Triggers. Flashbacks. Nightmares. Hyperventilating. Extreme Anxiety. PTSD. Avoiding places, situations, people. Sobbing. Becoming void of emotion. Depression. Fatigue. Sleeping too much or not sleeping enough. Self-doubt. Hyper vigilance. Eating disorders. Panic. Detachment. Suicidal thoughts/behavior. Anger. Hate. All of these are common effects of experiencing trauma. You are not alone in this. There isn’t “something wrong with you”. You are not broken. You CAN and WILL overcome these things. After all, you have already survived 100% of everything in your life so far. Chances are, you can survive this as well.
All of these things have weighed heavily on my mind over the long weekend. I was officially diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) last Wednesday, so I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. The more I reflect on the symptoms that come from abuse, the more it breaks my heart that as abuse victims we have experienced enough pain through the abuse, but now we have to experience all of these difficult side effects for years after, sometimes for the rest of our lives. However, I am learning how to be at peace with my situation, and I would like to help you find peace too.
About a month ago, I was at the hospital getting a certain type of MRI where they inject a dye into the injured area, in my case my shoulder, to see the contrast in the tissue. They first injected me with a numbing agent. They had me laying on a table with the x-ray machine inches from my face. The doctor stood over me, administering the shot in my already very tender and sore shoulder. I have had many shots in my shoulder before, and was expecting the pain. However, this time was different. When he started inserting the needle, the pain was more intense than I expected. I started hyperventilating. I started shaking. I started crying. All I could think about was all of the abuse I had experienced. The nurse had to rub my uninjured arm to soothe me. The doctor kept repeating that it usually doesn’t hurt this bad. I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t believe I reacted in such a childish manner! The medical staff must have thought I was stupid. I felt like I had to apologize for my behavior.
Last week, I went to the dentist to get some cavities filled. I’ve had cavities filled many times in my life. The shots are uncomfortable, but not anything I can’t handle. Or so I thought. The first two shots went fine. The nerves in my mouth have a hard time going numb, it’s just that way with some people, so I had to have multiple shots. I was starting to panic, but I was keeping my calm pretty well. About half way through the drilling, I started to have feeling back. Ouch! It hurt! The dentist had to administer more shots. At this point, I started shaking, hyperventilating, my hand reactively shot up to block the dentist from touching me. After I calmed down, he continued drilling. The pain was uncomfortable, but not horrible. Yet, just like at the hospital, all I could think of was the abuse I had endured. I almost got up and left, but I couldn’t leave with holes drilled in my teeth. I had to persevere through the experience. Again, I felt silly, childish, and stupid. I can only imagine what the dentist and his assistant were thinking.
What was wrong with me? After relating these experiences and a few other symptoms I have been experiencing to my counselor, he diagnosed me with PTSD. I have heard about this for years, being in the military. I’m not in a combat career field, so I never thought it would happen to me. Little did I know, that after war related trauma being the most common cause of PTSD, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault follow right behind. Second. That blows my mind. I’ve experienced both, and just so happen to also be in the military, so my situation is ironic.
So, what exactly is PTSD? This article on the VA (Veteran’s Affairs) website explains it well http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/what-is-ptsd.asp:
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have been through a traumatic event.
During a traumatic event, you think that your life or others’ lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening around you. Most people have some stress-related reactions after a traumatic event; but, not everyone gets PTSD. If your reactions don’t go away over time and they disrupt your life, you may have PTSD.
How does PTSD develop?
Most people who go through a trauma have some symptoms at the beginning. Only some will develop PTSD over time. It isn’t clear why some people develop PTSD and others don’t.
Whether or not you get PTSD depends on many things:
- How intense the trauma was or how long it lasted
- If you were injured or lost someone important to you
- How close you were to the event
- How strong your reaction was
- How much you felt in control of events
- How much help and support you got after the event
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not appear until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. If the symptoms last longer than four weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, you might have PTSD.
There are four types of symptoms of PTSD:
- Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms)
You may have bad memories or nightmares. You even may feel like you’re going through the event again. This is called a flashback.
2. Avoiding situations that remind you of the event
You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.
3. Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
The way you think about yourself and others may change because of the trauma. You may feel fear, guilt, or shame. Or, you may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy. This is another way to avoid memories.
4. Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal)
You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. Or, you may have trouble concentrating or sleeping. This is known as hyper arousal.
- Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair
- Depression or anxiety
- Drinking or drug problems
- Physical symptoms or chronic pain
- Employment problems
- Relationship problems, including divorce
Chances are, if you experienced physical abuse, you have PTSD. In fact, those who have experienced all types of abuse, sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, etc. are more likely to develop PTSD.
So, how to cope? How to find relief? How to feel “normal” again? One thing I learned is that PTSD, as well as many other trauma related symptoms never go away. We just learn how to survive day by day. There are many, many survivors out there who experience these things and feel like they are going crazy, that no one else could possibly understand what they are going through. You are wrong! There are support groups, counselors, loved ones, who can help you.
