I have, at various times in my life, been overcome by the “black dog” of depression. I guess most people face times when they just feel trapped and unable to move forward, but this is even deeper than that. It’s the darkness that falls on you like a weight and leaves you wondering if you can even stand up under the pressure it creates. During one of my worst bouts, I decided I needed more help than I could get from family, faith, and friends, and I went to the local Community Mental Health for help. I’ve never regretted that decision.
I told my therapist that I felt like a black cloud was following me, and that I was always waiting for something else to go wrong. For the first time, someone explained to me that I wasn’t “crazy,” I had PTSD.
I spent several months in therapy confronting the demons in my mind. Then I finally began to climb out of the hole I’d been living in and could finally feel the sun again. Since then, I’ve have not had to return for more therapy, but it has helped just knowing that it was there if I needed it. I’ve learned many tricks for “bumping” myself off the stuck position so I can move forward again: art therapy is one of my life-savers. I also use music therapy, prayer, and talking to a special, non-judgmental friend. I’m fortunate to have these tools available to me. They’re available to you too, if you need them.
Stress, even good stress, can take quite a toll on us. It is helpful to learn to recognize the signs that you are becoming overstressed so you can take steps to alleviate it.
Recognizing the signs you are feeling too much stress can require some self-monitoring. Some of the signs to watch for include:
- Tapping your foot repeatedly
- Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw. This may occur most often in your sleep, but you will often feel the results in the morning when you wake with a sore jaw.
- Feeling anxious, nervous, helpless or irritable.
- Frequent accidents (we often rush too much when we are stressed).
- Forgetting things you usually don’t forget.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Fatigue and exhaustion.
When you realize you’re feeling stressed, try to figure out what’s causing it. This is a good time to use your relaxation methods to relax.
If you know what’s causing your stress, that’s a great first step to dealing with it. You can begin to work on solving the problem before things get out of control. Remember, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine can make the situation worse, so try to avoid them.
Use the techniques that work best for you; exercises, meditation, music, etc. If you find you remain stressed to the max, consider contacting a therapist or perhaps your spiritual advisor. Sharing the problem can often give you a better perspective on it or how to deal with it.
One thing we can do in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, is remember to relax. As silly as that might sound, too often we allow ourselves to get wound up by listening to all the hype in the media (indeed, it’s difficult to escape these days) until we reach the point we are operating on autopilot and in a state of almost constant anxiety. It’s time to take charge again and chill out!
Indulging in a little mind-time can be quite rejuvenating. Relaxing doesn’t have to be a big production, although there is room for more complicated techniques too. But, consider taking a few minutes each day to try one or more of these methods of relaxation:
- Take a hot, soaking bath. Throw in a handful of bath salts, light a candle and turn out the lights. Maybe even add some soft music.
- Read a good book, one that gets you right into the plot and right out of your head!
- Play your favorite music. Sing along, and crank it up!
- Go for a walk in the woods. Not necessarily a power walk, but taking the time to notice the sounds, smells and beauty of your surroundings.
- Visit the local beach. Yes, take care to adhere to social distancing recommendations, but there is something about watching the water that is relaxing and compelling at the same time.
- Play with or cuddle your pet. Contact with the pets we love can lower blood pressure and be heart healthy for us.
- Indulge in your favorite craft, be it wood-working, sewing, painting, etc.
There are many other ways to relax. Not all will work for everyone. Not all will work instantly. Sometimes it takes 10-12 repetitions before you start to develop a habit and the activity becomes something enjoyable. Try different methods until you find one or more that work for you, then don’t feel guilty for taking some time for yourself.
I’ve seen several programs on television recently that have included a character that was suffering with PTSD. In one episode, the main character said it should not be called PTSD because it is not a disorder, instead, it is an injury. PTSD occurs because you have witnessed an atrocity. It is caused by an injury…an injury to the psyche. It is also a disorder because the injury causes actual physical damage in the brain, resulting in how chemical signals are processed. It is a wound in the psyche and therefore requires healing to take place in the psyche, not just the physical body.
