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Treating Trauma Together

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.” -- Oxford Dictionary.

If you or a loved one may suffer from this condition, I want you to find hope from what I am about to write here in this space.

Some of you know my story.

For years until my retirement I provided mental health therapy to folks suffering from a rather broad range of psychiatric disorders. I’ve kept my continuing education units current and my state license (LISW I-1618) active because of both my commitment to being a life-long learner and my life mission of “helping relieve people’s suffering anywhere and anytime I can.”

In my retirement years I’d planned on just writing books and doing public speaking engagements. However, I could no longer stand on the sidelines and watch as my fellow Americans, Ohioans in particular here within the jurisdiction of my licensure, suffered from panic-level anxiety and suicide-level depression. I had to return to work doing at least the tele-health counseling that I could using the available secure and confidential internet platforms available. Specifically, I use Sondermind, Better Help / Regain (marital therapy) and Faithful Counseling (Christian faith-based).

In less than one half hour of opening my availability to accept new clients, I can have a dozen new clients and have to shut my proverbial door (office is closed sign). And that was before last Wednesday’s events that occurred at our USA Capitol Building.

Clinically, my academic discipline is Social Work. I’m a believer that what happens psychologically impacts our society and what happens socially impacts our psyche. And I tend to think mental illness is contagious, or shall we say communicable, by means of social discourse. Social discourse, whether from two persons or 2 billion people, has its own dynamic way of setting our narrative or defining the story we live and act out.

Without getting into the weeds of any clinical jargon, I’m hoping here to still outline my concern and offer my counsel for what I now am convinced is a massive epidemic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on the part of Americans since the events of Jan 6, 2021 inside our Capitol Building.

Anecdotally, I have found PTSD to be highly treatable using a combination of Narrative Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Obviously all therapy must be individualized in order to have any optimal efficacy or effectiveness. But even a generalized introduction to therapy for PTSD may carry at least some benefit in helping at least one person. For that reason, please read on. You or your loved one, if you truly do now suffer from PTSD as defined above, may be one to actually benefit.

Rule #1 when dealing with PTSD: do not assume that your first thought in response to a traumatic event will ever be rational. What makes any event traumatic in the first place is that it is very often different and unknown in some way that begs explanation. Our first thought, and our mind’s initial explanation from just beyond our brain’s basic Amygdala, is that of danger or catastrophe. Stress-time, fight or flight. Hyperventilation, heart palpitations, adrenalin, perspiration. You probably know what that’s like. Our first thought is of our worst case scenario or our worst possible outcome. Anxiety ensues as a natural result, or even panic (“I’m scared to death”). We call this process of first explanation within our own minds “self-talk.” And we literally if silently talk ourselves into high levels of anxiety or even panic after such an unknowable or unusual event in our lives as last Wednesday's in D.C.

Rule #2: do not assume that the first thing you hear or see from the media (at ANY level) in response to a traumatic event will ever be objective. At some level it will be subjective and it will tell you the story or explain the narrative. Just as you think the worst so do others, and the media (technically all media is social or public even when it presumes to be private) is often your own first thought process on steroids. The first story within our social discourse is generally a fear story: danger, catastrophe, stress, anxiety, panic. If it bleeds, it leads. And that goes for Twitter and Facebook and every algorithm of every media platform. The first thought becomes the first story, and it is worst case scenario material.

Rule #3: find a safe place and a safe way to calm down. First, breathe. Second, breathe. Third, breathe some more. Sit down….or sit up but in a comfortable position, if possible. Ground your thoughts in your immediate location….. assuming it is not on fire or under deadly attack by persons assaulting you with fists, knives, or guns. Count down from 5 to 1 those different things you can name in your mind that you can see, that you can hear, that you can smell/taste, and that you can touch. Ground yourself in the here and now, safe from the there and then of any traumatic event.

Rule #4: think twice. Unless we are instantly killed by the event, we are by virtue of surviving it able to rethink it. Much of what I do in counseling is what I call “on second thought therapy.” As we think again about the event that just happened, and here I’ll include those events of January 6th at our nation’s Capitol Building, upon first calming down and being grounded we then think more rationally about what the event(s) mean. We use our brain's frontal lobe and not just our amygdala. We come up with a clearer and more reasoned explanation of what has happened, where, when, and even what next. We slow the frame down, the movie is no longer on fast-forward but simply play. We can follow what’s happening and make better sense out of it.

Rule #5: retell the story. Life, as I share in my spiritual autobiography, “Love’s Resurrection: its power to roll away fear’s heaviest stone” is for all of us made up of a “Fear Story” and a competing “Love Story,” the latter being closest to God’s truth. Our fear story comes first and comes not only from our own “first thought” in response to life’s unusual or unknowable events but also from our media’s first message about them. This original story is based on our own irrational assumption and the media’s own subjective bias. Worst case scenario. Worst possible outcome. Catastrophe. Danger. Stress. Fight or flight. Anxiety or panic. And this original story and its confirmation bias in our minds may lead us to have the condition we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or at least have it until we do the steps necessary to treat it, which necessarily involves our retelling of the story. When “on second thought” therapy becomes “rest of the story” therapy, we can finally experience the healing I believe God wills and thus provides for us. In that sense, the second narrative or story is really our love story. Or God’s love story alongside our love story. Instead of a nightmare than has no end, it is a dream that ends well.

And these days the American dream needs to end well, because if we stay with only our first thought and our first story of 1/6/2021, we will be stuck with an American nightmare that refuses to end.

Tomorrow, I’d like to continue this therapeutic attempt on my part by focusing on what "together" needs to happen in response to this trauma that just happened in the USA.

Please stay tuned for my second post.

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