Soon millions of people will set off fireworks in celebration of our country's independence. An independence that was made possible by the sacrifices of past and present military personnel. For some of them the colorful display of fireworks will not be mesmerizing but a reminder of agonizing tragedy(s).
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Veterans living with PTSD experience symptoms that hijack their present moment, tainting it with reminders of the unimaginable horrors that we know accompany war. The loud decibel produced by fireworks can trigger flashbacks and a plethora of physiological reactions, understandable making a holiday like July 4th dreadful for some veterans.
To begin to understand the depth of PTSD ( check my previous blog ) and its symptoms, it's necessary to have a basic understanding of the primary parts of the brain at work.
The root of our survival/defense system lies in the emotional brain, inconspicuously performing all its duties, as we move through our days. Together, the reptilian ( i.e. primitive ) brain, which regulates the unconscious functions that keep us alive ( i.e. heartbeat, moving waste through the body, body temperature regulation, you get it ) and the limbic system, the conductor of emotional and memory processing, form the emotional brain. That rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms you get right before public speaking, the tension in your head when you think about financial troubles, that burst of energy you get when something startles you, that is your emotional brain at work.
Later, I'll mention three important structures within the limbic system, the amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus. The amygdala is one to remember! It’s an almond-shaped part of the brain that plays a primary role in our fear response and emotional processing, it's commonly referred to as the body’s “alarm” or “smoke detector”.
As we travel up the brain, we come upon the neocortex. It is the rational conscious brain allowing us to use judgment, reasoning, plan for the future, articulate ourselves, set goals, and our perception of time. The neocortex is comprised of frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes. When you jump back, fist cocked, when someone jumps out at you (i.e the emotional brain at work) and then almost instantaneously realize it's just your friend playing a joke and ease up, that realization is the neocortex at work.
Amid a threatening experience, the brain is absorbing and relaying sensory information ( e.g. sounds, smells, faces, colors ) to the thalamus, the first stop in the millisecond journey of our stress response system. The thalamus then, all at once, directs this information towards the amygdala and the frontal lobe. The amygdala's function is to assess whether the information it just received is threatening or not. The amygdala has already made a decision and set the body in motion ( i.e. fight, flight, freeze ) before the same information even reaches the frontal lobe ( i.e. our awareness ). This is why we may say or do uncharacteristic things in the heat of the moment that we later regret. Trauma alters brain composition and functioning and research has shown a reduction in hippocampus and amygdala size in individuals with PTSD. A reduced-size in these parts of the brain explains some of the difficulties individuals run into such as concentration, anger, emotional numbness, and nightmares. Because parts of the brain become less active during an overwhelming experience, following a traumatic event individuals run into problems recalling facts about the event and putting what they experienced into words.
Fireworks and the smell of smoke mimic the sounds and smells of gunshots and bombs that once enveloped the sensory experiences of veterans. Yet, for the amygdala of a veteran, the fireworks are indistinguishable from the explosion of a convoy that once killed their comrades, triggering the same reactions as that insufferable day.
Post-traumatic reactions are survival strategies that appear irrational because they are. Remember the emotional brain does not use rationality, that’s the neocortex's job.
When an individual is experiencing a flashback they literally feel as though they are back in the original experience. Being that the limbic system is separate from cognition, trying to reason or bring logic to someone experiencing a flashback will most likely be ineffective until their nervous system settles.
Individuals living a life with PTSD can experience anger outbursts, irritability, panic attacks, shock (i.e freeze), emotional numbness, foggy or disoriented states, and not be aware that it’s attributed to what they’ve lived through. Instead, people may “feel like they're losing their minds” or harbor shame for their reactions.
PTSD isn’t a diagnosis reserved for military personnel and veterans, civilian victims of gun violence, or car accident survivors commonly have similar reactions. It all boils down to the individual and the unique way the traumatic event was imprinted on them.
Do you keep everyone at bay for fear of lashing out? Or feel awful for avoiding quality time with your kids? Or get agitated in crowds? Or have a hard time feeling pleasure? These are common experiences of traumatized individuals, the body is still fighting a battle that has since passed.
