Welcome to stress

It may sound a little silly to you that I, or anyone, would find anything exciting about #lockdownlyf but, I’ve found something that I feel I can finally contribute to those around me at a time they’re willing to listen, so I’m excited! I have a specific skill, a niche experience that has wide application for a moment, and I’m glad to be able to share what I’ve learned about it! (If you don’t want background and just want tips, skip down to the numbered points. And at the bottom I’ve put some resources for you to call on if/when you need help.)

And no, I’m not just talking about being an introvert! Although hey, you know introverts have some useful skills for isolation life. But that’s another post for another day.

I’m talking about #cptsdlyf

So, I was diagnosed with depression a long time ago and I’ve been medicated for quite a while, but it took me a while to see a psychologist and partake of their particular expertise. Psychs are expensive and I could see a counsellor through a subsidised organisation a lot cheaper. And counsellors are magnificent and helped me a lot. But, what the psychologist was able to contribute was to delve a little further into medical research etc and explained that alongside my depression, I have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Now, there’s controversy around the term, there often is in psychology when things are in the initial stages of being described. Some would like to use the term Developmental Trauma Disorder or simply Complex Trauma Disorder, and eventually there may be a more settled articulation of the name, but the symptoms, or description of the disorder is widely recognised in psychology. Many different things can cause it, and you can check out the Wikipedia article if you’d like more detailed info but the main thing you need to know now is in the name C-PTSD, complex post traumatic STRESS disorder.

That’s right, stress!! I’m an expert in stress! My body and brain have been deeply shaped by it and it’s taken years of work and expensive therapy to get to a point where I’m much better at recognising what’s going on and am more able to deal well with it. And you can’t deny we’re all feeling pretty STRESSED right now, so me and everyone else finally have something in common!

Because C-PTSD and PTSD life can sometimes be lonely. For a lot of C-PTSD havers there’s heavy denial (from other people) around the trauma they’ve experienced (it’s often connected to abuse, which is usually accompanied by a web of denial and lies), and for PTSD havers, the traumatic event has passed for everyone else but is alive and well for them (yes, Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump could spring to mind here and that makes sense. Vietnam vets were a generation who were scorned and derided for their experiences but also one of the first war generations to eventually find some help and advocacy regarding their mental health. It took too long… But that’s what it is…). But one thing that’s different at the moment is that very few people are left in denial that we’re all in a stressful situation at the moment. So, you’ve immediately got one weapon against your stress that a lot of C-PTSD and PTSD people don’t – everyone knows you’re stressed and why and that it’s legitimate.

But what are some things I’ve learned from stress life that I can encourage or enlighten you with?

1. You’re going to be exhausted and that’s perfectly normal.

When you’re stressed, your body and brain are using extra energy to cope/function/be normal and that’s quite tiring. Also, your brain might be looking for defence mechanisms, ways to escape the stress, and often, sleep feels like an answer to that. My body is excellent at “playing possum”. In panic attacks, I quickly black out, and in life in general, when my stress levels are high, my body wants to sleep. Aaaaaalllllll the time.

The memes going around about how we should all be using this time to write a novel and invent gravity can be inspirational but it’s very important to remember, you’re under stress! So also, be kind to yourself! And your body may demand more sleep than you’re used to. This isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re on the verge of a breakdown, but it does mean you’re stressed. But, feel free to talk to someone and check the resources I’ve put at the end of this post.

2. You’re going to have very weird dreams.

This is something I always forget isn’t normal for most people because extremely vivid and often disturbing dreams have been part of my life every night since I was very young. But I’ve been reminded a lot in the last couple of days that my normal is now becoming normal for everyone else.

Yeah! The dreams are weird hey!

PTSD is known for flashback moments, but also our brains doing a lot of processing of trauma when it can, which is often while we’re unconscious. Our brains often use dreams to try to work through the days events, or, as Dr Norman Swan put it on Coronacast, your brain is “taking out the garbage”.

And your brain has a lot of garbage atm! There’s a lot of STRESS it needs to work through. Personal, interpersonal, intrapsychic, relational, physical, social, systemic loss are part of our day-to-day at the moment. We have a lot of things to grieve and a lot of things to worry about. Your brain may choose to do this in odd to bizarre ways in your dreams. Sorry!

