PTSD Recovery: Progress and Relapse
Last week, one of the Heal My PTSD support group members heaved a big sigh and asked, “Is it normal to fluctuate between seeing progress and going back to square one? Is that part of PTSD recovery?”
It was a great question. In his PTSD recovery, the member had seen himself make steady forward progress in many areas, including a new job search, dating and making new friends in the community. Then, an unfortunately timed altercation with a neighbor triggered feelings of panic that led our group member to revert to isolation mode.
When you’re healing, you want to find yourself on an upward trajectory, but does recovery from PTSD really happen that way?
PTSD Recovery: ‘Feeling’ vs. ‘Being’ At Square One
As you already know, PTSD recovery doesn’t go in a straight line. What worked for others may not work for you, and what works for you may not work all the time. The goal in recovery, actually, isn’t to go full steam ahead every day; it’s to make solid progress in the right direction over a period of time. There are a few reasons this works better:
Your brain needs time to consolidate changes - Your brain learns and then needs to organize, integrate, uptake and implement the long-lasting changes you wish to see. If you move forward too quickly without allowing your brain to do this you can put yourself into mental overload. Expect your brain to have growth spurts followed by slower periods that feel as if you are not making progress. During those times your brain may be working more quietly than you realize.
Your emotions need time to regulate - Your emotions fluctuate due to both internal and external stimuli. In forward motion times you may be thinking more positively and so giving your emotional regulation a boost in its balance. Conversely, when your perspective becomes more negative you can slow down or even overload your emotional motherboard. Expect yourself to have ups and downs; the fluctuation is actually good training for your brain to learn how to find a steady balance.
When you hit a (brick) wall in your PTSD recovery, the truth is, you are always farther along than square one. Today, you know more and have thought more than you did yesterday; that puts you even farther from square one!
What our support group member was really talking about was the difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘being’. He felt like he was back at square one because the emotions and behaviors he was experiencing reminded him of back at that time. That’s normal, and completely reasonable. You may remember the giddiness of a childhood birthday - when you do, does that mean you’re back at that day? No! It means you remember the feeling of that day.
You can only ‘be’ now. Today is way past square one and so you are way past square one. When you feel like you are back there try this:
Notice what is making you feel like you’ve gone backward. (Usually these are negative thoughts, actions or emotions reminiscent of an earlier time.)
What would it take to replace your thoughts, actions or emotions with more positive ones?
Choose an action and take it.
What we’re really talking about here is being able to self-regulate and bring yourself back into the present moment through an empowered response. You have many choices for how to do this. Which one will you choose?
Rosenthal, M. (2013, June 19). PTSD Recovery: Progress and Relapse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, May 14 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2013/06/ptsd-recovery-progress-relapse
Author: Michele Rosenthal
5 years ago I was diagnosed with PTSD . Today I feel like I am ready to die. I have a lot to live for but it does seem that way. Why does this keep coming back? I have had minor set backs but this one seems way different. I feel like I am in the middle of a cartoon, nothing seems real. Help