When the triggers for anxiety hit, it is hard to know how to control them & often times you feel like you are spinning out of control when it happens. I had a ‘spin out’ the other day in the middle of a doctors office, where they told me that the procedure I was about to have was going to be done by a different physician, because my doctor’s son was having emergency surgery.
At first, logically, being in the medical profession myself, I thought, “well that’s fine, I just want to get it over with, and if he partners with my doctor he can’t be that terrible”. I thought this was the end of it, then I started having flashbacks of my assault, the feelings associated with it of panic, vulnerability, and paranoia. Once the fear and adrenalin starts to set in, the mind starts to do a very odd thing, it tries to protect itself by what we call the ‘flight or fight’ response. I am more of a ‘runner’, I like to avoid emotional issues and confrontation at all costs. Is this a healthy way to handle it, maybe not, but it is how I am programmed and that is ok. When the brain gets the signal that this could potentially be a dangerous situation, it access those portions of your memory where proteins have been stored away that can trigger some of these memories so that you can in a way remember what happened the last time you did or tried something. So for me, the last time I tentatively trusted a stranger, I was assaulted, and this is what my brain was telling me was happening in this moment. That if I trusted this stranger, whether he was a doctor or not did not matter, he was a stranger and that was it, and I would be put to sleep and have a colonoscopy done and would wake up and feel just the way that I did when I was assaulted. Now logically, my brain was also telling me in this same moment that this was not reasonable, that I don’t operate this way in my medical practice, so neither would these people. But alas, the fear part won over and I started to cry uncontrollably, like a dam broke behind my eyes, and I felt like I was breathing through a straw. I know nurses well enough to know when they are thinking, ‘oh great, one of these patients’; but for the most part, because I was honest and open about having PTSD they realized that this was not an easy thing for me. At the end of the day the procedure went fine, and in hind site I can look back and see some things that worked to help me, what the psychology field calls, ground myself.
Now we may not all have anxiety or PTSD, but there are those moments we all have where panic and fear can set in. Mine tends to be triggered with new environments, drastic changes, or feeling vulnerable — which can all be triggers when you are traveling. So here are some things that I find help me when I run into ‘triggers’:
- Find a Mantra: this is something that I repeat to myself over and over in my mind, even if it is silly, it really helps. Some of my mantras are, ‘I’m fine, this is normal’ — ‘this too shall pass’ — ‘you are ok, you are in a safe place because you have good instincts’ — ‘I have a full ticket and can ride all of life’s rides’. Now these may not work for you, so a little trial and error is what needs to happen for you to find the right words that you can convince your mind you are ok. Some other ideas are to take a quote from a movie, or your favorite scripture or a quote that someone you love tells you all the time.
- Have something physical with you that brings you comfort: this is most ideal when you are able to transport or carry it easily. Mine tend to be my baby blanket made of the material my pajamas were made of when I was a child by my grandma, which I also ended up wearing when I had chicken pox (a very severe case of them might I add). I did get a little embarrassed carrying this into the doctors office, thinking ‘I’m 33 years old, I shouldn’t be carrying a colorfully stripped baby blanket around’, but you know what, if it helps you, then who cares what people think of it. Something else I carry around in my purse in a pocket on the side I can easily and discreetly slip my hand into, is a small rock that feels like sandstone that I rub my fingers on. I spent quite a bit of time on the sandstone cliffs of the Red Rock National Park in Las Vegas and really have a lot of good memories from that. So for some reason I found that when I touched this rock, it really gave me a sense of ‘grounding’, like being one with the earth and imagining myself drawing strength from this mountain that seems so immovable — kind of like I want to be when these triggers happen.
- If you are home, or traveling bring a scent associated with good memories: I usually turn to essential oils or small bottles that smell nice. My scents that I usually go for are 1- Lavendar, not only because it is a naturally calming smell and is abundant in health food stores, but also because I associated it with my Grandma, who is a source of great comfort and strength. 2- is the scent of pine trees, I have a lot of good memories associated with pine trees, and find that when I am distressed and smell the scent of pine trees, its almost like it transports me to another place.
- Mindfulness: for a long time I thought this was a weird concept, but as I implement it more in my life I find it quite useful. I’m not perfect with it yet, as my triggers are still overwhelming at times, but for the day to day maintenance it is a great tool. What is mindfulness? To me it means, being in the present & aware of your current surroundings and the fact that you are alive. What I do for this, is when I start to notice I get overwhelmed, or a co-worker is really grating on my nerves & I’m about to blow; I start naming things and my current story. For example, I am sitting at a desk, my feet are on the floor, my shoes are warm and comfortable, my left shoulder muscle is slightly tight, I hear the air blowing and the click of the keys as I’m typing. See even just doing it when I’m not stressed out or triggered is actually quite calming. Another way to do this is Naming 5 things you hear, 5 things you see, 5 things you feel & repeating this process for every number until you get to 1. After awhile this concept became very important to me when I started getting flashbacks at work, or when trying to have fun with my friends. I use this technique for those moments.
- Keep your mind busy: this is likely what most people do, avoid the thoughts, but it doesn’t allow the mind to process them so they don’t keep returning. In a way it is like a drug addict taking pain medication so that they don’t have to feel or care about anything in the moment. So be careful in the ways that you use this one as it can lead to pitfalls later in life, trust me. But for those moments when you are feeling like you just need a break from working on staying sane, keep your mind busy, like when I was at the doctors office, I played bejeweled, I opened the window shade and just stared out the window and noticed the trees and thought about all the hiking trips I wanted to go on. I called my Dad, I texted my mom, and looked at pictures of my dog, and cleaned up a lot of non-personal useless photos that have been sitting in my phone forever. There are lots of things that you can do that do not require money, and are highly portable.
- Meditate: I’m still working on this one, I have a very hard time sitting around and doing nothing and trying to keep my mind to ‘stand still’
- Sleep: you can’t sleep your life away, but getting a good night’s sleep is probably the best thing I do when I want to maintain my sanity. I’m talking a minimum of 6 hours with ideal being 8 hours of sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep try Melatonin, or 5-HTP, or go to your doctor and see what options are available to you. Most of the time if you are on a Sleep aid for a week, your bodies natural chemicals that help you sleep will re-align themselves and you can stop the sleep aid after 1 week.
In the end Anxiety, PTSD, even depression are not fun things that people have to deal with and learn to live with. But I have found that as I have learned to make peace with my internal demons — I am plagued by them much less. Some things we may experience in our lives we may never ‘get over’ but we can learn to live above them & make peace with the trauma that they created. In this way I have been able to travel again & feel I am on the road to being myself again and getting my internal power back. The road is not easy, but I promise that with time & a lot of introspection and personal effort to ‘just try it’ — it will ‘be ok’ in the end.