Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Taking Comfort: How to Cope when You are Dealing with Traumatic Memories

How do you admit traumatic, evil, horrific things into your mind and heart, without being overwhelmed by them?  I have found that "taking comfort" is an important part of this process.  My counselor called it "getting grounded".  When I first went to counseling after remembering episodes of abuse for the first time, this is the first thing we worked on, for months, before tackling the harder stuff.  I had a new baby at the time, and I wanted to stay present for her and for my boys, not get sucked under by trauma and PTSD.  I needed to deal with the harder stuff, yes, but without getting overwhelmed.

So what you do when you have to deal with horrible realities that you never chose but that intrude into your life anyway, is to find ways to stay calm and peaceful in the midst of it.  To find your eye in the center of the storm.  To take a step back, and refuse to let your mind become all crazy and impulsive.  You want to be able to stay who you really are.  You want to be able to maintain a calm, rational mind to react--no, respond--to people and situations around you.  Not get involuntarily high-jacked into crazy-world.  When you're facing down really hard things, you need to take a break, and often.  This is not about "pushing through" memories or "claiming healing" or some of the other spiritual nonsense that gets bantered around, especially in a church setting.  It is about maintaining a pace and staying present in your life for the people you love and making progress over the long haul.

Knitting works for me.  Somehow the motion of my hands frees my mind to think, to process, and to calm down.  Taking a long walk with my dog (I love to go somewhere empty and let her off the leash and watch her frisk and play) is good, and so is going to bed with a good novel, or watching a rather mindless but fun tv show while snuggling with my daughter.  Watch out for intense shows that will only work you up and confirm the crazy, irrational feelings though--it seems to me that people with chronic PTSD are the new action heroes in many tv series.  Their mantra is "I can handle it," as long as the action continues non-stop.  Just don't give them a minute to think or reflect.  That is definitely not the feel you're after.

Going out for coffee with a close friend or doing something fun with a group of friends requires a bit more planning and structure, but it is so important to make room for these connections in our lives. When we really go through a crisis time, friends like this can truly keep us hanging on.

These things that work for me may not be your things.  I have friends who run for miles or go lift weights or play basketball.  For them, that is their calm place, where they feel like they can really think.  For others, it might be composing music or digging in the garden or banging away with a hammer to build something in the garage. We are all different.  If you are not sure what your thing might be, ask yourself, when do I feel peaceful inside (not just numb)?  When do I feel really relaxed?  If the answer is never, it's time to try some new things out.  Is there something that you have always wanted to do, something that intrigues you?  Start small and simple.  Don't make huge new commitments or put pressure on yourself.  You will find a few things.

There are even smaller things that you can do when you are feeling agitated but you have to go to work or be engaged or be responsible anyway.  Wear a favorite "comfort sweater" or clothes to work. Keep a favorite lotion in your purse and when you put it on your hands, take a moment to breathe in the smell. Download a few calming songs onto your phone and plug them in for your drive to work.  I love the peace and order I feel inside when I hear Bach, especially Murray Perahia's Bach: Goldberg Variations.  This cd helped get me through a very stressful year with a newborn when I was overwhelmed with traumatic memories, and just hearing the first few notes makes me feel calm and peaceful.

How about you?  What calms you inside, reminding you that you are here in the present, not trapped in some horrific memory from your past, and helps you to feel like things are gonna be ok?