Ask A Counselor: How can I recover from stress, now that I’m safe?

by Kay Bruner on September 6, 2016

We are back in our passport country for the first time in two years and while adjustment has been pretty easy, I was very surprised to realize that the traumatic events experienced overseas seemed to follow me here. I had a little understanding of reverse culture shock, but hadn’t ever heard anyone speak or write on how to adjust from living in a place where you experience trauma, to living in a safe place.

I took about a month before I realized that my automatic fear/adrenaline rush when people shout, or when I’m alone, etc. were because those could be potentially dangerous situations overseas. Being on high alert there protected me from violent places/people. But I didn’t expect to feel that in my passport country, where I am safe.

What are some ways to recover from the stress, now that I’m safe?

3741239763_625996b7ea_bI love this question because I think it’s a very common problem: we think that getting out of the traumatic situation will take care of the stress.  We don’t expect post-traumatic symptoms, and we’re unprepared when they arise.

But, my friends, this is why it’s called POST-traumatic stress disorder:  it happens AFTER the stress is over.  Weeks or months later, the symptoms will appear.

We all know that stress chemicals flood the body in a traumatic situation.  We’ve all felt that rush of adrenaline, that urge to fight, flight, or freeze.  We all know what it’s like to be shaky with reaction after a particularly frightening event.

All of that is a chemical, bodily reaction, and perfectly normal.  Most of the time we can come through a single difficult event with relative ease, unless the event is extremely traumatic.   And usually, if the event is extremely traumatic, we’ll get help processing and healing from it, because our culture is set up to help in situations like injury, illness, and loss of life.

However, when we live long-term with ongoing stressful situations, our cognitive brains will begin to rationalize:

  • “Thank goodness, nobody really got hurt.”
  • “Bombs are a normal thing here.”
  • “It’s just another riot in the market.”
  • “It really doesn’t bother me that much.”

When events are understood as “not that bad,” then we won’t get help or support.  We won’t even think we need it.  

I knew a couple of teenagers who were mugged at knife-point and didn’t tell anybody for a couple of days because:  “That stuff happens all the time here” and “Nobody got hurt.”

While our cognitive brains may need to use defense mechanisms like this in order to keep functioning in our daily context, our chemical brains are often, unbeknownst to us, living at a state of high arousal and constant alert in order to protect us from the very real and present danger that our cognitive brains just can’t process.

If we’re experiencing post-traumatic stress for the first time, we may be unaware of the symptoms.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Intrusive memories

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event

Avoidance

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood
  • Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
  • Negative feelings about yourself or other people
  • Inability to experience positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships

Changes in emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms):

  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being easily startled or frightened (symptom list source: Mayo Clinic)

PTSD symptoms can vary widely in severity, as in any other illness.

Think of it this way.  You may have a sprained ankle.  You may need a full body cast.  If you go to the ER in either scenario, you’ll get treatment.  No doctor would ever say, “Go home, you idiot, it’s only a sprained ankle.”  She would just treat your sprained ankle.  That’s her job!

When it comes to post-traumatic stress, no matter how minor or how severe, every injury is in need of healing, and is worthy of treatment.  Attend to the injury you have.  Once you’ve taken care of that injury, you’ll be ready to resume normal life again.  If you ignore it, if you keep running on that sprained ankle, you’ll aggravate the injury even further.  We all know people who have done that, and it’s not pretty.  (Sometimes those people are us.)

Here are three broad areas to work on during stress-recovery.

1. EDUCATE YOUR MIND

  • Understand what you’re dealing with, so you’ll know what you need to do.
  • Read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, the best book out there on recovery from traumatic stress.
  • Listen to this podcast at OnBeing with Dr. Van Der Kolk.

2. ATTEND TO YOUR EMOTIONS

  • Find support
  • Talk to close friends or family members about what you’re experiencing.
  • Locate a counselor in your area.  You might look for someone who’s experienced in treating trauma and who has EMDR certification (a specialized trauma treatment).
  • Journal:  20 minutes per day is the number research tells us is most effective when we’re working through an issue.

3. HEAL YOUR BODY

  • PTSD is largely a chemical, bodily illness, so concentrate on physical strategies.
  • Build margin into your life by building healthy boundaries.
    • “No” is a whole answer, and a good enough reason.  If you don’t want to: NO.
    • “Lack of interest” is a symptom of PTSD.  When you’ve recovered, the interest will come back.
    • Until then, you’re in recovery.  It’s okay to say no.
  • Make time to breathe, time to be, time to play, time to laugh.
    • Laughter lets your body chemistry know that there is no danger.  You’re at rest, you’re peaceful, you’re laughing.  Your body understands:  all is well.
    • Watch funny movies or baby goats in pajamas on YouTube.  Read P. G. Wodehouse or another laugh-out-loud author.
    • Do fun things.  At least once a week, do something that is fun to YOU.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Sleep well.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Get a massage.
  • Breathe.  Breathe. Breathe.
  • Yoga is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD.  I know there is some fear of yoga, but given its research-proven effectiveness in treating traumatic stress, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you about it.  There are many Christian yoga options out there.  Google and find an option that works for you.

WHEN TO GET MORE HELP

Once you’ve recognized the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and done some stress-relieving work, your symptoms should begin to dissipate.  If you’re not feeling better within a month, it’s time to think about more help.  

  • If you haven’t seen a professional counselor, now is probably the time.
  • You should also see your doctor, as medication might be needed to restore your depleted body chemicals.

If your symptoms are severe and pervasive and you’re not able to perform the normal functions of life, seek help right away.  

Remember: post-traumatic stress is a physical illness, and help is available.

Educate your mind, attend to your emotions, heal your body.

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
  • Joan Troyer

    Great article.
    After I’ve been back in my passport country, I feel less safe. I was taken in hy a scam. My trust has been shaken. I was looked after by the indigenous and we looked out for one another. Here in my passport country it has gotten so untrustworthy.

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