!!!

When you react to your own version of “red flowers”, by feeling fear – remember, fear is a reflex, and reflex is not a choice. It is not a sign of weakness or failure, any more than not preventing your toenails from growing would be a failure: reflex is not something that we can control by being stronger, by training harder, or by using willpower. Reflex has a mind of its own; it will see something as a danger, even when your rational brain can tell that there’s no risk. Conscious, rational thought is controlled by a different part of your brain than reflex, so it’s entirely possible to be reacting with fear to a trigger, while at the same time being able to realize that it’s harmless.

Knowing this information, you can start to help manage your fear: when your survival reflex goes off, rather than feeling embarrassed or angry with yourself, try to remind yourself that (1) you do not control your survival reflex, and (2) it often sets off false alarms.  These two reminders become the starting point for two important coping tools: one is acceptance, which is learning not to blame yourself. The other is a thought-based grounding skill – a habit of reminding yourself that feeling fear is not a good indicator of danger, and that the fear is just a false alarm.

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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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Finding solid ground (Part 1)

Hi!

Today we’re going to start out with some basics – tools for what to do against the avalanche of bad memories inside your head. These are called grounding skills.

Now – for those of you who have been in treatment for a while and have your grounding skills down pat, this will be a review. Please feel welcome to jump in with comments, share what works for you, support others and learn from each other’s experiences. For those of you who are completely new to learning how to cope with this stuff, you’re in the right place, and today we’re going to take some time to cover the basics so everyone is on the same page.

Future posts might cover some stuff that’s a bit heavier – and when they do, I’ll start off the post by letting you know I’ll be digging a bit deeper, and by reminding you to use your grounding skills. By then, some computer whiz will teach me how to add a hyperlink into a blog post, so I can refer back here as a reminder to take care of yourself if you’re upset.

Grounding skills are things that we do to anchor ourselves into the present when a bad memory is trying 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 – they are meant to keep you… grounded.

There are lots of different things you can do to ground yourself: you can use your senses to be aware of where you are: for example, take the time to notice three things that you see, hear, smell, and touch to anchor yourself to the present. You can also remind yourself of today’s date, and of how long it’s been since that bad memory happened; this will help you realize that you are here NOW, and that bad memory is over. That’s how grounding works.

Keeping your hands busy is a good way of grounding yourself – it keeps you focused on the present. So, you might give some thought to taking up a hobby like woodworking, drawing, painting, carving, gardening, cooking – heck, learn to crochet. Whatever appeals to you, as long as it requires enough focus that your mind can’t wander into the past.

At this time of the year, the weather’s gorgeous out there – so another way to ground yourself is to go outside. Go out for a good long walk. Don’t rush – take your time. Find an apple tree or a cherry tree. Take a deep breath, and take in the smell of spring.

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You know what else the nice weather means?

That’s right…

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It’s gorgeous out there – so jump on your bike and go out for a ride. It’s a great way to ground yourself.

 

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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