So far, here are ten coping methods that have seemed to help me:
- Mediation. I was very skeptical about meditation at first. My wonderful DV counselor is a huge advocate of meditation. We did a guided meditation together at the end of my session, and I was shocked at how relieved I felt after. My pain didn’t disappear, but it lessoned significantly. There are many apps you can download for this, but my current favorite is called Calm, which has a free and a paid subscription service. When I find myself having a flashback, I go to a quiet place and do a quick five to ten minute meditation to calm down. At night, when I can’t sleep or wake up from a nightmare, I do the “sleep” meditation, and almost every time, I fall asleep while I’m meditating. It doesn’t get rid of the nightmares, but at least I can fall asleep. I highly encourage you to try this!
- Use a Diffuser. I, again, was skeptical of this as well. My counselor had this on during one of my group therapy sessions and we meditated at the end of the session. She had us focus on the soothing smell, and afterwards, I felt drawn to the lavender scent. I bought some of the aromatherapy lotion from Bath and Body Works and I LOVE IT. There is something about the smell. These people know what they are talking about! So I invested in a diffuser this weekend and I’ve had it going non-stop. When my mind wanders, when I can’t sleep, I focus on the smell and surprisingly, I feel myself relax. Try it out!
- Exercise. Don’t roll your eyes at this! I promise, I won’t tell you to try something I don’t personally do myself. We are all at different levels. We all have different schedules. Even if all you can do is a ten minute walk, you are still helping yourself out. I am fortunate to get an hour a day to workout during work, so I have no excuse. But, not only do I need to get my pre-baby body back, working out releases endorphins that help reduce stress. I’ve found that the more I feel good about myself, (going back to loving yourself) and the way I look, the more positive I am about my situation. The days I miss working out, I don’t have as much energy and I’m more depressed. I understand this may not be for you, but give it a shot.
- Pray. If you’re not religious, go ahead and skip this method. I am in no way pushing my beliefs on anyone, but I have found that praying to my father in heaven for comfort, support, healing, patience, and strength daily have helped. This is a personal experience that you must have for yourself, but I have found that the days I don’t pray don’t seem to go as well. I also pray that those around me will be more compassionate and understanding to my situation, but also that I will be more Christ-like to those around me.
- Counseling. This was the best thing I did for myself. Counselors are trained in how to help people in our situation, and are unbiased and nonjudgmental. Well, they should be. If you’ve experienced a counselor who wasn’t these things, don’t give up. I recommend finding another. You can find free counseling from the local DV Shelter in your area. Talking to someone who isn’t emotionally connected to me is liberating. I can tell them everything, without holding back, and it feels amazing to get it all out. Group counseling is a wonderful thing as well. It’s really helpful to talk to others who have gone through the same thing and to be a support for each other.
- Keep a journal. If you can’t speak to a counselor, or want to do both (I do, obviously), writing is a great way to find release. However, if you are still with your abuser, be very careful about keeping a journal.
- Color/Draw. Don’t scoff at this! I bought one of those “Adult” coloring books that are trendy right now, and it is so therapeutic! In fact, most of the books I’ve come across talk about how coloring is therapeutic and stress-relieving. They’re right! I lose myself when I color. I put on music, and focus on the design and music. My mind will often wander to the abuse, but it’s not as painful.
- Go to the Spa/Pamper Yourself. Whether it’s taking a bath, getting a pedicure, new hair do, massage, whatever it is, feeling good about yourself heals your spirit. I can’t repeat this enough.
- Get Out of the House! Go by yourself or with friends. Go see a movie. Go to the park. Go on a drive. Go to dinner. Go on a walk. Just get out. Staying cooped up with your tissues and chocolate is wonderful, but you need to get away form harmful, hurtful, emotional thoughts and find a way to enjoy yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t up to this yet, or if you go out and go back home after five minutes. It’s okay! We’re a work in progress. Allow yourself time to adjust. But, when you’re ready, you’ll be surprised how much you needed time out of the house and how much you enjoyed it.
- Avoid drugs/alcohol. Don’t be offended. I say this because I have seen and experienced the damaging effects that come from doing these things. When you are a survivor of abuse/trauma, it is easy to become dependent on the temporary “therapeutic”, numbing effects of these substances. But, it’s very, very easy and actually faster in our situation, to become addicted. When I drank, I went to either a very dark place, or lost all self-control. I would always feel worse about myself when I sobered up. You just don’t need the added guilt and harm that can come from these things. You are strong without it. However, if you do use these things, don’t beat your self up. It’s okay, one step at a time. Eventually you will realize you are better off without it. If you enjoy drinking, there will come a point where you can self-regulate how much you drink, and you may be able to do so without thinking about the abuse. When you’re to that point, and you want to drink, That’s up to you. I, personally, will never drink again for these reasons, and other personal and religious reasons. I don’t look down on anyone that does, though. I love you all no matter what you do.
There is so much more to say on this, but I’ll leave it there for now. Just remember, we are strong. No matter what effects of abuse we experience, they don’t define who we are. Although we may never be the same, we can learn to cope. There IS hope, and we can find it by taking care of ourselves. You can use your experiences to avoid future abuse, to help a loved one, or another victim. We survived abuse, and we can survive anything else that comes our way.