Monday, May 13, 2013

Dealing with Anxiety, Panic, and PTSD

Today I'm sharing some of the activities, articles and websites that I have found most helpful in dealing with complex post-traumatic stress (and all kinds of stress, really).

  • Walking--on the treadmill, a trail or track, or around the neighborhood. With music on my iPhone or conversing with a friend. I think my forebears got out a lot of energy just keeping up with the garden and the washing and then relaxed in the cradle-like motion of a rocking chair. When my mind is frazzled, my body needs to destress, too, so walking is the perfect combination of exercise and soothing rhythmic motion. Some days I move quickly, with intensity and wide arm gestures. Other times I just need to maintain a soothing, strolling pace for a while.
  • Yoga--after years of good intentions, I bought an inexpensive DVD for beginners. Some days those 40 minutes of guided exercises were the calmest my mind ever got. And there have been nights when I have gone downstairs to run through a series of relaxing stretches before bed. I love the term "grounding". The more grounded I am in my everyday life, the lighter and more balanced I feel.
  • Coloring--yes, I have my own coloring books. When my brain is caught in a hypervigilant loop, coloring is a soothing, playful, creative activity that focuses my mind on the lines and shades and pencil strokes. Sometimes my daughter and I color a page together. Sketching with colored pencils is nice, too. I wish I could paint, but for now, coloring is my therapeutic artistic outlet.
  • Writing--journaling, blogging, poetry, notes to friends. Research is showing that journaling does wonders for mental health! Writing condenses experience. It gives me the freedom to interpret, and reinterpret, my own narrative. 
  • Herb tea--rooibos, mint, chamomile, Sleepytime. Especially good for winding down before bed. If I can sip from my steaming mug while wrapped up in a heavy quilt, so much the better.
  • Hot soaks--I like to throw some lavender- or eucalyptus-scented epsom salts into the bath for a really restorative experience. The magnesium in the salts is good for regulating all kinds of body systems--from pain relief to sound sleep patterns. I might bring a cheerful novel along with me. Or just put on some mellow piano music in the background. 
  • Nature--a little sunshine always does me good. I'm too prone to stay inside with my projects, but I feel better when I spend a little time each day with the outdoors. Walking, reading on the swing, touching the trees, bird watching, observing the sky and the seasons, working in my flowerbeds, whatever. Spending time participating in nature--even in my own yard--reminds me that I am connected to every other living organism on this planet.
  • Photography--my camera helps me practice awareness, not just observing my life but taking notice of its details and savoring its beauty. When I need to settle myself down, I can sit somewhere comfortable and flip through photos of pleasant places and happy times. Plants and gardens are my favorite subjects. 
  • Time with friends--I couldn't get out of my slump by myself. A couple of times I got desperate enough to get on the phone and ask my neighbor to come sit with me. I invited the lady down the street up for tea. I followed up on an internet contact and met an amazing new friend. I got together for coffee with a lady from my book club, joined a friend across town for lunch. The more fragile I feel, the more I need to draw strength from honest relationships with caring people, especially other women. 

Articles & Websites

Pete Walker, a therapist in California, has a website offering an array of hopeful articles. He outlines in plain English some really basic ways to manage triggers and flashbacks. They won't all apply every time, but there's a good chance one of them will help when you're threatened by overwhelming anxiety and your own stress points. Here are a few quotes:

Guilt is sometimes camouflaged fear. Sometimes I need to feel the guilt and do it anyway. 
 I used to know this, but I needed to hear it again from someone else. Felt like being thrown a life saver ring!
My perfectionism arose as an attempt to gain safety and support in my dangerous family. I do not have to be perfect to be safe or loved in the present. I am letting go of relationships that require perfection.
Walker has a special compassion for adults whose dysfunctional childhood homes left them with complex PTSD. Emotional neglect and abandonment, he explains, is at least as devastating as physical abuse. Anger and tears, he explains, are the way children release fear. When those expressions are punished, the fear gets trapped inside. But given time and little mental effort, it's possible to fully recover from that damage to our younger selves.
Flashbacks are opportunities to release old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt, and abandonment, and to validate - and then soothe - the child's past experience of helplessness and hopelessness. Healthy grieving can turn our tears into self-compassion and our anger into self-protection.
Walker's articles on Shrinking the Inner Critic and Shrinking the Outer Critic are packed with helpful advice for adults recovering from neglect, brainwashing, or emotionally detached parents. I keep returning to his website, each time finding more ideas I can use to develop healthy new ways of relating to myself.

Another therapist I found incredibly helpful was David Carbonell at AnxietyCoachHis calm, reassuring explanations make me feel like I'm having a therapy session with Mr. Rogers. He even makes up his own little songs about panic attacks, in spite of having no musical talent. I haven't yet bought Carbonell's panic attacks workbook (available inexpensively from Amazon) but if I start having trouble with them again I will definitely do so. The excerpt he shares from the section on "fear of driving" did me a lot of good.

This video gives Carbonell's summary of what happens in a panic attack along with useful suggestions for distinguishing danger from discomfort.

A similar tip I found was called the "12-second Chill". The lady who promotes it has a great introduction, but it quickly builds up to an annoying (and triggering) sales pitch, so I quit reading her stuff. The "Chill" exercise does work, though. It's kind of like a super-simple yoga position: sit in a comfortable chair and take some long deep breaths. Then close your eyes for 12 seconds (or more) and just observe the sensations you feel. If you're having panic/anxiety symptoms, the sensations will be mostly unpleasant, but just acknowledge them to yourself. The next time will be a little easier. Eventually you might even notice the feeling of the chair supporting you. It's not therapy, by any means, but it was a way for me to get a handle on managing my physical symptoms instead of letting them run away with me.

Finally, the Anxiety Centre website gave me courage. They don't offer a lot of advice online, but they do offer these words of hope:
While anxiety is a protection mechanism we need, it doesn’t have to turn into or remain a disorder. When it does become a disorder, it can be successfully reversed.
We produce anxiety by the way we’ve learned to live and interact in the world.
Anxiety can be resolved so that it doesn't disrupt a normal lifestyle. And YES, you can live a normal life again. 

Dealing with anxiety and PTSD was hardly something I would have chosen for myself this year, but it's been part of my journey. All those experiences and emotions that I think are forgotten end up surfacing sooner or later. And as they do, I'll work through them, grateful for "grounding", for connection, for secure and supportive relationships as I venture forward from here.


  1. "The more fragile I feel, the more I need to draw strength from honest relationships with caring people, especially other women. "

    I relate to this right now very strongly.

    1. Hugs to you, Lora. I hope you are able to find the support you need. Those friendships can make *such* a difference.

  2. I wish we were together so that I could add a pedicure to your list...I am sure that you did even more than I will ever know to care for me, and I wish I could repay even a small fragment of that. Thank you. *hugs & kisses* You deserve to be taken care of and relax.

  3. I have c-ptsd, and I am the only adult woman I know who colors. I also find it intensely soothing. Thanks for sharing your ideas for dealing with triggers and anxiety.