WHEN STRESS TAKES OVER

After having a particularly stressful day, I got to thinking about PTSD effects our stress levels. I believe that if it’s a stressful day, my baseline increases dramatically due to my PTSD.  My sister will tell you my temper has a hair trigger, and that used to be very true.  I’d like to think it’s not the case so much now, but, it is what it is.  I know that I react to everyday frustrations very quickly, and it’s something I have to keep at the top of my consciousness and work to control every day.

It used to be that I did not realize I was so stressed until I had an emotional melt down. I don’t like myself very much when that happens, so I try to ensure that I’m paying attention enough now to stop it before things get out of hand.  Sometimes that means stepping aside for a voluntary “time out.”  That means I disconnect from whatever is stressing me and focus intently on something enjoyable.  Often I’ll use music to regroup, or maybe I’ll sit down at the computer to play a game or two, or take a ten minute ride in the car.  Basically, it means I’ve had enough stress for the moment and I need to disconnect in order to allow myself a cooling off period.  I really don’t think my family realizes how necessary this is for me, but it is something I feel I have to do for myself to maintain my mental health.

Try monitoring your stress levels throughout the day. If you practice doing this on a daily basis, it will become easier as you go.  Intervening before your stress takes over allows you to stop the cycle of “blowing up” and taking it out on everyone else in the vicinity.  I know I don’t like being known as the person with a temper that explodes on a hair trigger.  Even if others around you don’t understand what you’re doing when you refocus, it’s better for them and you to not let stress push you into the danger zone.

WHAT’S NORMAL ABOUT PTSD?

The thing about PTSD is that it is a normal reaction to trauma. You can actually think of it as a normal reaction to an abnormal event.  So why do we call it a disorder?  .  Although we may be changed by what we’ve been through, we can and usually do get better over time.  While we may never be the same, for many people the symptoms lessen or disappear altogether.

PTSD treatment works. There are different options you can try to treat PTSD.  The thing is, if you don’t get into treatment, your PTSD may get worse.  It’s never too late to get into treatment; the sooner treatment starts, the sooner you can start to feel better!

There are a variety of treatments available for treating PTSD:

  • Talk Therapy involves discussing what you went through with a therapist.
  • With Prolonged Exposure Therapy, you’ll discuss your experience with a therapist who will ask you to review the situation multiple times. Reliving the experience helps reduce the intensity of the memory.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy helps you change your thoughts about the event which helps change how you feel too.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing involves having you think about the event while listening to a sound such as a beeping tone, or being exposed to a blinking light. For some reason, this helps your brain reprocess your feelings about the event.
  • Stress Inoculation Training teaches you the skills you need to handle stress.
  • Medications may be used to increase certain chemicals in your brain that help you manage stress.

PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormally stressful situation.  It is treatable, and treatment can result in reduction or elimination of symptoms.

TRIGGER STACKING

As a dog trainer, I sometimes see things that can be applied to people as well as dogs. Last night I worked with a wonderful little beagle who gets so excited she can barely function.  When she’s worked up, she barks constantly and won’t stop.  It’s very frustrating to the owners, as you can imagine.

When the owners drove up, this dog was in the back of the car, and she was very excited over going for a ride. They took her out and she immediately spotted several other dogs and their owners.  That also excited her.  As there were many other dogs that had been on the grounds that day, she was able to scent them, and that further excited her.  And, finally, when we took her to the exercise pen to stretch her legs, she spotted a fat rabbit nibbling the grass on the far side of the fence.  She immediately went into hound behavior, baying at the rabbit and frantically looking for a way to get under the fence to get it.  She was so excited, it was impossible to calm her down.  She was a victim of trigger stacking.

Each one of those events made her excited and nervous. Added together, they created a situation where she became out of control.  Unfortunately, I did not recognize what was happening until after the fact, but at least I was able to identify what was really going on: she wasn’t a bad little dog, just one that observed everything going on around her and was stimulated by it.  Her response was undesirable: barking, non-stop, but she wasn’t “just misbehaving.”

I think trigger stacking happens to humans quite often, and we also may not recognize what’s happening. We’re driving and someone runs a stop sign in front of us.  It scares us and makes our hearts race.  Then we get home and the kids are running around the yard, screaming as they play.  We go inside and the dog bolts out the door and runs away.  Finally we sit down to relax a few minutes and the neighbor comes over banging on the door with a complaint.  That may be the point where we lose it.  They are little things, but they build on one another until you’re feeling frantic.  It’s a perfect time for your PTSD triggers to go off too.

So, how can we respond to trigger stacking to stop the process? Recognizing what’s happening is the first step.  When you start to feel that first racing of your heart, take a time out.  Slow down and let yourself process what’s happening.  Are you in danger now?  No.  Can you afford to pull over for a few minutes at the local park and let yourself calm down?  If you can, it may break the sequence before it goes further.  At each step, recognize that things may be out of control, but there is no actual danger at the moment.

Staying healthy means recognizing when we have multiple issues that are having a negative impact on us. Don’t let your triggers build up until you go over the edge and lose it entirely.  Stop, evaluate the danger you’re really in, and then go on knowing you are in control.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS?

The holidays are here, and with them come large family gatherings, parties, electric parades, children full of laughter and excitement, and all the hustle and bustle that is such a part of the season.  But for those who suffer with PTSD, the holidays can bring their own special kind of hell.  Those very activities and events that make the holiday special can be overwhelming for someone with PTSD!

