Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
“Who would you go to if you had a bad dream in the middle of the night?” I asked. The young girl seated across from me responded by looking away. A moment later she began to cry. Tears streamed down her face. Although the question I had asked would seem, to most observers, innocent enough, for this youngster it triggered a storm of painful emotions.
Because she had grown up in a home where violence was a part of everyday life, and where parents had left her alone at home for days at a time, my question hit a nerve. Vivid memories rushed to the surface and triggered a cascade of painful emotions. She quickly became overwhelmed, and then began to ‘shut down’ as a way to retreat from the past.
The problem this presented at that moment was not simply that this little girl momentarily felt overwhelmed. The deeper difficulty was that I needed to know the details of that painful history if I was going to be of any help to her. When a person who has been traumatized cannot speak of the trauma, being of help becomes more challenging (although not impossible by any means). After sympathizing with how painful her memories must be, I suggested we take a different approach.
“Could you imagine that your memories are showing up on a big flat screen television?” I asked. Looking a little surprised she eventually shrugged her shoulders and nodded ‘yes’ (she probably figured this was just one more therapist making a weird suggestion).
Going further I asked “How far away from us should we put the television?” Her brow wrinkled in thought, and after a few moments she said “Put it just outside the office.” “Sure, we can do that” I responded. “As a matter of fact, let’s put it outside the office door and way down the hallway. And I want you to have the remote so you can control the volume and press pause when you need to.”
She smiled at the thought of having a remote control for her memories. “Should we also build a see through bullet proof, fear proof, nightmare proof glass wall between the television and our office?” I elaborated. Her smile grew bigger.
“OK, fine, we’ll do that. Just tell me how thick it needs to be” was my next question. “Hmmm. Let me think” she said taking a deep breath. “Two feet. Make it two feet thick.” And so it went until we agreed that her memories would be projected on a large flat screen television forty feet away and separated from her by a two thick bullet proof glass wall that went from the floor to the ceiling. In her mind’s eye she held a pink remote control.
Now that we had all of that settled I once more asked who would comfort her at night when she had nightmares. “Don’t forget” I reminded, “The television screen is way down the hall, so you may have to squint some to see those memories.” The little girl smiled again, paused briefly and then answered my question. For the next twenty minutes she spoke haltingly, but with great detail, about the frightening nights she had experienced at home.
Although her feelings of anxiety were still present, they were no longer overwhelming. They could be tolerated, and her memories could be put on ‘pause’ when the need arose. She had begun to feel a small sense of mastery over her past. Together we had found a way for her to feel safe even when remembering horrific events.
When dealing with trauma, establishing a feeling of safety is key. At times safety is found by creating emotional distance (as in the above example), and at other times it can be established by enhancing a sense of competency. In certain instances it is enough to build a strong sense of connection with others in order to engender the essential sense of security. Whatever the means, feelings of safety are critical.
How To Lessen The Impact of PTSD
In today’s post I will briefly describe the first of three ways that someone struggling with PTSD can build a sense of safety, and thereby lessen the impact of trauma on their day to day life. As one becomes better at sustaining this state of mind, the brain begins to rewire neuronal connections. The result is that it becomes easier to maintain a sense of stability and self-control. (Keep in mind that the following is not intended to replace psychotherapy). In my next post I will describe a couple more ways to fight back against PTSD.
The type of meditation required to achieve these goals does not require going to a mountain top, burning incense, or crossing your legs behind your neck and chanting (although the mountain top sounds pretty appealing, so count me in on that trip). Instead, you can meditate while sitting in your favorite chair, or in the office with the door shut and your feet on the desk, or laying by the beach. Heck, if you really want you could meditate at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the family dog at your feet.
The main thing required for effective meditation is a quiet space – no distractions for 15 to 20 minutes. A reasonably comfortable place to sit or lay down is also needed. After you have the time set aside, and a place to meditate, begin the process by taking a few slow deep breaths.
At the same time begin to clear your thoughts by vividly imagining a calming scene. Paint a picture in your mind’s eye of each sensory element of that scene: the sights, sounds, smell and feel of the location. If, for example, you imagine being on the beach then you will want to imagine the white sand, blue water, clouds, warm breeze, soft sand, the smell of salt in the air and the sound of waves.
For many, just staying in this relaxed state for the duration of your meditation time is enough to bring about the benefits I mentioned earlier. Others, however, will benefit from going over a script that guides them into a relaxed state. If this is more to your liking go to Barbara Fredrickson’s website and listen to recorded meditations.
Fifteen to twenty minutes a day gives good results for most people. There is, however, no magic number. Experiment to see what works best for you. Is it ten minutes twice a day? Fifteen minutes every afternoon? Everyone is different, so find the schedule that works best for you.
Try meditating for at least two weeks and see if it makes a difference. Don’t meditate once and then give up. As with most things in life, this is not a one shot won and done deal. Be consistent, be persistent, and give it a little time. The longer you include meditation in your daily routine the greater the benefit. After you’ve given it a try, I would love to hear how well it worked out for you.
Stayed tuned for next week’s post where I describe two more simple approaches for pushing back against PTSD.