PTSD is an anxiety disorder that is often reactivated by ‘triggers.’ These can include people, places, things, or sensory feelings that reconnect you with the trauma of the relationship. In the last newsletter, I talked about the gentle life and how an over-taxed and anxious body/mind needs a soothing life. I cannot stress this enough: people MUST remember that their PTSD symptoms CAN BE reactivated if they aren’t taking care of themselves and living a gentle life.
What IS a gentle life? A gentle life is a life lived remembering the sensitivities of your PTSD. It isn’t ignored, or wished away—it is considered and compensated for. Since PTSD affects one physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually—all of those elements need to be considered in a gentle life. Just as if you had diabetes you would consider what to eat or what medication you need to take, so it is with PTSD.
Interestingly, although PTSD is listed in the psychiatric manual as an emotional disorder, PTSD has some very real physical effects as well. In fact, it has been discussed having PTSD listed in physician’s manuals as well, because the untreated, ongoing effects of acute stress are well known in the medical community. Since PTSD has both components of emotional and physical symptoms, someone recovering from PTSD must take those aspects into account.
A body that has been living on adrenaline needs the adrenal glands to ‘chill!’ People often complain of chronic insomnia, which also leads to depression. Depression can lead to lethargy, overeating, weight gain and hopelessness. It is possible to have both anxiety and depression occurring at the same time. Unmanaged stress, anxiety, and adrenaline can lead to long-term medical problems often associated with stress—lower GI problems, migraines, teeth grinding, aggravated periods, chest pain, panic attacks, and most auto-immune disorders like fibromyalgia, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis and MS.
So, CLEARLY, PTSD is something that SHOULD be treated. Physically that means going to someone who can diagnose you—a therapist or psychiatrist. In the early parts of treatment, it is normal to take anti-anxiety medication, anti-depressants or sleep aides in order to rectify your depleted brain chemistry and to allow the adrenal glands to ‘rest’ and stop pumping out adrenaline. Your doctor is in the best position to tell you what will help to relieve your physical symptoms. Some use alternative medicine to deal with those symptoms. What is effective for each person varies.
Additionally, you need to help your body and brain produce the ‘good stuff’ in your brain chemistry. This means exercising, eating well, and learning relaxation techniques. Too much adrenaline has been pumping through your body with no way to get utilized. Excessive adrenaline makes you feel jumpy and restless. Exercise (even moderate walking) helps to produce endorphins in your brain, which produce those feelings of ‘well-being’ and helps to burn off the adrenaline and any extra weight you might have gathered.
Although during depression you often don’t FEEL like exercising, you will always feel bad if you don’t get your body moving. Stress is even stored at the cellular level of our bodies. You must, must, must, get moving in order to feel better.
Eating well means not trying to medicate your depression and low energy with carbs. When you are depressed your body craves carbs as a source of quick energy, but the spikes in blood sugar add to the sense of mood highs and lows. You’ve already had enough ‘junk’ in the relationship—think of it as nurturing your body with good food to replace all the ‘junk’ that it has been through. You can greatly help mood swings by eating well.
It’s also necessary to deal with the negative habits you have acquired as ‘coping mechanisms.’ Many people with PTSD try to medicate their anxiety and depression. This could be through smoking, relationship hopping, sex, eating/binging/purging, drugs (legal and illegal), and the increased use of alcohol. In fact, one of the devastating side effects of PTSD is how many people develop alcoholism as a result. Any habits you are prone to right now tend to increase when you have PTSD, because the particular habit becomes more and more a way to manage your PTSD symptoms. Finding positive coping skills instead of negative habits is a great step in your recovery.
Physical recovery also means paying attention to not reactivating your symptoms. Your physical environment in which you live, play and work must be conducive to low stimulation. That means low light, low noise, and low aggravation. Sometimes that means making big changes in the PEOPLE you hang out with—getting rid of the loud, noisy, overactive, aggressive and pathological. And sometimes it means making big changes in a job where the environment does nothing but trigger you.
Lastly, learning relaxation techniques is not ‘optional’ for people with PTSD. PTSD is a chronic state of hyper-vigilance, agitation, and restlessness. Your body has been over-ridden with adrenaline for a long time and has ‘forgotten’ its equilibrium in relaxation. It must be re-taught. Re-teaching means doing it daily. Taking 5 –10 minutes a day to use a relaxation breathing technique and allowing your mind to unwind. Giving positive messages to your body to relax will help you tap into this natural relaxation, even during times you are not actively trying to relax. The more you use this technique, the quicker your body can relax—even at work or when you are doing something else because it has ‘remembered’ how to.
There are a lot of tapes, CDs and videos you can buy on relaxation that walk you thru the process of relaxation (we also have one created for PTSD on the magazine site.)
Taking yoga will also teach you how to use correct breathing techniques that help correct the ‘shallow/panting’ breathing that is associated with PTSD and anxiety. Shallow breathing or panting can actually trigger panic attacks. Learning to breathe well again is a metaphor for ‘exhaling’ all the junk you’ve been thru and releasing it. If you don’t have a relaxation tape, you are welcome to get our mp3 audio on relaxation techniques on our website. Most importantly is to just become acutely aware that PTSD is physical (and often medical) as it is emotional.
By Sandra L. Brown, M.A., CEO of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction & Public Pathology Education is a psychopathologist, program development specialist, lecturer, and an award-winning author. Her books include Counseling Victims of Violence: A Handbook for Helping Professionals (1991, 2006), How to Spot a Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved Book and Workbook(2005) and Women Who Love Psychopaths (2008).
(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information).