 

When one is hyper-aware of the surroundings, large family gatherings can be over-stimulating.  There is too much noise, too much activity to keep track of at one time.  It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on with so many people.  And taking the kids to a parade?   There are flashing lights, people coming at you from every direction; it leaves you with a felling that everything is out of control and danger is lurking everywhere.  No, the holidays can generate as much dread as joy for someone with PTSD.

 

As you celebrate this holiday season, remember those who paid for our freedom and our very right to celebrate the holiday.  There is something to be said for a quiet, peaceful season too.  Living with PTSD can take some finesse.  Remember that we can develop different traditions that are just as meaningful to us as the ones we used to practice.  The season can be one of peace and joy for all of us.

The Effects of Stress

In our fast-paced society, there are many things that bring stress into our lives.

When you are stressed, your body may respond in several ways. In most cases, we tend to favor one way over the others. For example, when I get really stressed, my stomach becomes tense and I feel somewhat nauseated. I have a friend whose heart would race when he became stressed. While we may all act a bit differently, knowing the signs of stress can help us recognize that our body is trying to tell us something; it’s time to slow down!

Stress causes the release of chemicals in your bloodstream. These chemicals may result in the following symptoms:

  • Pounding heart
  • Rising blood pressure
  • A tense stomach
  • Muscle tightnessOver time, continued stress can have quite a negative effect on your well – being.
  • You may show some of the following symptoms:
  • Physical effects: frequent colds or flu, headaches, trouble sleeping, tense muscles, skin problems or digestive problems.
  • Mental effects: trouble concentrating or remembering. Difficulty learning, and you may have frequent negative thoughts.
  • Emotional effects: increased anxiety, depression, anger, or irritability.
  • Behavioral effects: eating poorly, driving recklessly, or indulging in substance abuse. Increased aggression or irritability toward others.

Know how your body responds to stress, and when you see the signals, pay attention.  Take the time to work on reducing your stress.  Your body will thank you for it!

(Adapted from the Veterans Health Library)

HYPERVIGILANCE: ALWAYS ON THE EDGE

Having PTSD means being stuck in high alert mode.  You are aware of everything going on around you all the time.  The problem with this is that it requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain, plus you are already operating at full speed.  It’s very difficult to cope with additional stressors when you’re already at the peak of hypevigilance.

Part of learning to cope, is learning how to reduce those stressors, or at least, control your reaction to them somewhat.  Finding activities that help you relax can be a good way of reducing some of that stress.  Then, when other stressors come along, you won’t go to pieces because you’re so overloaded.

There are so many things you can do to change your focus.  Find something you really enjoy, and give yourself permission to let go and really enjoy it.  For example, if you’re a hunter, go hunting more often.  I believe there is healing in walking through the woods even if you don’t see any game.  If you love to fish, get out there and fish.  For you it is therapeutic.  If you can lose yourself in a good book, then get to the library and choose a topic you’re interested in and dig in.

The thing is we need to get engaged in life again rather than sitting on the sidelines watching to see that we’re safe.  None of us can truly control everything that’s going on.  I finally reached the state where I said I would let go of some of my need to control in order to enjoy life.  After all, what good is it if I spend my entire life focused on keeping myself safe and never experience joy again?  Far better to dance in the sun a bit and, if that bad things come of it, then at least I danced in the sun!

I would rather spend my energy doing something I love than worrying about something I can’t control.  In the long run, I think I’d rather have quality than quantity.  I want a life worth living, not to live a life that bleeds me of every ounce of joy expended in just existing.  I want to dance in the sun…don’t you?

IT ALL DEPENDS ON YOUR PLAN

With all the recent attention Hurricane Matthew is getting (and rightly so!), I’ve really wondered and worried about what’s happening to those veterans who have been forced to evacuate from their homes who have PTSD.  It’s pretty frightening to think about having to go to an evacuation center when you have any kind of mental health disorder, but with PTSD, one of the symptoms is avoidance of other people.  It’s hard to avoid other people when you’re sleeping in a gymnasium with hundreds of them!

Because I also have a diagnosis of PTSD, I really empathize with those individuals who are in this situation at this time.  Having PTSD and coping with it on a daily basis can be difficult enough without having to be in an environment where you’re crowded and overwhelmed and worried about what’s happening to your home, your family and your friends.  I keep thinking about how uncomfortable I’d be in the same situation.

I guess that’s why it’s so important to plan ahead for disaster situations.  We all think nothing is going to happen to us, but things do happen and we need to have a plan for how we’re going to respond.  For me, either going to a motel where I could have a room to myself, or going to a friend’s home where there weren’t so many people would be a best case scenario.  Fortunately, I’ve made those arrangements in case something like this happens.

I recently spoke to a group of individuals who suffer from mental health issues.  We talked about what it would be like to be in a disaster, how it might affect us and how we might respond.  We all designed a plan so we’d have an alternative choice rather than having to go to public housing.  Since nothing is carved in stone, we also talked about how we could cope with being in a public shelter if necessary.

Please, take the time to think about what your needs would be and how you could make the situation work if you needed to do so.  Electing to stay put when the likelihood you’ll end up in extreme danger isn’t the best option.  Thinking ahead and designing a plan you can fall back on is.

Some of the things to think about:

  • Do you have extra medications packed and ready to go if you had to evacuate in a hurry?
  • Do you have a contact person out –of-state you could call to let know you’re ok who could pass that information on to family and friends?
  • Do you have transportation to an emergency shelter and anything packed in your Go Kit to make the stay there more private and more comfortable?
  • Do you have a little money set aside for the event of an emergency so you could afford a motel if necessary?
  • Do you have back up assistive technology items available? For example, if you use a power wheelchair, do you have a manual one available in the event of a long term power failure?