We hear a lot more about PTSD these days than we used to. In some ways, this is a good thing; the buzzwords “raising awareness” come to mind. When people know that experiences of trauma can and do result in long term emotional impacts, they can seek to care for the hurting better. They can look for ways to mitigate the effects. And the people who need help can reassure themselves there’s nothing weird about needing help.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to raising awareness. When we bring to light issues such as PTSD, we tend to only look at the negative. We tend to focus on extreme cases or on the problem without considering the good things. No, experiencing PTSD does not feel like a good thing, and that’s not what I mean. What I do mean is that we don’t give examples of success stories. We don’t show people positive outcomes, just the negative outcomes that result from not addressing symptoms.
When we do hear of success stories, it usually comes only from those who have sought professional help. There is nothing weak about needing to do that, but sometimes there are reasons beyond a person’s control which make obtaining professional help prohibitive. Does that mean they’re just doomed to failure and they should give up?
There are certain things anyone can do to work through symptoms of trauma, and they are not complicated.
If you don’t believe that it’s possible, let me share a little of my story with you before I give you those things you can do. I can’t pinpoint exactly when my symptoms started to manifest, but I can tell you that they most began to have an impact on my life about four years ago. I was getting between 2 and 3 hours of sleep per night, having nightmares most of that time, sleep walking, fighting flashbacks in my waking moments, having physical problems because of my emotional situation. I couldn’t sit with my back to a room. Ever. Loud noises brought on panic. There were plenty of triggers for panic attacks. Anyone who happened to startle me was in danger of being hurt because I reacted instinctively to protect myself, which added to the emotional struggle. I was quite a mess, and for many reasons, professional help was not readily accessible to me.
As I fought my way through symptoms, following the advice I am going to give you, my sleep slowly began to increase with nightmares becoming less frequent and less jarring. Panic attacks and flashbacks faded. I still hate to sit with my back to a room but I can do it if necessary. Startling me still isn’t a great idea, but I have been able to calm myself much more easily. Loud noises are difficult but I have been able to fall asleep with fireworks or thunderstorms going on outside. I have maybe had one moment of sleep walking in the past 13 months. I’m not completely restored; there are still moments where my husband has to soothe me out of a particular manifestation of the trauma. But I can function well enough that even I forget sometimes that I have had this massive struggle.
So how was this possible?
Three key things (there were lots of factors that contributed, but the main things are here):
1) Friends who walked with me. Sometimes when you are in the midst of a panic attack, something that should be simple like breathing is not quite so doable. Friends who knew what was going on and how to respond could get me away from whatever triggered the attack, tell me to breathe, and sit with me. This is a hard one; often trauma has given us reason to be suspicious of others. Letting people in, especially when it involves something deeply painful, is difficult. It’s also not always easy to find someone who can intuitively know you need help when you can’t say anything (panic attacks and flashbacks can result in not being able to verbally communicate). Still, building the kind of intimacy necessary for this is critical, even if you have ready access to professional help. A therapist isn’t with you 24/7, but a friend who can help you calm down can be with you much more consistently.
2) Having a safe phrase. There are times when we are alone and no one can intervene on our behalf. We can train ourselves to not let those times be endless moments of fear and panic. We must consciously recognize that our thoughts are our own and we can take hold of them. When disturbing thoughts and images enter our minds, if we have a safe phrase, we can turn our thoughts away from destruction and toward beneficial patterns. Basically, one word or phrase is all it takes. As painful thoughts invade, think of your safe word or phrase. Use that jolt to interject things into the situation that will help you think in a healthy direction.
3) Thankfulness. It may seem like being thankful has absolutely nothing to do with trauma, but bear with me. Similar to the safe word or phrase, thankfulness takes our minds away from whatever is troubling us and puts them squarely back onto things which can help calm us and restore healthy thought patterns. We honestly have a lot to be thankful for, and the more we try to focus on those things, the less likely we are to let worry, anxiety, or even panic control us.
Now before we conclude this, I want to point out something important. If any of these concepts sound familiar, it’s not because they are mine. I learned about all three of them in textbooks when studying for my master’s degree. But you know what? They’re not just theory; they’re based on the Word of God. (No, my psychology textbooks didn’t tell me that.)
Whether we like it or not, God designed us as we are. So it only makes sense that if He said to do something, it would work. Anyone writing a user manual on something they didn’t design is likely to miss something important about the design. But when the designer writes the user manual, he knows not only what works but why it works and what the intended purpose was. The Bible is far more than a user manual; this analogy falls short in more ways than I can count. But it does communicate something important for all of us to recognize: God’s Word wasn’t given to us as some obscure hope that we might be able to figure out at least some of the functions we can carry out. God gave us His Word so we could know Him better and in knowing Him better we can know how to live better.
Repeatedly, Scripture lets us know we shouldn’t, in fact can’t, do this life on our own. Connecting with people is vital to our survival. Friends see things we can’t and they help us avoid stumbling blocks we don’t see. They can tell us to breathe when we don’t have the ability to tell ourselves that.
Further, Scripture makes it clear that we are to take our thoughts captive, to focus on what is good and pure and right. This is not just a vague psychological concept someone came up with; it works because the Designer intended it to be so. And when our focus is on Him, all else melts away, as it should.
Lastly, thankfulness is the Bible’s remedy for an awful lot of what ails us mentally and emotionally. We tend to let our selfish nature keep us from seeing the gifts all around us, but they are there.
You don’t have to believe the Bible is true for these things to work. They are most effective in context, but they are also regularly taught concepts in the most effective treatment programs I am aware of without ever mentioning God or the Bible. They work because we were designed this way. There are times where there are factors which impair their effectiveness, such as a chemical imbalance. However, even in those times where medication is a necessary intervention, it should not be that we give up on any responsibility. Medications make symptoms manageable so that we can work through our struggles.
There is hope. Even in the darkest days of PTSD. But we have to make a decision to fight for recovery rather than wallow in the pain.