Sunday, June 17, 2012

Avoiding PTSD 101

Your heart starts pounding, palms sweating, and you're ready to either kill someone or sprint a 2-minute mile-- all because of... something you can't quite put your finger on.  But it feels dangerous!

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) isn't just for combat veterans. Although they have certainly earned their share of it.  It can hit at any age, after any extremely stressful situation, including natural disasters, abuse, terrorism, divorce, war, or anything that pushed you into fight-or-flight mode.

After a terrorist attack several years ago, I was taught about color-coded levels of consciousness and how they relate to becoming a victim and PTSD.  I've been going over some of that information recently and thought I'd share a few things.

First- a little information about your brain. (Yes. Yours. In particular.  =)

From Eero Tunkelo
The front of your brain, just behind your forehead, is where rational, planned thinking happens. It's called the frontal lobe.  When you're on your morning jog and a bear jumps out of the bushes and lunges at you, your rational, planned thinking stops and your brain switches to working deeper in the brain, places called the amygdala (pronounced a-mig-da-la) and hippocampus.  This is good if there's a bear chasing you, because pausing to plan your actions at this point could cost your life.

At the moment that bear jumped out, your brain did some lightning fast learning. In order to protect you from future bear attacks, your brain memorized the smell of the bushes, the time of day, including lighting and shadow lengths, the sounds of bear fur rustling against leaves, the feel of your shoes hitting the path, the sound of birds chirping in the trees, and the taste of your peppermint gum.  Your brain stored all of these instantly under the"CAUTION: EXTREMELY DANGEROUS" file, with a little post-it note to yourself saying "If one of these occurs, switch to PANIC mode immediately!"  That way, you'll recognize situations that could include angry bears in the future and avoid them.  Cool, huh?

Except that usually bears don't jump out of bushes.

So there you are, in Target, bagging your deodorant and shampoo, and you unwrap a piece of peppermint gum and pop it in your mouth.
By Nomadic Lass

ARUGA!  ARUGA!  Alarms go off in your brain, your body starts pumping adrenaline, and you look around wondering, "What the heck?"

It's just your good brain, doing its job, keeping you safe from all the bears in Target.
(Gee, thanks, brain. Very useful.)

How can we stop this from happening?  There are a couple of things that help our brain switch from the amygdala and hippocampus back to the frontal lobe.  And they're not hard.

First, lets go back to the bear attack.  Well-- no.  In the bear attack scenario, let's just let you run.  How about something a little more 21st century?  Let's say you get a call from your attorney saying your soon-to-be ex wants to completely re-write the divorce settlement.  Your heart rate goes up, your breathing quickens, your palms begin to sweat and you want to yell bad words. Your switching away from the frontal lobe, going into fight-or-flight, and your brain is obediently making note of all the dangerous surroundings.  The phone in your hand, the smell of lasagna in the oven, the way the sun shines through the kitchen window, the sound of your kids laughing in the front room.  And it's attaching a "CAUTION: EXTREMELY DANGEROUS!" note to each of these.

Stop.  We don't want those notes there!

So here's what you do.  Before you're completely over the edge, (or, if you already swore at your attorney and kicked your son's soccer ball through the back door,  then as soon as you're back to kind-of rational), Take a deep breath.  Like so:

Breathe in while counting to four (In, two, three, four)
Hold your breath for four counts (Hold, two, three, four)
Breathe out for four counts (Out, two, three, four)
Hold your breath for four counts (Hold, two, three, four)

Repeat 3 times.

These need to be "belly breaths" into your abdominal area, the kind that make your tummy go out, not the shoulder-raising chest kind of breaths.
Along with the breathing, become consciously aware of your surroundings. Exist in the moment.  Notice where you are, what you're doing, what the things around you look, sound, smell taste and feel like. Let the learning about your environment be filed in a frontal-lobe sort of way, so you can access them consciously and not be caught off- guard with something you don't understand.

This slows not only your breathing, but also you heart rate, and allows your brain to switch back to the rational, planned thinking and out of fight-or-flight.  It also replaces those PANIC! notes with, "If this happens, remain calm and breathe deeply" notes.

The next time the phone rings while you're baking lasagna, your brain will see the little post-it note that says, "Remain calm and breathe deeply."  And you'll remember that your pulse is quickening a bit because this is kind of like the day you got That Phone Call.  You'll stay in the frontal lobe and remain rational.  Much better.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not minimizing the trauma and long-term effects of combat veterans and others who have been in life-and-death situations, nor am I suggesting that a simple breathing exercise will return our lives to daisies and lemonade. But I am saying, in some circumstances we can gain greater control over our responses to stress.


Remember, this can be useful if you're going into a stressful situation, you just came out of a stressful situation, or when you pop a piece of peppermint gum in your mouth at Target and experience a PTSD response.  =)

I hope this is helpful!  Because really, why live with stress if we have a different option?  =)



5 comments:

Cindy Watson said...

I know that there are things I react to that I should not..this is giving me pause to think why. thanks!

Rebecca =) said...

Yep! I used this today going into a pitch session with an agent. I'm happy to say, I kept breathing and was even semi-coherent. =)

Cindy Watson said...

an agent...really?!?! Excited!

Danielle Hale said...

I needed that. Thanks Rebecca.

Rebecca =) said...

Danielle, sometimes we all need this. Some days we need just it more than others.