Welcome to week four of the PTSD Awareness Series. If you have been following along from week to week I thank you. If this is your first visit to the blog, I encourage you to read the other three posts in this series as well as the fun food memory centered, “An Appetite for Memory” mini series. As mentioned in the past couple of posts, I will be focusing on coping tools this week to finish out the series as PTSD Awareness Month comes to a close.
***Special Note: This article contains strong language at times. Parents/guardians please monitor your young readers***
Regardless of where you are in your PTSD healing journey, coping tools are essential. Positive and genuine support are essential. Consider yourself a carpenter of sorts. You have a tool belt around your waist and on any given day and for any given symptom, there is an ideal tool to help you cope. PTSD comes with a range of symptoms and not all PTSD warriors experience the same symptoms in the same way and at the same volume. I personally do not have suicidal thoughts and do not self harm but there are many people battling these symptoms on a daily basis. The 22 movement concerning the number of veterans who commit suicide everyday reflects this.
While I have no desire to run a blade across my arms for symptom relief, I do find myself on my tattoo artists table from time to time. I never get a piece that isn’t meaningful to me which means I don’t get a tattoo for the sole purpose of coping but I will admit that I understand why people self harm. When I get a tattoo and it is serving as, “ink therapy,” I notice something. My body relaxes. I could be having a complete PTSD mind fuck but when my tattoo artist is doing line work and shading and talking to me, my body relaxes. My breathing changes from shallow and unsteady to a little fuller and completely steady. I have yet to experience any physical pain that is even on the same plane as PTSD mental and emotional pain.
One day my tattoo artist, who has become a close friend, shared that she had a veteran client with severe PTSD who would come in for, “ink therapy.” Sometimes his wife would call her and ask if she had even just one hour to tattoo something, anything, because he was so distraught and having a tattoo gun hum in the background and needle break his skin with ink was enough to distract and calm him from his PTSD pain. Tattoo work is a tool in my tool belt.
Speaking of background or white noise, music is one of my most valued tools. I can be sad, angry, scared, triggered you name it; I have a song, artist or playlist for that. I have my Beats earbuds with me at work, walking my dog, painting my home, grocery shopping, just about everywhere I go. I have a back up pair of earbuds in my car just in case I forget my Beats or they stop functioning. The first time I went camping in Colorado I didn’t have my music because I was off the grid and I loved it but I purposely set up my camp next to the rushing creek because silence is often difficult for me. I appreciate quiet but total silence is like a black hole.
I remember one day while I was working in a kitchen that is not my own, I was battling another PTSD mid fuck. I don’t remember what put me in that head space but dinner service was slow and I put one earbud in and started listening to music on low volume so that I could still hear what was going on around me for when an order finally came in. The GM told the sous chef to have me take them out and rightfully so but suddenly my trigger turned into a combination of rage and sadness. I wanted to scream at him and say, “Fuck you! You have no idea how much this helps me and you’re contributing to my mind fuck by telling me to put it away!” Of course I never say these things because PTSD or not this is unprofessional and completely unacceptable so I kept my mind fuck to myself and tried to do something else to cope. The energy it takes to function in a world that does not have nor understands PTSD when you have it is daunting and exhausting. There is a reason PTSD comes with such staggering suicidal statistics and that too is an important conversation that not enough people are having.
Noise versus silence. I can go through a silent meditation but a guided meditation is significantly better for me. Music, a voice guiding the meditation or speaking affirmations is better than silence or even bells. Sometimes it’s not about a formal meditation and more about a relaxing noise. While meditation apps like Headspace and Insight Timer are helpful, sometimes an app like Windy, which lets you customize nature sounds like rain, crickets and even wind, is what I need. Sometimes listening to a podcast like Michael Stone’s Awake in The World is what my mind responds to the best. Different tools for different scenarios.
