Military Training vs. Mindfulness

I’d like to start on a new topic today: mindfulness. It’s going to take a few posts to talk about it, because there’s a fair bit to say.

If you haven’t heard of it before, I think you’ll like it. Mindfulness is a way to let go of the self-criticism, shame and guilt that often contributes to keeping us stuck in misery.

Mindfuless is so awesome, I could almost say it’s nutritious and delicious, and I’d only be exaggerating a little.

Not only that, but mindfulness is… the exact opposite of everything you have learned in your entire military career, EVER.

So, wrapping your head around it is going to feel a bit like learning to live on an alien planet.

In the military, you learn to push yourself to your limits, and then to push yourself some more. If that doesn’t work, then the answer is to push yourself even harder – never yield, never, ever give up.

Now – I’m not pointing this out to in any way disrespect military culture – your perseverance is something that I respect and admire. I understand that, in your line of work, expecting yourself to succeed against impossible odds is necessary.

Here’s the thing, though: when dealing with your mental health, that dogged determination can contribute to grinding you deeper into your misery.

It’s like this: maybe you went through some stuff, and it rattled you, and you just can’t shake it. But, you might believe that failure is unacceptable, and you feel like a failure that you can’t shake it. You also might believe that the way to success is to push yourself harder (because that’s what life in the military taught you).

The thing is – when you’re depressed, overwhelmed, stressed out, not sleeping well, having nightmares and panic attacks – then pushing yourself harder, and expecting yourself to suck it up and soldier on doesn’t magically make your issues go away. In fact, it often does just the opposite – it might make you feel worse.

In your training and your work in the military, pushing yourself harder is often your best tool. In your mental health, it’s your worst enemy.

So – this is why we’re going to learn about mindfulness. Mindfulness is about noticing our own experience without judging it; no shame, no guilt, no self-criticism, just a “here’s where I’m at now”.

NO, it doesn’t magically solve all of your problems in an instant – but, it gives you a chance to stop being your own worst enemy. And once you stop putting all of your energy into beating up on yourself, well, then it actually becomes a lot easier to cope.

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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 copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Larry M. 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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“Why do I push people away when I need them the most?”

The title of this post is a question that was sent to me a little while ago; it comes up often enough, and seems to be something that a lot of people can relate to.

When we’re at our loneliest and most vulnerable – precisely when we need support the most – often seems to be exactly the time when we work the hardest to push people away. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, and we often kick ourselves for acting this way.

There’s actually some important reasons why we tend to act this way.

One is reflex: when we feel hurt and vulnerable, our defenses go up. When that happens, it’s harder to trust and let people in.

Two is history, especially childhood: When we’ve been hurt, our antennas go up and we find it a lot harder to trust; so the more lonely we feel, the more vulnerable we feel. When we feel vulnerable, our instinct is to not trust because we’re afraid of being hurt again. It’s a vicious cycle – we feel alone, so we feel vulnerable, so we push people away,  which makes us feel alone, which makes us feel vulnerable, which makes us push people away…

Three is culture, especially if you’re from a military background: you’re used to being tough and doing your best to act even tougher. Trying to let your guard down to let someone else actually look after you makes you feel… Vulnerable. You don’t want anyone to see you when you’re hurting, so even though you really need them to be there for you, you push them away.

The trick to breaking the pattern is:

One, understand that your reflex is making you feel less trusting – it’s colouring your outlook, and making you more crusty and prickly than you normally would be. So, know that the reason you’re pushing people away is because you really need them.

Two, realize that you got hurt back then, and this is now. It’s important to remind yourself that not everyone is like the person/people who hurt you; it will take work to slowly allow yourself to let people in.

UPDATE: Since it was published, this post has been one of the most read on this blog, and many readers have asked me to write more on the topic. Here’s a link to part 2 on this topic; here is part 3.

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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, Emotions, and the Role of Military Culture

Last post, we covered how your childhood might teach you to keep your feelings to yourself. Today, we will expand on that a bit.

Even if you had a great childhood, we live in a culture where it’s considered “unmanly” to get emotional and cry, and unladylike to get angry.

Military culture kicks that up a notch.

