One of the more common symptoms of PTSD is the tendency to isolate. Those of us with a PTSD diagnosis usually don’t like to be around crowds, we prefer to know exactly what is going on around us at all times. Keeping track of everyone and everything is difficult. Yet, we don’t feel comfortable if we aren’t aware of our surroundings and any threats that might present themselves.
While I understand that isolation is not good for me, I’ve come to view it in a bit more accepting light over the years, and I’ve found a compromise that works for me. I still avoid large crowds if I can help it, but I don’t beat myself up for wanting to keep track of my surroundings. Especially since 9/11, life seems to be much more dangerous; attacks seem to happen somewhere in the U.S. on almost a daily basis. The more horror stories I hear in the news, the more I think that maybe this symptom of PTSD is designed to protect me, and it’s something that has a bit of a positive aspect to it too.
I will still have to work at not overdoing the isolation thing. I know I need other people in my life to find balance and support. But, just maybe this symptom of PTSD is a good thing to the extent that I’m a bit more likely to survive if I keep my eyes open as I go along. I guess the one good thing I can say about having PTSD is that, I’m here, I’m a survivor. That counts for something.
As I traveled on vacation this week, I thought about how sometimes we have to tolerate things we don’t like in order to get to experience things we want. For instance, I flew to Florida for a week’s vacation with my sister and had to spend a day on the way there and a day on the way back in the airport and on airplanes. While I don’t actually mind the flying, I really didn’t like the crowds in the lines waiting to board, or being forced to sit still for extended periods of time. In fact, that’s one of the things I don’t do well at all. It’s cramped, crowded, and I always seem to be seated next to the woman with the crying baby!
On the other hand, once I got to Orlando, I had a great time. We stayed in a lovely resort, while enjoying great food and entertainment, and even the crowds around the swimming pool weren’t too bad. But, the thought of taking another day to sit in the airport and fly home followed me through the week like a dark cloud.
I’m glad I went. I had to challenge my desire to isolate myself and I realized I was in danger of ruining my sister’s vacation too if I didn’t get a handle on my PTSD. I was able to do just that, and we had a wonderful time. I don’t want to let PTSD rule me and rob my life of joy. If I allow it to cause me to not take vacations or to ruin everyone else’s vacation, then it has won. If I control it enough that I can participate in the activities we have scheduled and enjoy them, then I have won, and that’s important to me. I won’t let PTSD take everything away. I refuse to let it win.
One thing I have realized in coping with PTSD is that the people who don’t have it have no idea how difficult it can be to live with. My anger seemed to lurk just below the surface, and it seemed like almost anything could set it off. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want things to be that way – it was my reality. I worked constantly, trying to suppress my anger. It took a long time to realize that I am reacting. That’s important.
In most instances, I couldn’t have told you why I was angry. I know now that anger isn’t a primary emotion; it’s a secondary response. In my case, anger most often followed on the heels of my being afraid or extremely frustrated. That means that to prevent my anger, I had to allow myself to experience the primary emotion and react to that rather than becoming angry. It’s a more honest way of living and I like the sound of it, but actually facing my emotions is not as easy as it sounds. My anger is part of my defense system, and I have used it most of my life to hide from what’s really bothering me.
So, how do I control my anger at this wise old age? I try to make a sincere effort to see behind what’s making me angry. Am I yelling at the guy in the passing lane because he’s an idiot who drives like he got his license out of a Cracker Jack box, or, am I afraid he’s going to slide into me because he’s going too fast on the ice? Are his wheels really slipping, or is it my car that’s slipping on the ice? If all I need to do is slow down more so that I’m not so afraid, then the anger never surfaces.
The other thing I’ve learned about anger is that it feeds off itself. By that I mean that if you allow yourself to get angry, it builds and can easily get out of control. If I stop the anger before it takes hold and realize I’m not really angry, but what I’m really experiencing is fear, then the anger never surfaces. I can then evaluate whether my fear is legitimate or not and either acknowledge I’m just being a ‘fraidy cat, or I can get out of Dodge before I get hurt. Either way, anger never becomes a factor.
I’m better now at controlling my anger than I was five years ago; much better. That’s encouraging because I think that in another five years, I might even be further along. That means I’m making headway, and that makes it worth the effort!
Having PTSD takes a lot of energy. Those of us with that diagnoses know that we are “on point” 24/7. We monitor everything and know what’s going on around us all the time. Being hypervigilant is frustrating, to say the least, but it has become such a way of life, that we can’t even conceive of things being any other way.
Keeping track of all that’s going on is not an easy job, but it is part of who we are. Anxiety drives the hypervigilance, and our thoughts drive our anxiety. Learning to control our thoughts then is the first step in learning to manage our anxiety. Remember, our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all connected.
Our thoughts are shaped by our life experiences, and while they may well have been right on target immediately following the traumatic event we experienced, as time goes by they may become less accurate. We may perceive something as a threat when it actually isn’t anymore.
