TAKING CHARGE OF OUR HEALING

Last week I met with a group of individuals from Community Mental Health to discuss diversions — activities that allow us to divert our attention from destructive thought patterns and focus instead on things that are more positive.  We were learning to do a form of artwork called “tangling.”  It’s a very relaxing type of doodling.

What impressed me so about the group was that afterward, several of the members went to the facilitator and told her that they had decided to put the tangling activity into their “mental health tool box” – cardboard boxes they use to store tools and props they can use to help keep themselves mentally healthy.

The idea is that if you’re having a bad day, you can go to your mental health tool-box and pull out something to use as a diversion.  Too often we can’t think of things that might help us when we’re in the midst of a bad day.  Having the tool box provides a kind of mental health first aid kit to fall back on.  I thought it was a great way of taking charge of their own healing in a positive, substantial way.

I was thinking about what I might put in my own mental health tool box: a CD of calm, peaceful music; art supplies so I can tangle; an uplifting book or really anything that helps me let go of the bad things going on in my life and helps me feel good about myself.  After all, what could be more mentally healthy than that!

HATING THE HOLIDAYS

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! While most people enjoy holidays, unfortunately many veterans do not. Holidays are a time to be with family, to enjoy parties, good food, parades, fireworks and a variety of family traditions. It’s usually a time of excitement too.

While all of those things may sound good to most of us, to someone with PTSD the holidays can cause headaches and anxiety. Family gatherings are often tense, and parades translate to crowds and noise, several things that can actually be flashback triggers for someone with PTSD.

Is it possible to enjoy the holidays if you have PTSD? The answer is yes, with a little pre-planning. Take the time to think about what it is you don’t like about the holidays. That will show you where the problem areas are. Then plan how you can manage the situation differently instead of trying to suffer through it. It’s ok to make new family traditions, to do things differently than you have in the past. The goal is to make the holidays enjoyable to you, as a veteran, as well as your family.

For example, do you hate parades because of the crowds and the noise? Then that might be a tradition you want to give up. The key here is to explain to your family why you don’t want to participate. Can you still play a part in the activity? How about if you drive the family down and drop them off prior to the parade, then pick them up at a prearranged place afterward. You can let the kids know you aren’t sad because you aren’t seeing the actual parade, but this is something you’d rather do. That way you’re still playing a part in the tradition, but you don’t have to sit with the crowd.

Another example is the traditional holiday dinner. At my house, we used to call them “dinners from hell!” They were a time when everyone gathered together, but instead of being joyful and celebrating the holiday, we all worried whether Dad was going to blow up or not. My father had PTSD. Now I can see why he would ruin every holiday; it was too much stress for him to cope with. How much easier it would have been to keep dinners small and relaxing rather than the large gathering that triggered his PTSD.

With a little bit of planning, your holidays can be joyful again. If you feel guilty about not following family traditions, remember that in the long run, you are probably not doing anyone a favor by suffering through the day.

Make a plan this year for how you’ll handle the holidays. Then enjoy the day and create new traditions that make it a day to be remembered for how much fun you had, not how pressured it was.

DIVERSION

When you find your mind is consumed by unwanted thoughts or memories or you are mentally beating yourself up, one of the ways to combat the situation is by using diversion techniques.  Diversion is when you immerse yourself in something that captures your attention to the extent that you forget all the negative things you were thinking.  Those negative thoughts are often referred to as “psyhco-babble.”

An example of diversion that many of us have experienced occurs when you watch a really good movie.  You sit for two hours and when it’s over, you feel like it only lasted a few minutes.  You were so “into” the film that you forgot everything else.  The same thing may happen when you’re reading a really good book, when you’re at your favorite fishing hole, or when you’re playing golf.  Diversion can occur whenever you are doing something that really captures your attention.

There are many activities that can be used as diversions.  It’s actually something that you can develop on your own: what are your greatest interests?  What can you do where you forget about everything and everyone around you?  That activity is a diversion.  Pursue those activities during your periods of psychobabble.  It’s a way of taking charge of your mental health and managing a particularly frustrating symptom of PTSD.  Give it a try – it may just work!