This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 7: IDENTIFY GOALS that allow me to combat the impact of my suffering.”
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An important part of solidifying a sense of safety from which to engage life is countering the mindset and habits that were generated by hyper-arousal symptoms. Being perpetually “on guard” does not allow us to feel safe (emotional response) even when we’ve convinced ourselves there is no reasonable, imminent threat (cognitive assessment).
The primary objective in countering hyper-arousal symptoms is staying grounded in the present so that you can focus on those things to which you want to give your attention. This may sound simple, but it is not easy. Take encouragement from the fact that your objective is not complex without beating yourself up when it is difficult.
Lessening the Habits of Hypervigilance
Post-traumatic symptoms create a “way of life” designed (often without intentionality) to keep you safe. Therefore, as you change this way of life, it may create a sense of being in danger. This would only be true if your hyper vigilant response was still warranted and was providing more relief than burden. If this were the case, you would not have persisted to this point in the study.
As you think about how a past traumatic event can create a lifestyle consider the following points from Steve Viars’ book (p. 131) in Putting Your Past in Its Place.
- Today’s reactions become tomorrow’s habits.
- Today’s choices become tomorrow’s influences.
- Today’s anger becomes tomorrow’s bitterness.
- Today’s thoughts become tomorrow’s beliefs.
- Today’s desires become tomorrow’s idols.
The approach we will take to countering this dynamic will be twofold: (1) become aware of the moments when you are responding out of hyper-arousal habit, so that (2) you can relax in those moments and change your relationships to these responses. This is different from merely trying to “stop being anxious.” The goal is to relate to the anxiety differently. In effect, you will be thanking your anxiety for the way it kept you safe in the past but letting it know that its services will no longer be needed. You will only actually be free from anxiety if you have a calm-controlled “break up” with the emotion.
Begin by continuing to become more aware of when your response has more to do with your past experience of trauma than your present experience of threat. When these moments come, have a dialogue with yourself that might sound like this:
“I am anxious. Something about this moment reminds me of the past, or I am not yet fully comfortable being relaxed. That is okay. God is patient with me as I grow in this area, so I should be patient with myself. The important thing to do now is to stop fighting my anxiety (which only makes it worse) and remind myself that may be anxiety is no longer necessary. Once I have done that I can use relaxation techniques to counter the physiological impact of anxiety and to help my body return to a sense of calm.”
After having this kind of conversation with yourself you can use one of these relaxation techniques to counter the adrenaline surge that a hyper-arousal response will have created.
1. Breathe: This technique may sound odd. But deep breathing can have a significant impact upon the experience of anxiety. One area that the body monitors to determine its sense of safety is the temperature of the nasal cavity. When the nasal cavity is hot, it triggers the stress response. When it cools, the body turns off the stress response.
Think of the athlete who begins to breathe through his mouth as he runs. This causes his nasal cavity to heat up and triggers the adrenal system; part of the flight-fight stress response. Adrenaline provides an energy boost and intensifies his emotional state (hence the reactivity at many sporting events).
This is one reason many people feel relaxed when they smoke cigarettes even though nicotine is a stimulant. The calming power of the breathing required to rhythmically inhale a cigarette is more powerful than the medical agent in cigarettes are energizing. Awkwardly, this means many smokers are as addicted to breathing as they are nicotine; especially if their primary appeal to smoking is relaxation.
When you feel anxiety mounting, it is recommend that you take a few deep breaths in through your nose (drawing in cool air) and out through your mouth (exhaling the warmer air away from your nose). This will cool the nasal cavity. It does not extract adrenaline already released, but prevents the release of additional adrenaline. In this sense, it is the emotional equivalent of taking your foot off the gas pedal of your car more than stepping on the brakes.
2. Pace of Thought Reduction: Your emotional physiology systems respond, in part, to the pace of your thoughts. Recall the last time you had a conversation with a “fast talker.” You likely walked away from that conversation tense. This is because your mind had to keep up with their pace of speech, and it triggered a mild stress response.
Consider a child who thinks there is a monster in their closet. How are they talking when they tell their parents? Very fast. What is the instinctual response of a caring parent? To help the child tell their story more slowly. This is not just an attempt to understand what is being said, but part of the calming process.
There is something both calming and empowering when you feel the freedom to slow your thoughts. Changing the pace of your thoughts is a great way to remind yourself that you can make choices that matter – not just that change your circumstances, but also that significantly impact your emotions. Here are several practical suggestions.
- Talk to yourself (as in the example above) instead of listening to yourself.
- Read a passage of Scripture about God’s care to get your thoughts back in rhythm and remind yourself of pertinent truths.
- Listen or sing along with a song that has a slow melody and encouraging lyrics.
- Take deep breaths and focus on the sound of your breathing and the sensation of the cool air coming into your body.
3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Consider this exercise as you do it, then we’ll explain it. Flex the muscles in your hands making a fist as you slowly count to ten (also impacts pace of thinking). Feel the slight burning sensation as lactic acid builds in your muscles. Release the grip. Now do the same with your forearms; then biceps then shoulders.