Here’s my understanding of how feelings work in the military: your “standard-issue military feelings kit” comes equipped with two flavours: “I’m okay” and “I’m messed up”. It also comes with the message that if you train hard, focus, and dedicate yourself to being a good soldier, then no matter what happens – you will never feel messed up.

Not that the military is the only culture to have this idea – police officers, firefighters, paramedics are a few other examples.

That’s not realistic. You can’t train to stop yourself from having feelings. No matter how hard you train, you’re still human.

Think of it this way: feelings are kind of like pimples, bad breath, or body odour: you don’t have to like having them, but they’re going to happen, whether you like it or not.

It’s normal and healthy to have emotional reactions to events. In response to extreme events, it’s normal and healthy to have intense emotional reactions. Just like it’s normal to sweat in very hot weather and shiver in very cold weather. Feelings can be unpleasant, but not dangerous. Your feelings can’t hurt you.

But – when you don’t expect to have feelings, it kind of goes like this:

– You see or experience something really awful. You have a healthy, appropriate, human emotional reaction: you might feel fear, anger, horror, disgust, helplessness.

– Your “standard-issue military feeling kit” tells you that you’re not supposed to be having those feelings. You might have feelings of frustration, anger, and shame about how you;re feeling.

So – now you’re having two different levels of feelings:

– One, feelings about the thing that happened. We call these primary feelings. These are universal (meaning they would happen to anybody, and they are not a choice). These are healthy, human reactions to real events.

– Two, feelings about having feelings. We call these secondary feelings. Secondary feelings are based on expectations – you’re having these because you expected yourself to never be rattled by anything.

Secondary feelings are to blame for all our misery.  They make us believe in unicorns and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, and then when reality doesn’t live up to their ridiculous expectations, they turn around and tell us it’s somehow all our fault.

So, how do we start to fix this? By realizing that our expectations weren’t reasonable to begin with, and by giving ourselves permission to be human and have feelings.

That’s simple, but not easy. So don’t form an expectation that you can do it overnight – because we just went over what happens when we come up with unrealistic expectations…

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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 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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Your Deployment, Your Family, and… THEIR Trauma

Since we’re already on the topic of all the different kinds of trauma that can result in PTSD, I was thinking… let’s talk about families.

As we were discussing in the last post – a “traumatic event” is any situation where you’re exposed to actual or threatened harm.

As we discussed, “actual or threatened” means that even if it doesn’t end up happening, being genuinely scared that it would happen can still impact you.

It doesn’t have to happen to you; it can be something that happens to someone else, while you’re helpless to stop it.

Even if you aren’t there when it happened, learning the gory details of what happened to someone else can mess with you.

So – let’s take a minute to put this together:

Say you’re deployed. Your family stays behind. They spend months on end being bombarded with media reports about the horrible events happening in the place where you went.

You face dangers every day; they’re too far away to be able to do anything other than feel helpless and hope that you come home in one piece.

…what’s happening to your family here – that’s trauma. It’s not the sexy kind of trauma that makes for a great story, but it’s still trauma.

Now, that does NOT mean that your family will automatically get PTSD just because you were deployed – but, it’s trauma, so it certainly might impact them.

Your family might feel pressured to outwardly say nothing other than how proud they are of your service. They might face a barrage of well-meaning friends and strangers offering all sorts of comments – everything from, “You must be so proud!”, to, “That’s crazy! Don’t you watch the news? They get blown up all the time over there!” (This was actually said to the spouse of someone I know…)

To you, deployment is part of your job; to them, it’s hard not to take personally. Privately, your loved ones might feel rejected and abandoned. They might feel angry and resentful that you would leave them behind, to go to some far-away place and risk getting hurt or killed, and leave them worried about your safety for months on end. They might also feel guilt if you made it home safe and other families weren’t so lucky.

So – on top of the emotions that you might bring home – your family members may have some concerns of their own to throw into the mix.

All that can make for a challenging adjustment to family life.

So – how do you get through it?

You try to be understanding of each other. You went through a lot; so did they. It’s not a competition. You’re a team;  adjusting to life after deployment is teamwork. Communication is important; try to talk about your feelings. Try to listen to family members talking about their feelings, without getting angry or defensive.