There are four types of feelings we can experience connected with PTSD: fear, sadness, guilt and anger. Think about a feeling that’s bothering you. Now, weigh the pros and cons for why you feel the way you do. Weighing the pros and cons helps you decide if it’s worth holding on to those thoughts.
If keeping those thoughts outweigh letting them go, then you need to keep them for now. But, if it’s time to let them go, try looking realistically at what’s behind them.
If you decide it’s time to let them go, it’s the first step in changing your feelings. PTSD affects our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. But we can take back some of what we’ve lost so far. Take the time to identify what your feelings and thoughts are, and then weigh the pros and cons of keeping those thoughts. If the cons outweigh the pros, then it’s time to start changing your thoughts.
PTSD may result in our feelings flavoring our interactions with others. The result is that people avoid us because we treat them aggressively rather than assertively. If you are unsure about the difference between the two, assertiveness is:
- Knowing what you want or don’t want
- Considering your rights and the rights of the other person you’re speaking with
- Expressing your needs in a way that is respectful and clear enough to get the outcome you want.
Communicating assertively rather than aggressively is important because it allows you to get your message across without alienating others and increasing your isolation. The benefits of communicating assertively include:
- Helping develop your self-respect by giving your own needs the same importance as those of others
- Helping you get what you want
- Helping you handle stress better
There are five basic styles of communication behavior:
- Passive, where you let things happen without saying what you want or need. Passive people usually feel guilty for having their own wants and needs. The problem is that you aren’t likely to get what you want. Being passive with others causes them to feel resentful.
- Aggressive, where communications are basically hostile, demanding or threatening. Aggression ignores the other person’s rights and feelings. People often react by becoming defensive and angry, and by avoiding you.
- Passive-aggressive, where you resist requests from others by delaying, or active stubborn, or sullen. Passive-aggressive people often say one thing while meaning another. People respond by becoming angry and confused and they lose respect for you. You seldom get what you want this way.
- Manipulative, where you try to get your needs met by making others feel bad for you, or afraid and guilty. It allows you to play the victim in the hopes that others will give you what you want. Manipulating people causes them to become upset and to avoid you. They often resent and mistrust you too.
- Assertive, when you ask for what you want in a clear way, respectful of others. Being assertive increases the comfort level of the other person because you are clear about what you want. The other person feels respected and heard, and you’re more likely to get what you want using this style rather than any of the others.
Assertive communication is possible when you take the time to consider the position of the other person, then voice your own wants without running their position down. It can make interactions with other people easier, and remove the hostility that the other styles of communication elicit.
(This information was adapted from the VA’s PTSD Coach website: www.ptsd.va.gov/apps/PTSDCoachonline/default.htm).
One thing about PTSD I’ve realized, is that to a large extent, I can define whether it’s going to have a totally negative effect on me or not. While I wish I didn’t have this particular diagnosis, I’ve had to admit there is a legitimate reason I have PTSD, and that, having it does, to an extent, protect me. After all, being hypervigilant means that it is very rare for anyone to take me by surprise.
I’ve had one friend point out that I’m probably one of the safest people he knows just because I am so tuned in to what’s going on around me. When I get out of my car, I’m always aware of others in the area and I’m always evaluating whether they are a danger to me or not. While that doesn’t mean I won’t get hurt in the long run, it does mean that subconsciously I’m doing everything possible to ensure I won’t be stuck in another traumatic situation again.
Trying to view something in this manner is called reframing it. By acknowledging that my PTSD has a positive effect on my life in some way, makes it easier for me to live with it. PTSD is something I wish I didn’t have to live with. But, I have had to acknowledge that it’s possible to view things in a different light and recognize that there are silver linings to my clouds. PTSD is a way my mind has responded in order to keep me alive…and that can’t be all bad, can it?
It never seems to matter which holiday it is. When you have PTSD, no holiday feels like a celebration. Feeling uncomfortable in crowds makes July 4th one of the worst. The kids all love to go to the parade, but that’s the last place I want to go! And then there are the barbecues, the relatives, and all the other traditions that make holidays one big pain in the neck. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If we bow to the fear that comes with having PTSD and worrying that something else horrible is going to happen to us, then we miss out on all the good things that can happen too. And, I really believe there are a lot more good things out there than there are bad. Sometimes it’s good to visit with family you haven’t seen in a while. And barbecues can be fun if they aren’t too big and too much work.
It’s up to you how much celebrating you want to do on any holiday and how much effort you want to expend in entertaining. While you may never want to go to a parade, or have your relatives all over for dinner, or host the neighborhood block party, find the boundaries of your comfort zone and do some celebrating within them. Don’t let the fear win! If you can’t manage the parade, then take part in a cook-out with your family. If you can’t go to the movies, then treat the kids to a special video and popcorn in your home. Don’t give up on all celebrations. Find ways to participate in the joy of the season.