(Trigger warning and disclaimer: In the following blog post I will be discussing mental health in a variety of forms. If you feel like you may be triggered in any way, please do not read the article below. I understand completely. If you don’t wish to read on, but would like to talk to me about my experience with therapy or mental health in general, please do not hesitate to contact me at: Authorleea@outlook.com
Now for the disclaimer part. I am in no way a professional on the subject of mental health. The views expressed here are entirely from my own experience and my opinions based on those experiences. Mental illness manifests itself in many ways that can be different based on the individual. Do not take my experience as fact. If you are struggling, please seek help from a professional.)
With the cognitive behavioural therapy finished, I was in a good place. I felt that my mood was better than it had been in a very long time. And with this, my anxieties dropped to almost none existent. (Which reminds me of something. When I first began therapy, I asked my therapist to make my anxiety go away. I now know that anxiety is a very natural and human thing. Anxiety is always there, in some shape or form. It’s something that is embedded into our system. What matters about anxiety is the level of it, and our ability to manage it.) From my CBT, I had learned many things and felt equipped to deal with my thoughts in a positive way. I felt different. I was me, but a different me. I felt confident in myself and my abilities. I felt happy. But despite this, something still lingered. There were still moments where my mood changed instantly. These moments wouldn’t last long, but they were intense and would often leave me feeling physically exhausted.
By this point, I was very comfortable talking with my therapist. The room in which we spoke had become somewhat of a sanctuary for me. It had become a place for me to vent and express concerns that I had with my own mind. I could never have imagined such a place at the beginning of my struggles. Such a place was out of my reach. But I got there in the end, and that’s what matters. In one of my final CBT sessions, I was asked if there was anything else bothering me. That was when my anxieties kicked in, for the first time in a little while. I realised, deep down, in the far corners of my mind, that something still lurked. I remained silent for a while, searching my mind for what was wrong. Through my CBT therapy, I had learned how to take my time with my thoughts and see them rationally, through questioning the negative. When I found the thought and the words to describe it, I explained what was bothering me.
After some positive analysis and discussion, we came to a conclusion. (I feel the need to note something here. One of my biggest fears about returning to therapy was that ideas and information were going to be forced on me. I was worried that my therapist would dictate what was wrong with me and how I should be feeling. Not once was this the case. Every conclusion that we reached was reached by me. Yes, my therapist would guide me through questions and agreed upon experiments, but every thought was my own, as was every conclusion.) We discovered that I was still having flash backs from a trauma that happened a while ago. These flash backs were triggered by a number of things. Perhaps I should tell you of the trauma, before anything else, so what follows makes sense. But I will make this brief and quite vague, for obvious reasons.
I was attacked by a large group of guys, on my way home from work one evening. I suffered multiple injuries to my face, arms and ribs. The attack was the result of mistaken identity. I tried to run but failed. I didn’t fight back.
(There was a time when that would have been impossible for me to write, or even think about writing. It is because of therapy that I received that I can access these thoughts without a negative emotional response. I will explain how this was achieved, I just needed to note this beforehand.)
After the conclusion was agreed upon, my therapist gave me the option of immediate PTSD therapy. I of course I accepted, but there was a risk of doing such a therapy immediately. Reopening metaphorical scars of the mind could have brought back the depression and anxiety that I had fought so hard to control through CBT. But I decided that the risk was worth taking. I wanted to fight all of my demons at once. I wanted to rid myself of the things that were holding me back.
The PTSD therapy began with a core method. This method was called reliving. I had to put myself back into that trauma. I had to feel everything again. I had to feel what the ground was like beneath my feet. I had to feel the temperature of the air around me. I had to hear their voices. I had to feel every punch and every hit. To do this, I had to talk in first person and not acknowledge my therapist, despite her guiding questions. I had to focus on an empty space in the room and clear my mind. I had to focus on recalling the memories that I had tried to erase. You see, the thing with the brain is… it doesn’t forget. Not a single event that happens in a lifetime is forgotten, it’s just put into storage. We can reclaim those events through extreme concentration.
