This post is by JH of Writing Through PTSD.
How Trauma-Focused CBT is Helping Me
I completed 12 weeks of group trauma-focused CBT a few months ago, and have been practicing the skills that I learned. I wanted to write this to keep track of my recovery, and to help others who might read it.
I learned so much through the course, and one of the main things I’m now aware of is how the brain responds to trauma, and why I feel the way I do. That knowledge is everything. Previously, I would get the symptoms, feel the way I did and not know what was happening so I was powerless over what I was experiencing. I’ve learned about the window of tolerance, hyperarousal, hypoarousal, fight, flight, freeze, flag, feint, dissociation, emotion dysregulation and how all of these can affect someone who has PTSD symptoms. I can now identify when I’m headed that way, and I’ve also had time to work out which grounding techniques work most effectively for me.
The techniques take a lot of practice. It’s easy to try them a few times and decide they don’t work, but it’s because our brains are just not used to them and we have to learn them, to build new pathways in our brains, to consolidate our learning until it becomes an automatic response for us.
I’ve made a lot of small changes, but this week, for the first time, I was able to turn things around without outside support.
A usual pattern that I experience is I’ll get triggered and my responses will feel overpowering, but for a time I can manage the triggers. Although I’m not feeling good, I can carry on. Once this has been going on for a few weeks, I lose my ability to fight because the battle has been going on for a long time, and I’ll feel my strength begin to fail. My brain can no longer keep up, and I’ll feel as though I’m trying to wade through toffee, with more toffee being thrown at me. At this point, every trigger, even the small ones that I usually deal with without too much trouble, will feel too much. The smallest trigger will set my brain off like a pinball machine. I start to feel distant and my life feels as though everything is happening through a fog. At this point, the suicidal thoughts will begin and I’ll head down a familiar path. My husband will often start repeatedly asking me if I’m okay. He says it’s as if I’m in a daze.
I have a safety plan in place for these situations – to seek help before things progress. Last week, I felt myself progressing towards this path, and thought I ought to reach out for help. But I didn’t reach out. The mental health team are there to call if I need to, but I thought to myself, what will I say? What will they say? They’ll probably ask me which techniques I’ve tried, and remind me to challenge my thoughts. I realised that once I start to feel better again, I tend to forget I’ve stopped using the techniques. The mental health team keep on and on about the fact that we do need to keep practicing our techniques when we are feeling well so we don’t lose our skills. That’s what I hadn’t done. So I decided I was going to read my notes every morning and see if that worked before I took the step of phoning them.
The next morning, I read through my notes. I have things written down that people have said that have helped me before when I’ve experienced my usual triggers. I can see the unhelpful thought patterns I tend to slip back into so easily. All of it I have worked through before. It was already there to help me, and I’d just forgotten to access it.
I’ve also started keeping a trigger diary, listing every trigger I get during the day, so I can ascertain the unhelpful thinking patterns that are fueling my triggers, and spot the recurring themes.
After a few mornings of doing this, I found I was back to coping better again. That is the first time I have ever turned things around from that bad a place on my own! I felt so empowered that I’d done this all by myself. I’d always worried that I’d never get to a stage where I wasn’t reliant on outside support.
Another thing that has really been working for me is journaling, quite a lot of which is part of my blog. Before I began the CBT course, I would only be able to jot a few things down on bits of paper. My feelings were overwhelming, and I could only get, at best, fragments of clarity about things from my past which I couldn’t process. Gradually, I was able to add more to the fragments and they became paragraphs. As I wrote, it was as though a jigsaw was coming together – I got new realisations all the time. I would write and write and see things with greater clarity – why I act and think like I do and how that relates to my past complex trauma and my OCD diagnosis. The biggest benefit has been that it’s no longer stuck in my mind as a confusing, frightening mess. It’s outside of me now, so I can access it if I need to, but I don’t have to keep it locked away inside. Sometimes when I write a blog entry I feel unexpectedly emotional for a day or two. That’s new to me, as I’m not generally an emotional person at all. Maybe that’s what processing is about.
The biggest thing I’m learning from this is to stop trying to be strong. People often say, “Be strong.” “Keep fighting.” That has often made it worse for me, and I’ve found I tend to feel better when I’m not trying to be strong. I’m learning to relax into it and trust the process.
I blog about life with Complex PTSD and OCD. I hope to explain more about my own mental health journey, and also share my experiences with therapy and what has worked for me in recovery. Thanks for reading. 🙂 JH