Yoga tends to go hand in hand with meditation and quite honestly when I started yoga I had no idea how beneficial it was going to be for me. I learned about mindfulness, mediation and the mind, body connection. Sometimes I get on my mat to stretch my back, tight hip flexors or a wonky shoulder and what I end up releasing in addition to tight muscles is emotion. When I first started yoga I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. I was living in Milwaukee at the time and while my ex husband and I hadn’t separated yet our marriage was on life support. I discovered a yoga studio just a ten minute walk away from our apartment. Core Essence Yoga was the first studio I went to and the owner, Shayne Broadwell, is one of the most calming and open minded teachers I have ever met. She is very realistic in her teachings and it’s refreshing when you have also been to a super flowery yoga class. Despite my nerves I dove in and started a regular practice. Discovering that studio and making the friends that I did was like coming up for air after having my head held under water for so long.
Exercise is another important tool for me. I have been an athlete all my life so exercise and competitive sports are second nature for me. While I always enjoy physical activity, exercising during a trigger or while experiencing a higher level of anxiety is even more beneficial. A lot of PTSD warriors have to manage rage symptoms. While the anger I tend to experience is an intrinsic process versus an external symptom, weight lifting and or cardio are prime tools for me to cope with what’s going on in my body and mind. It’s an internal adjustment so most of the time people have no idea what’s happening but I do and it’s such a good feeling when the trigger lessens as I’m working out.
Touchstones can be helpful when trying to ground as well. Recovering alcoholics have chips. I have a few touchstones including a few tattoos that are helpful reminders when I am trying to settle my mind. Sometimes running my hand over the Spanish word “fuerza” which means “strength” in English on my right forearm reminds me that I am strong and resilient. Sometimes just looking at the Sanskrit tattoo on my collar bone reminds me that yes, “I suffered. I learned. I changed.” but I’m still moving forward on my journey. Ahimsa, on my wrist reminds me to have patience with myself and have more positive self talk in my mind than criticism. More tangible is the My Intent bracelet I wear inscribed with “Heart” and “Courage.” Sometimes I need to feel closer to my family so I wear my Dads Army dog tags and I feel the strength of my family and even the Army on my side. The Inca cross I wear reminds me that I am my ancestors’ wildest dream and to keep pushing forward in my work and overcoming my symptoms.
One of the biggest lessons that has helped me is the understanding that things will never go back to normal but instead a new normal must be learned. The normal after the trauma. The normal built piece by piece by you and hopefully people who support your process. I can’t emphasize enough how positive and supportive people help the process. The people who walk away from you are people you never really had in the first place. It hurts and it sucks but if they’re not in your corner during your internal fight, they didn’t belong there in the first place.
The point of this article is to encourage you to find what works best for you. I’ll reference the significant PTSD episode of You’re The Worst once more. Toward the end of the episode after the character Edgar has fallen through the cracks of VA services, he’s talking with another veteran who tells him about a couple of military buddies who cope with their PTSD in different ways. One does yoga, one has a companion dog and another, “…locks himself in his bedroom and stabs the closet door. He’s not getting his deposit back but once the rage passes he’s fine.” Even if you think you have an unorthodox coping tool, that’s perfectly fine as long as you’re not hurting yourself or others. Whether you stab your closet door or lay on your tattoo artists table for a few hours, find what works and don’t let anyone tell you what is a “normal” coping tool or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide that because you’re the one going through your own unique healing process.
Thank you for reading and following Alpaca Roaming. It is my hope that even just one person found relief, peace, help or otherwise by reading the June mini series for PTSD Awareness Month. Stay tuned for upcoming events and future articles. Below are some resources and tools if you or someone you know could benefit from them. Until next time, be good to yourself and one anther. It’s what makes us human after all.
- Tattoo work – those in Denver can find any number talented tattoo artists but my top pick is Laura Thomas of The Blue Door on Broadway.
- Cooking and Baking
- Therapy – massage, talk etc…
- Art – creating it or observing it.
- Companion or service animal
- Existing in nature – hiking etc…
- The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
- Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
- Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine
- Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD
- Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland
- The Book of Awakening by Marc Nepo