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Healing One Moment at a Time

Thursday, November 1, 2007
Dear Friends,

Like the fires, will Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rage through Southern California?
My friends Renee and Mary Jo were evacuated from their home in Del Dios, the community adjacent to Lake Hodges in Escondido, CA. I spoke with Renee every day, listening to the daily progression of the fires. Renee was one of the lucky ones: not only was she able to spend the week in a familiar place—her art studio in Escondido—but at the end of the week, she and Mary Jo were able to return to their home, the only home still standing on their block.

On Sunday (10/28) I drove out from the coast to see them. The drive out to Del Dios was spooky and frightening—blackness everywhere, with ashes filling the air. When I arrived, I could see that the fire had come right up to both sides of their house, and all the homes surrounding them had burned to the ground. Renee and Mary Jo were so relieved to be home. Yet, at the same time, feeling survivor’s guilt as they watched their friends and neighbors sifting through the soot and ash, searching for pieces and fragments of their belongings.

Renee had offered up her home as a sort of “base camp” for the neighborhood, so I met several of their neighbors. I was struck by the cheerfulness, kindness, and caring that filled the atmosphere. One of the fire victims said, “I’m finding that I just need to talk about my experiences of the week over and over again. And because I know that all my friends have experienced the same trauma, I’ve already made a call to my EAP to get a referral for a therapist.” Her sense of humor was still intact as she said, “They (the therapists) have to listen to me—it’s what they do!” What I loved about this statement is this person’s awareness that she needs help in order to heal – and she is asking for the help she needs.

Post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is a conditioned reaction that can’t simply be flipped off like a light switch. We’ve all heard it said, “Time heals.” But NOT in these circumstances. The signs of pre-PTSD are anxiousness, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. When we are presented with major trauma—like a fire threatening to destroy our home—these symptoms are magnified. Without help, these reactions become hardwired into the brain and nervous system. They become chronic—they are with us every moment of the day. Anxiousness can quickly become panic, and irritability can turn into violent outbursts.

If we do nothing with these feelings and reactions, they become the ‘normal’ way we respond to the situations of life. However, to stop PTSD in its tracks, we can manage the crisis in the moment and retrain our brains to a state of present moment focus. We can fend off a potential severe emotional disorder using the same focus used to achieve peak performance.

At the first signs of stress and anxiety:

ACKNOWLEDGE what are you feeling right now—even if what you’re feeling is loss over the things that made up your life—your house & the things inside it. If you don’t allow yourself the experience of these natural feelings of ‘loss,’ they’ll be compounded by feelings of guilt. Acknowledge what you’re feeling, and experience the feeling.

Many of us are conditioned to avoid or deny our feelings, or those of our loved ones, especially when these feelings are painful. Each time the painful feeling arises, we distance ourselves from it by reacting to something outward. These outbursts or reactions become hardwired into our system. Before we know it, we are reacting to even minor events or situations with panic attacks or numbness or violent outbursts — and we don’t know how to break the cycle. The secret to stopping PTSD in its tracks is to learn to acknowledge these feelings as they arise and experience them within the body.

IDENTIFY how you are reacting—are you irritable with your partner or child; are you edgy at work or having difficulty making decisions; are you having trouble sleeping or waking up with nightmares; are you reaching for too much alcohol or compulsively overeating? What is your reaction that is being triggered by your feelings?

BREATHE. Take a LONG SLOW & DEEP BREATH—Breathing clears the mind, releases tension and anxiety from the body. Your awareness is brought back to the moment. You are taking back the power from your automatic reactions and becoming aware of the experience of choice in the moment.

ACTIVATE A POSITIVE FEELING such as compassion, appreciation, or caring. Research studying the difference between the experience of anger vs. compassion indicates that you are healing yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically by activating a positive feeling such as compassion or caring. When we shift away from the feeling of fear or anxiety about the future to compassion and appreciation for what is in this moment, we are healing ourselves. With this shift in our emotion, we are now able to change the way we perceive what is happening right now. From disaster and loss to the possibilities that may be present within this moment. This is how we move forward—one moment at a time. By looking at life in small bite size pieces, we become capable and competent of handling whatever comes our way.

Ask yourself, “What is the most important thing for me right now?” In this state of calm and centeredness, the answer will come from your heart. Maybe you decide you want to offer help to someone in need, or maybe you decide you want to ask for help for yourself. Act on it—as you act on what is most important and congruent for you in the moment, you are retraining your brain and nervous system to respond in a calmer and more congruent manner.In this way, and with practice, you are re-setting your nervous system and therefore are less susceptible to the onset of PTSD and the problems associated with PTSD. There is hope—you can, with help, overcome your reactions to the stressors in your life and thus stop PTSD in its tracks. The earlier you begin to acknowledge how you feel following or during a crisis or traumatic event, the more capable you are to lessen the effects of the trauma on your nervous system.

Wishing you focus, fitness, & flexibility in body and mind,

Adrianne Ahern, Ph.D.
Performance Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and author of Snap Out Of It Now!
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