I may not be saying this well, but I believe it is why PTSD is so difficult to heal. How do we heal a psychological wound that has physical manifestations? I believe the answer is that we must resort to healing modalities that result in psychological healing. Prayer, meditation, and talk therapies are perhaps the most powerful methods, those that put us in touch with our psychological side. Perhaps that is also why the things that are esthetically appealing also seem to help us heal. Things like walking in the woods, or stopping to appreciate how beautiful the flowers are in springtime, or sitting by the river watching the water. All of it touches a place inside us that has suffered a significant wound.
Does it matter whether PTSD is a disorder or an injury? No, what matters is that we seek until we find those things that put back into our spirits what has been damaged and torn away. Only then will we begin to heal.
I’ve been working on finding a way to make better decisions, and I’m having some luck working with the “Pros and Cons” method. It simply means making a list of both the good points and the bad things about what you are considering. While it sounds quite simplistic, it really has helped me to think through the possible consequences of a course of action, and understand that sometimes, while I may want something quite badly, now is not the time.
Making smart decisions is more than doing what you want. It means looking at both sides of a course of action and weighing the consequences of each side. It really isn’t an informed decision if you haven’t considered both sides of an issue. If I want to make a smart choice, then I need to know what I’m going to be sacrificing in order to get what I want. That way I can determine whether it’s worth it or not.
Simplistic, yes, working with this method is certainly that, but that doesn’t make it less effective. I’ve had some hard choices to make this past couple of months, as I know you have too. Looking at both sides of the issue has made me more confident of my choices…and that’s brought me some peace of mind.
What you think affects the way you feel. We can’t separate our mind from our body; thoughts affect our health. By changing your thoughts then, you can change, at least to a degree, your health status. Let me give you an example.
Suppose you are very upset because you believe something bad is going to happen, such as having your car slide off the road in a winter storm. You fret over whether you should go out at all, and you realize you are physically uncomfortable too. You don’t feel good in a general way – your head may not ache, but you feel congested and tired. Your back hurts and you feel sore all over.
Then you go out on your trip – and you don’t slide off the road. In fact, the sun comes out, the snow melts off the road, and you realize you’re feeling better! Sound familiar? What we think affects how we feel. Therefore, how we think can have an impact on how we feel.
There are many ways to change our thoughts – prayer, meditation, relaxation exercises, and talk therapy, to name a few. Not all of them will work for everyone, and it may take some time and persistence for any of them to work. Don’t give up trying different methods though until you find what works for you!
This Coronavirus crisis has been quite a stress-producing event for all of us, hasn’t it? Not only does it include the fear of catching the virus and getting sick, wondering if there will be the equipment available we need to get well, but also the loss of jobs, dealing with home working environments, not being able to purchase supplies you need, and the list goes on and on. It all adds to the stress level those of us with PTSD deal with every day. It’s no walk in the woods.
Let me suggest you take stock now of what you need and don’t have, or want and can’t get, so the next time an emergency arises you are better prepared. That being said, dealing with this added stress is something we need to think about and develop a plan to handle.
Of course, you know the VA has many resources for coping. The VA COACH ON-LINE is one, with many suggestions for ways to handle your stress. Meditation, physical exercise, relaxation techniques, journaling, talk therapy, anger management techniques, and many other ideas are listed along with guided exercises to teach you how to use them most effectively.
The thing is, each one of us finds our own way of coping, and when times become increasingly rough, we may need to add additional items to our usual ways of coping. We often find that no single mechanism will keep us in the healthy zone, so we have to resort to a mixture of different coping techniques.
Take some time today to think about what’s adding to your stress levels, and come up with a plan that will help bring your anxiety to a manageable level. When you have PTSD, you tend to want to isolate, but don’t fall into that trap! Call a friend and talk about what’s happening. Old adages such as “a burden shared is a burden halved” exist for a reason…they are true! Use your music, try diversion, write down a plan for what you’ll do as soon as the shelter-in-place order is lifted and follow through on it. Don’t let depression, stress, anger, or anxiety win – make a plan today!