As you do this, you are focusing your attention away from your hyper-arousal habits and countering the effects of stress in your body. The buildup of lactic acid in your muscles absorbs the free radicals that stress creates and causes us to feel tight after a time of prolonged stress.
As you do this with each muscle group from your hands to your feet, you are reclaiming your body from the effects of anxiety while willfully focusing your attention on what you choose. The physical exercise itself is actually much less impactful than the emotional impact it can have.
At this point it would be easy to just “run away” from the experience of anxiety; grateful to have escaped its grips. But this would leave us with a powerless-fearful disposition towards the experience of hyper-arousal. Consider the following alternative – have another conversation with your emotions (personifying is a way to make emotions more tangible and less ghostly).
To Anxiety: “Thank again how you have served me and are available to protect me still when a situation warrants. But you are being over-protective; like a big brother who won’t allow his younger sibling to grow up. I am stronger now. This doesn’t mean I’ll never need you. There will be situations when your presence is needed. But I will be calling on you less and less now. This is a good thing for me. Thank you, again, for how you’ve tried to protect me in hard times, but I look forward to seeing less of you (smiling with sincere appreciation and strength).”
Will this dialogue change everything? No. Can it help you not vilify the experience of anxiety? Yes. Can it help you change your relationship with an over-active emotion? Yes.
Read Psalm 42 and 43. Both of these psalms contain the kind of awkward internal dialogue that has been discussed above. In each, the psalmist is “taking his soul to task.” Notice it is not a self-scathing psalm. The psalmist is confused by his emotions, but is free to be confused about them in God’s presence and he searches for hope and relief. You might consider writing your own version of Psalm 42 and 43 to capture your experience as part of what you use to slow the pace of your thinking and combat the habits of hyper vigilance.
Responding Better to Post-Traumatic Agitation
Having your flight-fight response perpetually “on” makes it much easier to be agitated by relatively small life disruptions. Having experienced something traumatic can make it difficult to be compassionate to the relatively smaller things about which people around you are likely to complain. These factors combine to make anger, or it’s more passive counterpart of cynicism, a common post-traumatic struggle.
Responding proportionally to these agitants is an important part of reclaiming your emotional world. Often fear and numbness get more attention when it comes to emotional disruption that occurs after a traumatic experience. But controlling the altered experience of agitation is also an important part of re-engaging life and relationships in a healthy way.
It is important to view this part of the struggle as being liberated. Countering fear and numbness feels “more free” but countering agitation often feels “less free” or condemned. Curtailing our agitation will involve saying less or saying things less passionately than feels natural. It can feel less authentic; like you are losing your voice again. But this is not the case.
Think of it this way: countering post-traumatic agitation is what allows you to express uncertainty as uncertainty instead of uncertainty as anger. Anger is usually a secondary emotion when it is the result of a post-traumatic response.
- A primary emotion is how we feel about a particular situation.
- A secondary emotion is how we feel about how we feel about a particular situation.
Consider a classic example. A parent sees their child running towards the street. Their primary emotion is fear; they are concerned for their child’s safety. Their secondary emotion is anger; they are upset their child’s safety is in danger. The volume of their voice and sharpness of their voice makes it most natural for their child to interpret their response as anger. The follow up conversation is inevitably about trying to explain why the parent was scared instead of angry and why the child should show more caution.
After a trauma, uncertainty is a threatening experience that is hard to gauge because not knowing what to do was very dangerous during the trauma. Our response to feeling uncertain is self-protective. The result can be a tone of anger which provides a surge of strength and defiance that would give us the best opportunity to extinguish the uncertainty.
But do you notice how central allowing this post-traumatic agitation to remain makes your traumatic experience to your day-to-day life? This is what makes growing in self-control an effort towards freedom for you and not just an effort at “being nicer” for everyone else.
The approach to this struggle can be very similar to your approach to hyper-vigilance symptoms. Consider these steps:
- First, you seek to be aware of this response as it is happening.
- Second, based on your new understanding of the experience, you resist a sense of shame that would cause you to respond out of a negative motivation.
- Third, you take steps to calm your physical reaction to agitation.
- Fourth, you change your relationship to the anger; expressing gratitude for when it has served you well, but excusing it from being your emotion of choice in this moment.
Read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Okay, you may only skim over these books or reflect on the life of Jesus for this devotion. But one of the reasons we marvel at Jesus was his emotional control. One way to articulate what Jesus was doing is that he never allowed secondary emotions (his response to being in a difficult situation) overtake his primary emotions (his primary agenda or goal for influence in those difficult situations). Identify several events in Jesus’ life that correlate with your struggle with post-traumatic agitation. Place yourself in Jesus’ sandals. Allow yourself to get “rialed up” as you read. Read the passage again and use the steps above to lessen the post-traumatic agitation as you visualize yourself responding as Jesus did.
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.