Dedicated to Andrea McGill
For those of us with PTSD/CPTSD brain chemicals, survival skills, expectations, grief and core beliefs are the components that form our very view of the world, circumstances around us and our own self-image. These factors are all interwoven and become who we are. For us, this view has become skewed. Like a carnival mirror warps an image, the image we carry of the world, people, circumstances and self becomes warped. The lack of knowledge regarding how skewed the world has become to us results in perceptions that do not serve us well. Our expectations, interactions, relationships with self and others become skewed and unmanageable even with the best of intentions.
From the time of infancy, we begin to develop survival skills (learned responses), core values (fundamental beliefs) and expectations that become the very foundation of who we become. I think it is important to point out that unresolved grief also plays a role. Grief/loss is like a shadow that interacts with all these components and hangs over our minds shading our perceptual experience and altering the hues of our colorful world. Insidiously without notice or cause for concern, these components, and the shadows hanging over them, can compound over the years and become layers of ourselves. We can not see that they have amassed to become how we view and interact with those around us and ourselves. This undetected self becomes deeply rooted in who we are. In short, they become us without our conscience permission. They are so intricately interwoven in to our experience that they are difficult to detect. The very things we need to sort out by peeling away their built up layers through mindfulness and living in the moment. Only then will we gain a clearer picture of ourselves, our damage and the world/people around us. The good news? With mindfulness we can make adjustments where needed to become who we want to be.
For those who believe that the mind body and spirit are all connected, becoming mindful should be easier, so they say. Perhaps true in the beginning, but it is hard work regardless, and doing the work is not to be underestimated. If you do not have such a belief from the beginning, you can start your understanding this way. Science has demonstrated a direct correlation between emotions and such illnesses as cancer, happy people live longer, emotional trauma can change us physically via brain chemistry. There are plenty of examples and reading material regarding this subject. I would recommend becoming more informed about the interconnections of who we are to ourselves, if your struggling with this concept.
Mindfulness and being in the moment starts with meditation. For me, a very difficult process. How do you relax a mind full of chemicals that do anything but relax us! I had even begun to truly believe it was not possible. Determined, or desperate, I kept at it. Over time, it began to work and allowed myself to notice bodily reactions. A platform from which all else was built! Finally, I began to be able to focus on the tools I had learned and better control my panic attacks. This afforded me some relief and the belief that I could control my responses and get in the moment. I started trusting the process!
Mindfulness is defined as: 1) the quality or state of being mindful 2) the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Simple right? Oh no! Very difficult and yet the very key to peeling your layers of core values, expectations, reactions, thinking, feelings and needs. It is the very foundation from which the ability to be in the moment was born and from which healing began.
Mindful meditation is a skill and so is being in the moment! Once I could meditate, I continued to find being in the moment a struggle. Again it is a skill requiring practice. Our brains spin, our reactions are quick and slowing it all down is very difficult. I think of it as everyone else is on a slow Sunday drive enjoying the country side…… and me…..I’m always at the track launching down the drag strip nitromethane flowing, tires spinning and smoke hanging in the air. The skill is in learning to slow down your brain to a Sunday drive mode and developing an objective view of self in the moment. This skill is built on what was learned thru meditation. Freeing us to be more consciously in the moment. Allowing us to more objectively observe self and our reactions as we move through life. From this, knowledge of self grows to include which tools really work for you, and which don’t, identifying triggers, how we respond and needed change.
As an example, I first identified tingling in my stomach as the beginnings of a panic attack. As time has passed, I found that goosebumps may, or may not, actually come a half instant before the stomach begins to tingle. However, once the tingle began, I would reach for tools to deal with it in-the-moment and evaluate what my body was doing. I began to noticed a warm flush, at times, maybe sightly (a millisecond) preceding the goosebumps. I could then determined that a flush + goosebumps + stomach tingling = severe panic attack every time. Then again, sometimes there were no goosebumps, sometimes no flush and still a panic attack occurred but these are less severe.
Generally, I can now tell at the moment a panic attack starts how severe it will be and what tools to use. In the beginning, nothing seemed consistent, nothing seemed to prevent or minimize them. It can be very frustrating trying to identify the significance of inconsistent bodily reactions. With practice, I began to notice through mindfulness when they are severe it is purely emotional based. The result of loved ones inflicting emotional pain (my strongest trigger). During such times, I clung to my “toolbox” of how to respond to these panic attacks and could do little more than ride them out. As I became able to be mindful and in the moment things changed. Over time, I was able to assess why & how my panic attacks occurred and what their intensity would be. Hence, I am much better at dealing with them, avoiding trigger situations and develop healthier responses (even if that just means run!).
As a result of these assessments, I had gained the skill to more closely identify what was going on and better deal with panic attacks. Then I found myself able to start identify core values, expectations, reactions, thinking, feelings/grief and specific triggers. As time passed, I became able to protect myself and, or, prepare for a difficult situation. Here success began to breed success. Yet, as the outcomes could not always be added up as simply as I had hoped, frustration would kick in and I would begin to feel like it was never going to end. Still the work continued, I came to believe that the accumulation of knowledge gathered regarding body, mind and spirit resulted in a self-intuition.
In many ways, things would come to me as a result of an intuitive thought in the midst of a triggering situation or in assessing it afterwards. If I could not process information at the time, I did my work afterwards. As you awaken to yourself it is sometimes impossible to prepare and or react the way you would with a clearer mind. Frequently, the learning comes as you assess what happened and who you were in a situation after the fact. Yes, the goal is to be mindful and present in the moment. Sometimes we just have to do “the next best thing” until we reach our goal. The situation maybe over, but do the work! What you learn may help next time and you will get quicker at it with practice. Like our original layers grew slowly and insidiously as we went through life, so will these new layers grow, interact and begin to replace the old ones.
As my sense of self changed, I spent periods of time feeling alone, adrift and frustrated. It was also during these times that answers came to me like bolts of lightening out of nowhere. I think of these bolts of lightening as self-intuitiveness resulting from a synergy between body cues, mindfulness, tools used, a determination to do the work and trusting the process. Today, my behavior is improved, I think clearer, feel better and interact with self control in difficult situations (mostly).
I am not “cured”! Like most of us, I backslide, have bad days, deal with panic, struggle with expectations, grief avoidance and still work at peeling away. However, I have developed a reasonable amount of control over myself and thus my world. Generally, I have diminished my panic attacks, adjusted my view of the world around me and of myself in it. I can be in the moment with a sense of mindful self-intuition. In short, mindfulness saved my life and was well worth the effort.
The woman whom accompanies me on this journey is a miraculous woman. I could have not been successful without her. If your counselor is not accompanying you on your journey, please keep looking! If they are not guiding you to do, and through, the work they are not working for you … just around you. You should resemble a team of explorers and they are the scout, possess the map, hold the compass and should be working diligently to walk along side you!