Posted on October 2, 2013 by Michele Rosenthal
Yesterday a radio show host interviewed me about PTSD symptoms and recovery. We spoke about causes of posttraumatic stress, PTSD statistics and healing methods. We also talked a lot about fear and its place after trauma. All of which has left me thinking about fear today and how it impacts our PTSD experience and coping mechanisms, plus the recovery process. Or, more importantly, how fear gets in the way of and interferes with the recovery process.
If PTSD itself occurs because an enormous fear has entered our lives, is it possible to get rid of the fear enough to heal?
Reducing Fear in PTSD Recovery
There are a lot of different elements that induce fear after trauma and while living with PTSD. Off the top of my head I think of:
- triggers what ifs
- new traumatic experiences
I bet you could add a few more ideas to this list of where fear comes from. The truth is, with PTSD fear is about as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. So, what then?
Recently, I survived another life-threatening trauma, which has caused me to have fear on my mind. During this trauma I was very afraid. I was cognitively and physically impaired, which meant I couldn’t fend for myself; I was powerless.
And yet, fear hasn’t become an overwhelming issue in these days of my recovery. Why not? Because I’ve got a great set of tools to stop fear in its tracks. I’ve been practicing these things for years, which means now I use the skills as if they are reflexes; easily and with great success. I still experience moments of fear, but I move through those moments rather than get tripped up by them. Here are some of the ways I do it:
Face the fear. Our natural tendency is to turn and run from anything that frightens us. Actually, that’s a biologically hardwired tendency and can go a long way to helping our survival as a species. As survivors healing from PTSD, however, running away indulges our avoidance tendencies (a hallmark of PTSD) and so actually puts us deeper into PTSD rather than bringing us out of it. Healing means finding the courage to face the things that frighten us most.
Find a buddy. All too often in PTSD we assume a) no one will understand us, b) no one feels the way we do, c) no one can help us. Newsflash: You are part of a large crowd of people who feel exactly the same way you do. And, there are people who have many ideas about how to help you feel better. Holding yourself in isolation allows the situation to feel like its you vs. the fear. You and your posse vs. the fear is a much stronger position, whether that’s allowing one person to support and help you or many.
Write it down. Trauma creates chaos in your mind. PTSD is part of the process of how your mind struggles to create a new order. You can give this process a boost by organizing information. When the fears swirl through your mind, pin them down with words that are outside of your mind. One great way to do this is to write out what your fears are. When you choose the language to express your feelings you reclaim a very important element of control.
Say it out loud. The things in your mind feel more intense, sound louder and look bigger than they actually are. When you say these things out loud you further the process of shrinking them down to size. Hearing the fear in the real world places it in a more proper context, which allows you to begin separating yourself from it. The more separated you become the more the fear shrinks.
Make a plan. At the bottom of every fear is, as fear expert Susan Jeffers explained, the thought, “I can’t handle it!” But what if you knew you could handle it? Knowing what you will do and how you will do it shrinks the fear again. When you have a strategy you claim even more control, which shifts you from powerless to powerful, which can reduce fear to a small squeak! vs. the loud booming voice it used to have. Think ahead into your fears and decide how you would respond to those situations should they occur.
There will always be fear. The goal is to learn how to be proactive, how to manage it; how to overcome and transcend it so that you are in control and the fear, like a small, annoying insect, is dealt with the way you choose.