“Oh, I’m stressed!”

I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after living with it for nearly half my life.  Your mileage may vary, so take what fits.  In my mind, I see my ability to cope with stress as a balloon.  Stress inflates it.  Ordinarily, as the balloon inflates, it stretches to accommodate typical stressors.  PTSD occurs when overwhelming stress causes the balloon to swell so far beyond its optimal range, it produces a pocket extrusion, reducing the overall tensile efficiency.

From that point on, to prevent a blowout, hypervigilance is required.  The amount of stress you can cope with resets to zero (child-like stress tolerance level,) and you have to start over by stretching your stress balloon a little bit at a time, without popping it, repeatedly, until it regains a semblance of elasticity.  This process is your new full-time (unpaid, nerve-wracking) job regardless of your present work status.  Forget about getting nights and weekends off.  Holidays?  As if!

Trauma causes PTSD.  Something awful happened, and you came up short on internal resources to deal with it in real time.  The situation convinced you of your impending and untimely death.  Your brain pulled the emergency lever causing you to check out emotionally (because it’s too hot in here.)  Once the haze clears and you finally wrap your head around continued existence, PTSD shows up and says, “S’up, bitch?”

bicycle accident - face plant

The first year or five is mostly training.  Figuring out which random things trigger you from calmness to a sudden panic attack, (often for no apparent reason,) quickly becomes a priority.  We also soon realize concealing (masking) how we feel is helpful when among others.  That ever-present, barely containable, private hysteria shaking in the back of your mind alarms others if you let your guard down.

I believe it’s the tendency to stare off into the distance while visibly unraveling.  Masking is exhausting, but you’ll master the ability.  The motivation is irresistible:  human contact.  Isolation may seem like your new lifestyle, but it’s just a tool you can summon when you need to regroup, recover, unmask, and rest from socializing.  Humans don’t thrive in permanent isolation, so don’t linger longer than necessary.  Social skills entirely fall under the use-them-or-lose-them rule.

The sleep disturbances usually show up right off; such as, nightmares, insomnia, crashing and sleeping for several hours only to awaken feeling unrested, and the like.  As does the super-uncool tendency to jump like the clown from It just showed up, over every loud noise, sudden motion detected in your peripheral vision or contact from outside of your view (especially from behind.)  Good times.

human slam dunk gone awry

The flashbacks are like jumping between two avatars without warning or a controller.  (This game is rated S for sofa king no.)  And there’s always a frenemy or two who will delight in provoking you to jump because it looks hilarious every time.  Each time, without your consent, you react as if you’re suddenly about to die.  Your reaction doesn’t diminish over time (in my experience.)  The OMG-I’m-ending hormones release (like the Kraken) every time.  Then you have to go somewhere quiet to recover — every time.  Kick them to the curb sooner than later.  (You’re welcome.)

The bad news is PTSD sucks so hard it can lead to thinking about suicide.  The good news is you can live with it.  It’s not easy, but it’s doable.  The more you practice safely stretching your stress balloon, the more it becomes a habit and less a conscious chore.  Only you can choose your pace.  Your brain is physiologically different than it was before you acquired PTSD.  Don’t lie to yourself about getting over it.  You don’t.  You build a scar over time and eventually relearn how to manage your stress efficiently enough to get back on your journey.

It’s part of who you are now.  The healing process takes place within yourself, and only you can do the necessary work to regrow an efficient stress balloon.  A good therapist can provide a map and support.  If you have the means, do it.  You deserve it.  If not, you can still do it.  (The internet.)  Just remember to be kind to yourself.  You have a wound, go easy.

woman listening to music with headphones

Some tips:

  • Avoid binging on carbs.  They’re prepackaged depression and anxiety outside of moderation.  You’ve got enough on your plate without adding shit on purpose, eh?
  • Practice good sleep hygiene.
  • Stay well hydrated.  Your fight-or-flight system is broken and is sending out false alarms all over the place.  Flush out those toxins often.
  • Stretch when you first awaken, and before you go to sleep.  You’re physically tense most of the time, so counter it twice a day deliberately.  You’re the boss of you, dammit.  🙃
  • Choose (ideally) at least three people you trust to support you by connecting with you (unmasked) as you heal.  Preferably people who understand PTSD or are willing to learn about it with you.  (Pets help if you talk to them.)
  • Exercise daily within your (physician approved) range of ability.  It’s an incredible built-in hormone regulator.
  • If you can hear, listen to music alone in the dark with headphones on.  Hopefully, you’ll find a musician or several whose music can express intense emotions you can’t even classify on your behalf.  It’s an incredible release.  (For me, Evanescence, Bach, ABBA, NIN, Beyoncè, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks, and Fleetwood Mac have helped tremendously in this manner.)
  • Anytime you feel tempted or compelled to act on suicidal ideation, wait 72 hours first.  You survived this long; you can hold out for another three days to allow your brain to self-correct.  (This is more a rule than a tip.) 💜  [Suicide Hotline]
  • It’s okay to have moments when you’re convinced it’s not worth so much effort.  It doesn’t mean you’re weak or broken.  It signals it’s time to turn on some stand-up comedy or Key and Peele and laugh (like you’re getting paid) for a while.
  • Others with PTSD can be a source of information, tips, and support.  Remember you’re not alone, even when it feels like you are.

Flex in the mirror once in a while.  You’re a healing survivor who was once a victim.  Life knocked you down, and you chose to get back up and continue your journey.  You’re freakin’ fabulous.  💪🏾👍🏾 💜

peace sign reflected in puddle