A vivid and disturbing dream can cast an emotional pall over the beginning of my day (and remember, for me, for most of my life, this is 70-90% of the times I sleep), and that can be a real downer. It can be hard to shake it off. So, maybe experiment with some ways to leave that dream world behind. For example, write it down. Shake your head over it. Thank your brain for trying to take out the garbage and then remind yourself today is not the dream. That may help for you. One tip I can give you for sure though, not many people are going to want to listen to you telling them about your weird dream-of-the-night every morning, so, good luck to the verbal processors. Maybe keep an audio journal so it feels like you’ve told someone? Parents, you may need to help your kids process theirs. Let them tell you about it, and then help them through the steps of “thanks brain for taking out the garbage. But now it’s today, so we’re going to do some fun things.”

There are lots of other tips out there for how to deal with the weird dreams, so feel free to research reputable sources.

3. Your capacity will be reduced.

Obviously connected to the first two, your body and brain are working over time, so you may not function at your usual capacity. You have a choice about how to deal with this:

– berate yourself for being a slacker

– be kind to yourself because this is an extraordinary time and you don’t need to function to any particular imaginary standard anyway.

I often choose the first or others choose it for me because they can’t see the trauma I’ve experienced and that I’m living with every day. Unfortunately, mental illness is invisible. But like I said above, you guys have a gift. EVERYONE recognises the difficulty at the moment. So, embrace that. Blame the situation BECAUSE IT’S REAL. You may not be functioning as you usually do or at someone else’s concept of your capacity and that’s ok. You’re stressed, it’s normal. Be kind to yourself.

4. You may make some bad choices, or want to.

So, many of us C-PTSD/PTSD havers make some “bad” choices to deal with our pain. Drugs, alcohol, excessive sex, porn addiction, “comfort” food. Our bodies and brains are often flailing to find an escape, any escape, that will lower the extremity of what we’re feeling and experiencing.

My main weakness on this front is comfort food. And it’s something I need to tackle with psychological help because it is a HUGE and complex issue to work through.

But at the moment? I just want all the chocolate and all the cake and all the fried chicken and maybe you do too. It’s unfortunate because we know that’s not necessarily great for our bodies, but it’s understandable because your body and brain want soothing because they’re dealing with STRESS. So again, what I’d recommend first is be kind to yourself. Understand why you may be seeking even more comfort than usual from your chosen source. And if you’re really wanting to resist seeking comfort there, recognise that a vacuum needs to be filled. So, make a list of other things you enjoy and can do at this time, ways to de-stress and relax and feel soothed and do them all!

Also, you may just want to remove all alcohol or chocolate from your house. It’s up to you.

5. Find the silver linings and find help.

Self-care has become more known about and recognised as a concept which is wonderful because it’s essential. If you want to keep caring well for yourself and the people around you, you need to be able to function well. AND, you deserve to be good to yourself. This is a concept my self-hatred finds hardest to recognise and believe, but I have value as a person just for who I am. I’m precious, and I’m worth taking care of. My fellow Christians would want to fling a few Bible verses at me at this point, and they’re right, I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a loving Creator who knows every hair on my head. But the gremlin inside me who tells me every day that I’m a piece of s*%t doesn’t believe in those Bible verses. So, I have to spend a reasonable amount of energy every day on this fight, alongside dealing with everything else.

I hope for your sakes that your gremlin doesn’t exist or is much quieter, but even if you don’t have that particular battle on your hands, all of the STRESS means you still need to be taking care of yourself. This requires some mental work, some physical work and some relational work. And more and more of it is becoming “common sense” which is wonderful. So, for eg:

– find healthy ways to process stress mentally, for eg, meditation, counselling, prayer.

– do some exercise, go outdoors when you can for the exercise. Combine the mediation and exercise by doing yoga! Iyengar yoga has changed my body and my life over the last few years and continues to be an incredible support. There’s a lot of research going into the benefits of yoga on trauma, google trauma sensitive yoga if you’d like to learn more.

– spend time talking to people you love or just hanging out on zoom while you read a book.

Our lists may look different but the principle is the same. Take care of yourself, you’re worth it.

There’s so much more I could say about this. I’ve been accumulating experience and lessons (I refuse to say “learnings”!!!!!!!!) about this for years, and I’d love to share it but also, this blog post is too long already. So, read up a bit about stress, and it’s extremes in traumatic stress, and figure out some ways you can take care of yourself and those you love.

Some resources that might help are:

Mental Health First Aid Guidelines here.

Black Dog Institute here.

Helplines like:

Lifeline – 13 11 14

Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800

Mensline – 1300 78 99 78

Suicide Callback Service – 1300 659 467

Your local health care areas also have access to translation services.

Your GP. You’ll need to speak to your GP to create a mental health care plan if you’d like Telehealth services with a psychologist and GPs are trained in helping triage mental health issues generally.

Be kind to yourself and others. Stress can be a huge burden but it’s not one you have to carry alone.

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