This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the Post-Traumatic Stress seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 1: PREPARE yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually to face your suffering.”
To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.
It is difficult to break the silence of trauma. It can feel like opening Pandora’s box to let someone else in to what you’ve been experiencing. There is the fear of, “Can I turn the memories off once I start to think about what happened?” This is why we don’t start with memory work.
We start by establishing some rhythms and routines to life that allow you to return to a sense of safety even if later parts of this seminar take you through some hard times. Remember, take a break from this study whenever you need to in order to re-establish the sense of safety.
1. “Home Base”
Beginning and ending your day in a place that feels safe is an important life rhythm to establish. Creating the expectation that you will “book end” whatever stress you face during the day with safety does a great deal to establish an over-arching sense of safety to your life.
- Wake up in time to have an unrushed start to your day.
- Arrange your home so that your most frequently used items are easy to find.
- Avoid movies or forms of entertainment with high violence or drama content.
- Play music that you find soothing and reveal your personal taste.
- Use ear plugs or white noise machines if outside noises are disturbing.
- Have an evening “wind down” routine that prepares you to sleep.
2. Body Management
Your body is also a type of “home” for your mind. Caring for your body well places your mind in the best context to face the challenges of post-traumatic stress. The actions listed below both (a) increase your body’s ability to withstand stress and (b) demonstrate your ability to impact important factors related to your stress.
“Establishing safety begins by focusing on control of the body and gradually moves outward towards control of the environment. Issues of bodily integrity include attention to basic health needs, regulation of bodily functions such as sleep, eating, and exercise, management of posttraumatic symptoms, and control of self-destructive behaviors. Environmental issues include the establishment of a safe living situation, financial security, mobility, and a plan for self-protection that encompasses the full range of the patient’s daily life. Because no one can establish a safe environment alone, the task of developing an adequate safety plan always includes a component of social support (p. 160).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
A. Sleep – There are two ways in which sleep is an important part of good self-care. First, sleep is one of the primary ways that we maintain a rhythm to life. It is hard for life to have any sense of routine if we do not have a regular sleep pattern. Second, sleep is one of the primary ways that the brain replenishes itself. Sleep does for the brain what exercise does for the body. When we do not get sufficient sleep, emotional regulation of any kind becomes increasingly difficult.
- Play soft music to help prevent your mind from drift-thinking while trying to sleep.
- Reduce the level of caffeine and sugar in your diet, especially after the noon hour.
- Avoid daytime naps so that your sleep is in concentrated blocks; the physiological benefits of sleep are less when we break our sleep into smaller units.
- Establish a bed time routine to help habituate your body towards sleep.
- Try muscle relaxation exercises or a warm bath before going to bed.
- Establish a deep slow breathing pattern that simulates sleep breathing.
- Talk with a medical professional about the possibility of a sleep aid.
B. Diet – Hunger creates a sense of unrest that the body interprets as danger. Over or under eating reveals that we are surrendering control of a fundamental part of our life to trauma. A healthy diet can be a “declaration of independence” that we make three times a day that the effects of trauma will not regulate our lives.
- If you’ve lost your appetite, eat several small meals throughout the day instead of three big ones.
- Take a multi-vitamin.
- Consider a Vitamin C booster for your immune system; stress causes the body to pull energy reserves from the immune system.
- Avoid excessive sweets or caffeine. These will impact blood sugar levels and impact your sleep cycle; both of which makes emotional regulation more difficult.
C. Exercise – Trauma can leave us prone to both depression and anxiety. Exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise, is good for countering both. Exercise cleanses the body of free radicals generated by depression-anxiety, boosts energy levels, improves sleep, and facilitates a more pro-active attitude towards life.
What are ways that you can introduce three to five occurrences of cardio vascular exercise into your week?
D. Relaxation Breaks – Consider moments of relaxation or recreation as “oasis points” in your day. When you intentionally plant these breaks into your day, you are preventing the impact of trauma from cascading across your day. You are building small damns that break the tide of trauma’s influence.
What are some types of relaxation or recreation you can begin at set intervals in your day?
There are two realities about the role of community after trauma: one good, the other bad.
“Experiencing authentic Christian community is one of the most important ways shame-based lies about oneself can be challenged (p. 90).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul
“You will want someone who allows you to be honest about your struggles that makes you feel safe at the same time. If you are not careful and you begin to process memories with someone who is not skilled enough, it could make things worse (p. 18).” Tim Lane in PTSD
This material is designed to facilitate helpful relationship with other people who can play a vital role in your recovery process. While a counseling professional can be a great asset on this journey, someone does not have to have advanced degrees to be a good friend in hard times.
- Make a list of the people you believe would be safe to engage with about your post-traumatic journey.
- Make a list of the people you believe might not be safe to engage with about your post-traumatic journey.
- Use these criteria to help you decide who to place on each list.
- A safe person listens well even when they do not know what to say.
- A safe person is willing to learn about the experience of trauma to be more understanding.
- A safe person realizes they cannot rescue you from post-traumatic experiences.
- A safe person does not take the fear or anger of your trauma personally.
- A safe person directs you to safe, honoring choices even when you’re upset.
- A safe person can discern when you’re “just upset” and when you’re “a danger to yourself.”
- A safe person is willing to involve others (i.e., calling 911) if you’re in a danger to yourself or others.
Post-traumatic stress is caused by life events not brain chemistry. But medication can still be an effective tool in minimizing some of the acute experiences of stress (i.e., panic attacks or flashbacks) and mitigating some of the pervasive experience of anxiety (i.e., hypervigilance) that is common after a trauma. Talking with a physician can be a wise step of ensuring that the stress related to processing trauma is not unduly disruptive to your life.
What are your expectations about what this journey will be like? It can be helpful to articulate those now, so that you do not grow unnecessarily frustrated with yourself along the way. Here are some realistic expectations for yourself on this journey.
- You will have good days and bad days.
- The early stages of this process are the most difficult and may involve the recurrence of remitted symptoms.
- You will need to take a break several times during the course of this journey.
- You will wish the entire process could just move a little faster.
- You won’t notice growth until you’re startled by how much you’ve grown.
- You will frequently wonder if it’s “worth it.”
- You may never know “why” the trauma happened (i.e., “God’s purpose behind it all”).
- You will learn that, by God’s grace, you’re stronger than you ever imagined.
- You will learn to cherish the fact that you don’t always have to be strong to be safe in God’s care.
- You can expect that life will be better and your trauma won’t get “the last word” on your life.
Here are some indicators that you need to take a break from this study.
- Your sleep pattern is disrupted for more than three days in a row.
- The frequency of symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks increase in frequency.
- You sense yourself pulling away from your safe relationships and enjoyable activities.
- You begin to experience persistent physical symptoms like irritable bowel.
- You begin to feel hopeless and consider suicide.
Any of these are indicators that you are pushing yourself too far, too fast in the recovery process.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.