Can You Choose How Trauma Affects You?
Wednesday, April 17 2013 Michele Rosenthal
Trauma affects you to a degree, that's a given. But can you choose how trauma affects you? On Monday, our nation was faced, yet again, with a staggering attack in the midst of one of the most celebrated and community oriented events in Boston every year, The Boston Marathon. Faced with our constant vulnerability, it can be tough to learn to live in a world where you can do your best to be safe -- and still have zero guarantees.
What do you do when you don't know what to do? Last week, on my radio show, I interviewed Ashley Lambert-Wise, founder of BattlingBare.org, a non-profit whose mission is to raise awareness for PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) in the military.
In our conversation about how veterans and civilians battle back after trauma, Ashley said, "You have to choose how trauma will affect you." It was a simple comment, but it has huge implications in terms of how we look at the road to PTSD recovery.
When you feel like so many of your choices have been eliminated by trauma, is it possible to choose how trauma affects you?
3 Ways To Choose How Trauma Affects You
Included in the diagnostic criteria for PTSD is the notion that "the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror". That idea of helplessness - and powerlessness - stays with you after trauma. In the same way that PTSD keeps you stuck in survival mode, your mind (and often your body) can continue to experience helplessness and powerlessness in a myriad of ways. You may feel unsafe in an uncontrollable world; you may feel powerless to control your own internal world, emotions and actions; you may feel helpless in managing and coping with PTSD symptoms themselves.
All of the built in powerlessness of PTSD can make it seem like the only thing you do choose is which coping mechanism you're going to rely on in that moment. The truth is, however, that all of what I've just described is how it feels, which is not always exactly in line with reality. PTSD recovery is not only about reducing and eliminating symptoms. It's also about removing limiting beliefs and challenging the boundaries in which PTSD has placed you.
At the most simple level every day you do have choices you control. You choose what you eat and when, where you go, what you watch, read and listen to... On the most basic level you're choosing all the time, which means you have a very well developed choice muscle.
Learning to apply that ability to choose to something far more important that you next meal is, of course, more difficult, but it can be done. Making the leap into the big choice about how your trauma affects you would be an inappropriate way to move toward that goal. As in all aspects of posttraumatic stress disorder recovery, pacing (slowly) and breaking things down to smaller pieces is the best way to go. A few thoughts about how to get started:
Re-establish your physical power: Your mind takes cues from your body. The more weak and powerless your body feels, the more your mind receives that message and registers the feeling of helplessness, which can then affect not only how you feel but also how you think. When you re-establish your physical power - through any exercise that requires strength, agility, or endurance - you bring into your body a sense of well-being that your mind picks up on. This can then translate into how you think and feel both about yourself and your efficacy in the world. The better you feel about those two things, the more safe you will feel and the more your PTSD symptoms will reduce.
Reclaim your mood: Without even trying, you probably feel anxious, depressed, hypervigilant, irritated and annoyed. Those are all hallmarks of the PTSD experience. Reclaiming your mood, then, will take a little focused effort on your part. Rather than indulge the darkness, choose every day to do one small thing that brings in the light. What makes you feel good (or at least a little bit better)? What makes you smile or laugh? It doesn't matter if you don't feel these things the way you used to; what matters is firing up the neurons in those pathways and getting them communicating again.
Revise your perspective: Do you believe that your future holds promise? Do you think that one day you will be happy? Do you hope that you will eventually shed the prison of the past? I remember what it felt like to live with PTSD, so I'm guessing sometimes your answer may be, Yes, and sometimes, No. On the positive days, find ways to reinforce that perspective. What can you do, say or experience that deepens those positive feelings? On the negative days, shift yourself out of the despair and into a place of openness. You don't have to believe your future is going to be glorious, but you will benefit from saying to yourself, "I am open to my future being glorious."
The Power to Choose How Trauma Affects You
Guess what? When you do the kinds of small things described here, you are actually choosing how trauma affects you because you are choosing to create change in how you experience a moment. You have more options than you think. Pay attention and look for the ones that allow you to choose what makes you feel better, even if only temporarily. Every time you do that, you choose not only how trauma affects you but also how you move toward healing.