Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a mental health condition that arises from having undergone long-term, consistent situational trauma. It’s common in victims of sex trafficking and prolonged hostage situations, and it’s very prevalent in victims of domestic abuse. My own C-PTSD was caused by 19 years of living with a mentally and emotionally abusive father.
As a result of having lived with this abusive situation, my brain was rewired. Some of the more prominent symptoms of C-PTSD which I suffer especially are avoidance, hypervigilance, difficulty with trust, and intrusive thoughts.
The condition and its symptoms can make my life difficult on occasion; I’m hyper-aware of any small detail that could potentially turn a situation or an interaction with another person wrong, or make another person angry with me.
As a result, I often fall into the habit of avoidance – staying away from the situation or the person – when in reality there is nothing that needs to be avoided at all. I can be prone to sudden, irrational thoughts about another person’s mood, intentions or reliability, and many times these thoughts can spiral out of control. I also have had ongoing trust issues with regards to authority figures (although this symptom has been greatly mitigated over the years).
Despite the fact that I’ve been learning to manage these symptoms over the years, it’s nonetheless an ongoing struggle and a constant learning process. That said, here are five things that have helped me in the journey of healing from C-PTSD.
One – Ground yourself.
Sometimes, regardless of whether I’m in a high pressure situation or a moment with absolutely no stress at all, I have anxiety attacks. My blood pressure and heart rate increase, physical feelings of fear spread through my chest, and I often become lost in a spiral of obsessive or panicked thoughts about something that has happened or something that might possibly happen.
During some of these episodes, I experience what is known as depersonalization: sight is like looking through a window, noises sound as though they’re ten feet further than they actually are, and everything I touch feels as though I’m touching it through a veil.
In these instances, what helps me is to remind myself of my physical reality, and bringing my focus onto that reality. I touch something hot or cold, like a mug of my favorite drink. I look around my environment for objects representing the colors of the rainbow (red cup, orange sign, yellow Post-It note, green box, etc.). I hum to myself or listen to music. If possible, I eat something. I engage in a breathing exercise – 4 seconds to inhale, 8 seconds to hold, 7 seconds to exhale. These grounding activities help to remove my mind from the thought spiral and the depersonalization and get me back into the present, and into my physical reality.
Two – Observe the facts.
In my own present circumstances, I often avoid conflict even when the people in question tend not to exhibit unhealthy behaviors when it comes to conflict. When I catch myself avoiding a situation irrationally, I stop and remember the observable facts of past similar situations.
Will this person yell? (The people in my life that I interact with most frequently have never yelled at me in moments of conflict.) Will this person do anything that will actually harm me or negatively impact my situation?
(Again: the people I most frequently interact with have never done anything remotely similar to a physical attack in response to conflict, nor have they threatened my freedom or my situation in any way.)
I have to note the observable facts of what has happened previously, and remember that in most situations and social interactions, I will be completely safe. If I must, I repeat to myself: “I am safe. This cannot hurt me.”
Three – Separate your own person from the actions of others.
It’s easier said than done, especially in the heat of a moment. But what has helped me over the years is constantly reminding myself, over and over, that other people’s emotions cannot hurt me. Anger itself cannot hurt me. Annoyance, frustration, and disappointment on the part of other people cannot hurt me.
Words expressed by other people feeling these emotions cannot hurt me. I always have the ability to walk out of any situation that brings discomfort and remove myself from a toxic interaction. I always have the ability to say, “I am not going to participate in conversations like this anymore.”
Four – Talk about your feelings with trusted people.
When I catch myself dwelling on intrusive thoughts or worries and I get the sense that I’m not thinking clearly, I reach out. I’m fortunate enough to have friends who have had similar experiences and are also working on healing from C-PTSD, and they understand me when I tell them about my thought spirals. When they’re not around to give me a reality check, I reach out to other friends or to trusted mentor figures.
I’m also fortunate enough to be able to frequently go to therapy; voicing my concerns and thought patterns to my therapist in a judgement-free environment helps to calm me, and it’s also very helpful to receive objective feedback about whether my thought patterns are rational or irrational.
Five – Learn how to identify your own thought patterns.
I personally do this best by journaling. After an anxiety episode or a moment where I realize I’ve been avoiding something, I write my thoughts in their entirety. It’s much easier to identify a distorted thought pattern when it’s written out in front of you – and once you’ve identified what makes the thought pattern distorted, you can work on forming a new thought pattern in its place.
Thanks for reading! Leave a comment if this helped.
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