The moments after reliving the trauma were… strange. I remembered parts of what I said, but only parts. It was like a dream, in a sense that the more I tried to remember about the recollection, the more I would forget. It felt like I had been talking for about fifteen minutes, but in reality, almost an hour and a half had passed. It was almost like I was in a trance. Which is interesting because I never thought that I would be susceptible to such a thing. (That’s not me be ignorant of hypnotherapy methods, I know they work… they just don’t work for everybody.) It took my eyes a while to adjust because the event happened in the dark. My body felt like it had been physically attacked once again. I felt dazed and confused. However, as part of the therapy, I had to bring an object to anchor me to reality. The object that I brought was a paperback version of my recently released book. This book was a reminder that I survived the attack and achieved something. It was a reminder of who I became after the attack. Holding my book in my hands brought me back to my reality.
Aside from letting my therapist know the details of the trauma, the main purpose of reliving was to record it (I used my phone, as that was the easiest option for me). As part of the therapy, I had to take that recording home and listen to it at least three times between sessions. Every time that I listened to it, I had to let my emotions flow naturally and try not to hold any back. Through doing this, I could highlight the key trigger points of the event. These trigger points were the moments that were stuck in my head. The parts that would force themselves forward during flashbacks.
When these trigger points were discovered, the following steps were to analyse them and break them down into the different emotions that I felt throughout. Through doing this, we could highlight the negative beliefs that I was clinging to. These were the things that were keeping the trauma active and making it surface in certain situations. For me, my negative beliefs were the following, and this is how I dealt with them.
- I am weak- I believed that I was weak because I didn’t fight back. Through rationalising this with my therapist, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t weak. I was strong. I was the better person for not wanting to harm them. Not only this but despite not fighting back, I survived and became the person that I am today. In many ways I was victorious.
- I am a coward- I believed that I was a coward because I attempted to run. Through rationalising this with my therapist, I realised that this simply wasn’t true. I ran because my survival instinct kicked in. It was a fight or flight situation, and in that moment of fear, my instinct chose for me. It wasn’t a choice, it was my body and mind protecting itself. We all have this built in. It’s how we survived and evolved as humans many years ago.
PTSD happens because the logical sides of our brain, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, aren’t communicating properly with our fear part of our brain, the amygdala. When we are reminded of the trauma, our amygdala activates, making us feel like we are back in that moment. And, because of the lack of communication from the other parts of the brain, there is no reasoning. For me, in these moments, I experienced a rush of adrenaline and anger. For example, upon seeing any group of guys that I would consider a threat, my body would automatically prepare itself for fight or flight. My muscles would tighten, and my heart would begin to pound in my chest, attempting to get blood to the most needed areas. This, of course, was quite exhausting for both my mind and body.
Through repetition of the trauma, I was able to become familiar with it, and through questioning it, I was able to understand it. And through this, my mind began to communicate more efficiently. By the fourth session of PTSD therapy, I had listened to that recording of myself reliving the trauma about ten times. Every time that I listened to it, the flashbacks lessened, and because of this, a lot of aches and pains stopped. I’m not going to pretend that this therapy was easy. It’s not. Just like CBT, it requires hard work and willing. But because I went through with it, I can now talk about the trauma without it affecting me. I can now walk past a reminder without my body tensing up. I feel like I have complete control once again. My mind feels clearer. In combination with the cognitive behaviour therapy, I was again feel like myself, but more than myself. I feel confident. I feel stronger. I feel capable. I feel like I can once again stand tall.
Hey everyone. Well, that turned out a lot longer than I expected, I just wanted to put in as much information as possible. I want to say a quick thank you for the support that I have received on this series. It means a lot to me that people are reading it. Not only am I writing this to inform people, but also as a kind of closure for myself. The next part will be the final piece on this subject, and I will be telling you all about the relapse prevention side of the therapy, as well as my final thoughts.
Lee A. Vockins.