July 28, 2016

Beautifully Broken: The Road to Recovery from PTSD.


“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross


There is a Japanese art form known as Kintsukuroi—which is defined as, “to repair with gold.”

When practiced, the Kintsukuroi artist takes broken pieces of pottery and gently places them back together with the help of an adhesive lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum. When the adhesive dries and the pottery is back in one whole piece, the result is a more beautiful piece of pottery than the original unbroken pottery.

In the places where there was once brokenness, there is now a beautiful precious metal that brings more beauty than the original piece held. The philosophy behind the art of Kintsukuroi is rooted in the belief that the pottery is more beautiful for having been broken.

Two days after I had my “amygdala aha moment,” I was anxious to go to my first counseling session to address my epiphany. As I prepared for my session, I became rabid for information about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and how to be healed from this mental health condition.

The more I learned, the more I was fascinated by how this precious, fragile part of our brain was responsible for harboring our own personal “fear factors.”

I read about a man who had a severe fear of spiders and also dealt with seizures. When he had a brain scan, the doctors found that his left amygdala was damaged and it needed to be removed. After the brain surgery was complete and recovery had taken place, the man noticed he was no longer afraid of spiders. The doctors were baffled, and then realized they must have removed the part of his amygdala that was holding his fear of spiders. The fear had literally been cut out from his amygdala.

In other research, I read about a progressive doctor in British Columbia, Canada named Dr. Gabor Mate, who specialized in treating people who had suffered severe trauma. Before the Canadian government ordered him to stop, he used the psychedelic drug Ayahuasca to help bring his patients’ subconscious memories into their consciousness, so they could assimilate and deal with them.

I found this method so fascinating, and I began to wonder how it actually worked. Upon further investigation, I found Dr. Mate’s description of how this psychedelic worked. According to him:

“Ayahuasca is not a drug in the Western sense, something you take to get rid of something. Properly used, it opens up parts of yourself that you usually have no access to. The parts of the brain that hold emotional memories come together with those parts that modulate insight and awareness, so you see past experiences in a new way.”

As interesting as it was to learn about fear being cut out of the brain and psychedelics healing traumatic memories, I really hoped my therapist could help me process my memories with some gentler methods for dealing with PTSD.

I was not disappointed.

I dropped off my daughter at my mom’s house and drove downtown to find my new counselor’s office. As I neared the downtown district, I remembered all the parking spots near her office required paid parking.

“Dammit!” I sighed to myself, “I never have change for parking.”

I started to feel anxiety creep into my chest as I opened up my glove compartment to forage for change. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had one loonie and a twoonie (Canadian coins)—more than enough to cover the time during my one-hour session.

“Aaaah…” I exhaled, “This is a good sign.”

I felt a spring come back into my step as I found a parking space right outside her office and proceeded to put the change I found in the meter.

I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

When I finally found her office and went into her room, I plopped myself onto the couch and laid down, just like I saw in the movies. Even though the therapy had not even started, I felt better already.

I began to tell my therapist about my revelation. She listened, and then went on to describe exactly what was happening to my body in psychological and physiological terms.

She told me about how our nervous system has two systems: the Parasympathetic (which is responsible for rest and calm), and the Sympathetic (which is responsible for the fight or flight response). She came and sat beside me as she drew a picture of a teeter-totter.

“Ideally,” she said, “You want these two systems to be a balanced teeter totter—sitting straight across. But right now, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is weighing that teeter totter down. It’s winning, and you need to get your two systems back in balance.”

Of course my next question was, “How do I do that?”

I told her that felt impossible to do when my PTSD triggers hit, because in those moments my body reacts independently of my mind.

She calmly listened, and then responded, “I know, but there are strategies you can use to process the anxiety that comes when those triggers come.”

I felt my tightened body loosen, just a little, as I waited for her response.

“This is not something that can be solved in one therapy session, but I want to give you some strategies that you can start using today.”

“Sounds good to me!” I smiled inside as I sat there, anxiously awaiting her wise wisdom.

The hope that began when I surprisingly found change for the parking meter continued to shower in, as my therapist provided me with three easy-to-use relaxation techniques to commence my journey of healing from PTSD.

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing. When we are stressed out, our breathing can become very rapid and shallow, and this shallow breathing can exacerbate anxiety. My therapist described how therapeutic it can be to take 10 deep, diaphragmatic breaths when anxiety begins to creep in. I tried it while I was sitting with her, and the results were instant. I could feel the oxygen flow more smoothly and completely to my brain and extremities, and a deeper calm set in.

2. Noticing your Body’s Posture and Muscle Relaxation. Another tell-tale sign of PTSD or any form of anxiety is constricted, tense muscles. This perpetuates the fight or flight mode in our body. A good way to take control of this is to notice the areas of your body that are tight or stressed, and consciously loosen them. If our shoulders are tense, they will be squeezed up towards our neck—we can notice that and bring them down. If our hands are clenched, we can release them. Noticing what your body is doing, and then changing it’s posture, can be helpful in the healing process.

3. Awareness and Self-Talk. The last helpful nugget of healing my therapist gave me was designed for soldiers who had returned from war that suffered from PTSD. It has to do with making a conscious effort to bring oneself back to the present moment. I listened intently as she described it: “When you feel stressed, feel your heart pounding and have shortness of breath—look around you and begin to notice your surroundings. While you do that, mentally notice five things you can see, five things you can hear, and five things you can sense—then repeat the process again, noticing four things in each category— then three, then two, then one. This will bring you out of your mind and into the present.”

The combination of my amygdala awareness and relaxation/stress relief strategies have given me hope that I will one day be completely healed of PTSD.

I am still on my healing journey, but I am now acutely aware that my soul is being glued back together, piece by piece, to become beautifully broken—just like the gold lined pottery made by the Japanese Kintsukuroi artists.


Author: Wendy Haley

Image: Haragayato/Wikimedia Commons

Apprentice Editor: Brianna Miller; Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

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