For the upcoming holiday here are some things you can practice to help you stay safe. Everyone is different so adapt these suggestions to your life.
Add and/or remove sensory input. If you need to remove yourself from a crowd, do so, leaving for a moment is safer and healthier than “white-knuckling” it. Put headphones on and listen to music, or noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to muffle the noise. Eat something stimulating such as cold ice cream, spicy hot sauce, or sour lemon. I personally enjoy the scent of essential oils. Aurelia has beautiful blends of essential oils to help with stress, anxiety, energy and sleep. Carry an object in your pocket that you can hold and feel, such as a rock, or another cherished object, preferably something full of texture, weight, etc. If you begin to feel stress hold the object and focus on its texture and other properties.
The purpose of these techniques is to pull you out of the past traumatic experience(s) and bring the mind and body into the present. Literally feeling your feet on the ground or your butt in a chair, actually tasting your food. On my website, I offer some great, free grounding exercises. As I previously mentioned in an earlier blog weighted blankets are great nervous system stimulators. Mosaic Weighted Blankets offer a variety of blankets for children and adults and for those of you who run hot, they offer cooling blankets!
Practice Presence & Acceptance
Befriending emotions is one of the most helpful things you can do. What do I mean by befriending? At its core, it means switching from tolerating emotions to accepting them. Emotions are always accompanied by a set of bodily sensations. During traumatic experiences, sensations are imprinted in the body and later become triggers. Nausea, increased heart rate, etc. become seemingly unbearable sensations, causing individuals to resort to drinking, avoiding places, or other acts of emotional suppression. When you befriend emotions you learn they are transient with a beginning and an end. You learn to embrace the uncomfortable experience, listening to the important information they provide. Your relationship with emotions shifts from contempt to appreciation because you can now value their role in making life invigorating. When you befriend emotions you can sit with them follow their natural course throughout your body, instead of reaching for that drink or consuming every second with work to mask them.
Mindfulness exercises calm the sympathetic nervous system and research has specifically shown that it decreases activity in the amygdala, resulting in less reactivity to possible triggers. In his book “ Full Catastrophe Living”, Jon Kabat Zinn, a mindfulness trailblazer, describes the role of mindfulness in healing from trauma as such,
“One way to think of this process of transformation is to think of mindfulness as a lens taking the scattered and reactive energies of your mind and focusing them into a coherent source of energy for living, for problem-solving, for healing”.
On my site I offer some free mindfulness exercises.
Meditation is proven to reverse the changes in the body and brain that have occurred as a result of trauma. Meditation has proven to reduce over-activation in the amygdala. There are many forms of meditation all with different intentions. Meditation apps such as Waking Up offer a plethora of meditation options from guided meditation to meditation focused on anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and so forth.
The first part of this is to write out a plan that includes coping skills and other resources that can help you in a moment of distress. Writing it down or having resources easily accessible is crucial to help calm overwhelming emotional states. As I described earlier in the overview of the brain, during overwhelming moments remembering what coping skills are helpful, or how to use them, or any other types of problem solving or reasoning become dulled. So it's imperative, however you strategize your safety plan, that you make sure it requires little effort to call on your coping skills ( practicing daily also helps ).
Additionally, identify supportive people in your life that you can safely include in your plan.
We are social beginning and others provide the greatest comfort in turbulent times. Find someone who can anchor you in the moment. This person needs to be; reliable, able to hold space for your emotional experience, not express judgments, able to let go of controlling you, and someone who soothes your nervous system not activates it.
Yoga improves the mind-body connection and is a great starting point if meditation is not attractive to you right now. But I wouldn’t write off meditation and I encourage you to keep practicing. Yoga engages the body through breathing and stretching and by doing so, love for your body emerges. Things that are healthy and liven the body become desires instead of drudging maintenances.
These techniques should be practiced regularly and can be used to help a variety of physical and psychological struggles. If symptoms of PTSD are getting in your way of living a full life, I highly recommend you seek mental health support that can address the impact of trauma such as, Somatic Experiencing or EMDR. Healing is possible and there are so many options, suffering is unnecessary and healing is courageous. Although these exercises are very useful, they do not supplement professional mental health services.