Most importantly, recognize when you need help adjusting, and reach out for it – whether you need individual therapy, family or couples therapy, or a bit of each.

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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 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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The many flavours of PTSD: It’s not a competition!

Today – by request – we’re going to talk a bit about what trauma actually is.

It turns out, different people have different ideas about what’s awful enough to be “real trauma”.

You might have a buddy who went through some really messed up stuff. You might think, he or she “earned” their right to have PTSD because of what they went through.

In comparison, what you went through might not seem as bad. Maybe you have nightmares, and you avoid things that remind you of what happened. And you get angry at yourself. You start telling yourself that if you should be able to handle it, and what’s wrong with you that you can’t.

Worse still – it might be other people telling you this stuff. They might they have a different flavour of PTSD than yours, because they went through different stuff. Somehow they might think that their trauma is bigger and better than yours, and yours isn’t “real” enough.

It’s not a competition.

To put it in perspective, imagine it was a broken leg. You could break your leg getting hit by a stampeding hippopotamus. (Hey, you never know). Or, you could trip over your kid’s toy and fall down the stairs. The difference is, with scenario #1 you get an awesome story… story #2 doesn’t sound as cool. Leg’s still messed up though.

Trauma that causes PTSD is sort of like that too – sometimes, it’s a hippopotamus – it comes with the type of “Rambo” story that movies are made of. Other times, it doesn’t make for a great story.

(HEADS UP: I’m going to describe the kinds of stuff that might cause PTSD. I’m NOT going to use examples, but it still might be tough to read. If you get unsettled, remind yourself that what happened is over. If you need more help coping, try these. )

A “traumatic event” is any situation where you’re exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.

Actual or threatened means that even if it doesn’t end up happening, if you were scared because there was a real risk that it was going to happen, that can still mess you up.

It doesn’t have to happen to you; you can witness it happening to someone else, and be helpless to stop it.

Even if you aren’t there when it happened, learning the gory details of what happened to someone else can mess with you.

This is the way your brain works; trauma comes in many different flavours.

Maybe you didn’t get your PTSD from combat. Maybe you weren’t even deployed. So, it might seem that your trauma isn’t quite as “sexy” as someone else’s.

Really, people: It’s trauma. It ain’t lingerie. It don’t need to be sexy.

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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 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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How to Make PTSD: The Recipe

I know, I know… That’s a cheesy title.

I didn’t want to just title this post, “What is PTSD?”, because that would imply that I’m going to rattle off a list of diagnostic criteria. And I’m not doing that in this post. Today, we’ll talk about the different layers of where PTSD comes from and how it develops.

– The first ingredient in PTSD is a survival reflex that is hard-wired into the brain of every animal. This reflex drives our response to perceived threat, both in terms of how our body reacts, as well as by producing specific emotional reactions. We’ll break down the discussion of this instinct into a number of posts, because it’s a bunch of information. Don’t skip over this stuff – it’s important, and it’ll help you understand what makes your PTSD “tick”. Some of these posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

– The second ingredient is one that you don’t get in your average, garden-variety, civilian PTSD. That ingredient is your military training. Although civilians get PTSD, and theirs can be just as severe as yours – the flavour of yours is different because of your training. Since PTSD is based on your response to threat, your training gives you a lot more to work with in that department as compared to the average civi.

– These first two ingredients on their own aren’t enough to cause PTSD. For that to happen, you need the third ingredient – and that’s trauma, or a threat to your safety or that of someone else. Trauma overwhelms your ability to respond. After a trauma has happened, it also changes what we see as a threat (for instance, fireworks or crowds may start to feel threatening after you’ve been exposed to combat).

The icing on the cake as it were – what keeps feeding the PTSD once you have it – includes things like a lack of good information; not having the proper tools for coping with your symptoms;  and blaming yourself for not being able to “just get over it”. This is what keeps you trapped and makes it hard to get a leg up on your PTSD.

Once you know what PTSD is made of, it gets easier to take it apart, and that’s really where we’re going with this: PTSD is an enemy that you weren’t trained to fight. Once you have a good sense of what it’s made of and how it works, you’re in a much better position to defend yourself and to fight back.

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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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