Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other forms of traumatic stress can make life incredibly difficult and unpredictable. Intrusive thoughts and flashbacks can just show up without a moment’s notice, affecting your ability to function.
Staying away from the people, places, and situations that trigger these thoughts and memories can be appropriate and helpful at times. However, using avoidance as your only strategy can cause more problems than it attempts to solve. These symptoms can’t be avoided all the time, and trying to may cause you to close yourself off to opportunities, create anxiety, or feel even more restrained by your traumatic experience.
It may also be harmful to only have one method of coping because it may not help you every time. Rather it’s better to have an abundance of tools at the ready for when you’re feeling the scary reach of traumatic stress. So, here are some diverse coping methods to add to your toolbox.
Use the “Window of Tolerance”
The “Window of Tolerance” (WoT) concept is a way to identify and talk about your current mental state. Being inside your window means that you’re doing okay and can function effectively. When you’re outside of the window, it means you have been triggered and you are experiencing a traumatic-stress response.
Initially, you might have a small window which means you have a limited capacity to process and stabilize when presented with difficult information or reminders of traumatic events. You are easily triggered by flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, high anxiety, emotional shut down/numbing, panic/anxiety attacks, dissociation and overwhelmed.
Your window expands as you develop tools to stabilize your feelings, which increases your capacity to handle more difficult information, emotions, and physical stimuli/sensations. “Handle” means you can stay in the present moment, you know where you are, who you are with, what date and time it is, and are aware of all your five senses. This is coupled with being able to feel emotions and not be overwhelmed by them. You are present in the moment, you can think and feel at the same time.
Having the awareness of both the positive and negative states can help you identify and practice the tools necessary to either stay in your WoT or return to your WoT if you find yourself outside of it. Being able to notify others of the size of your window, your triggers, and your tools allows for realistic expectations of what you can handle and what you need to do to stay present and engaged.
Breathe Slowly and Deeply
This is a free and portable tool to use anytime and anywhere. Make sure you inhale through your nose and exhale for longer than you inhale, either through your nose or through pursed lips. A suggested rhythm is to inhale for four counts, hold for two and exhale for six to eight counts. By doing this you are activating the part of your nervous system that helps your body calm itself. This can help you to think clearly and return to the present moment.
Validate Your Experience
What you have experienced is real and hurtful. Having the name or context of traumatic stress/PTSD lets you know you that how you feel is not your fault. There is nothing “wrong” with you. What you’re going through is actually a normal response to abnormal experiences. It’s important to remind yourself of this as you go through challenging symptoms because self-validation is an important piece of healing.
Focus on Your Five Senses (5-4-3-2-1)
Start with five different things you see (the trees outside the window), hear (the buzzing of the air conditioner), sense with your skin (my collar on my neck or a warm breeze on my arms), taste (the lingering of coffee on my tongue), and smell (stale air or perfume). Then notice four of each, then three of each, and so on. Be as specific about these items as you can to make you really concentrate on external factors and to get out of your head. Pay attention to things like shape, scent, texture and color. You will probably be back to the present moment before you even realize it.
Think Positively for 12 Seconds
Bring to mind something positive. Such as a beautiful flower, a sunset, a smile on someone’s face or a compliment from a friend or colleague. And really focus on it for 12 seconds. Breathe and notice its impact on your body and emotions. According to neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, it only takes 12 seconds for the creation of new neuron connections. These positive experiences have the ability to replace stress/fear based thinking and coping.