It begins with a yellow-brown, smoke-filled sky, or furious hot winds.
Body clenches. Heart races. Eyes scan the horizon. Hyper-vigilance reigns.
This is a PTSD reaction. Again.
There’s no control when you are traumatized by fire, rape, war, abuse, hurricane, or flood. When pouring rain, raging winds, or smoke-filled skies retrigger your trauma, all kinds of physiological and psychological fight-or-flight reactions result.
You are thrown back into the triggering event. Your limbic brain rules. Words, logic, kindnesses don’t touch you. You are in another world. You re-experience the original trauma as if it is in this moment. It takes over.
You can suffer through this, and most of us do. You’re told “Get over it.” “Stiff upper lip.” “It’s time to move on.” But your life becomes unbearable; you feel less than whole, and hide it; have nightmares and drug yourself to mask the suffering; push others away; engage in extreme behavior to distract from the pain.
For me it was like this for 50 years. My reactivity came and went with circumstances: sometimes I was OK, sometimes not. Likewise, my efforts to manage fear with meditation, therapy, exercise, and energy work had varying degrees of success.
Finally I’d had enough, and decided to seek a different kind of help. Here’s what I learned.
If you are one of the 7.7 million adults who suffer from PTSD, I hope these insights guide you towards overcoming your trauma as well.
Three “Evidence-Based” Therapies
By seeking treatment, reaching out for support, and developing new coping skills, you canovercome PTSD and move on with your life. However, it’s a challenge to sort out and insist on a modality that will best serve you.
There are three main trauma-focused psychotherapies that demonstrate “strong evidence” of success— meaning they helped about 50% of the people who used them in controlled studies:
- Prolonged Exposure (PE)
Teaches you how to gain control by facing your negative feelings. It involves talking about your trauma with a provider and doing some of the things you have avoided since the trauma. This behavioral therapy helps you safely face both situations and memories that you find frightening so that you can learn to cope with them effectively. Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for flashbacks and nightmares.
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
This type of talk therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are keeping you stuck — for example, negative beliefs about yourself and the risk of traumatic things happening again. It teaches you to reframe negative thoughts about the trauma. It involves talking with your provider about your negative thoughts and doing short writing assignments.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Helps you process and make sense of your trauma without having to talk about it. Instead, guided eye movements (using flashing lights, tones, or moving hands) help you process traumatic memories and change how you reactto them. As described by the EMDR Institute, “Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes.” In EMDR therapy, the past, present and future are all addressed using an established eight-phase treatment approach.
It can be helpful to do some research to figure out what you resonate with. Other helpful resources are:
- The official DSM-5 Criteria for PTSD.
- This treatment comparison chart lays out how the three therapies work.
- This VA document summarizes the basicsof the three therapies.
- Using service dogs for PTSD
Reasons to Avoid Re-experiencing Your Trauma By Talking About It: Alternatives
Every time a traumatized person talks about the original incident or experience, their body goes right back to the moment of trauma: they re-experience the trauma as they speak. This is why so many of us avoidour traumas. It’s also why, in shamanic healing, we minimize discussion of the specifics. My body knows what happened, and doesn’t want or need to be reminded.
Secondly, deep trauma is lodged in the limbic, non-verbal brain system. This is where your most basic fight-or-flight system takes over, won’t be convinced by logic, and may be totally unresponsive to talk therapy.
As a shamanic practitioner who has performed soul retrieval ceremonies for many clients, I have seen firsthand the despair people have when talk therapy hasn’t worked. It is very discouraging to feel joyless and empty after 20 years with a therapist! My experience as a healer is inconsistent with evidence-based therapy studies (which very rarely even consider shamanic healing), but is supported by thousands of years of shamanic practice.
Thirdly, trauma can cause dissociation, where a part of you splits off in a self-protective response to the trauma. But it’s very challenging to access that part of yourself and come back to wholeness. The practice of soul retrieval is an alternative, ancient, healing method that brings back the lost parts and helps you integrate, paving the way for developing new coping skills.
Some years ago I organized a free soul retrieval and remembering group for veterans in Northern California, based on what shamanic healers in Wisconsin had been doing annually on Veterans’ Day. I reached out to many Vet organizations, inviting anyone who wanted to try it. Seven Vietnam veterans with PTSD signed on, and four shamanic practitioner friends participated in our 8 weeks of healing. One of the group became nightmare-free for the first time in 35 years. Others in the group appreciated the support and space to ask for and receive spirit help within the group. All of them showed up the whole time and reported easing of symptoms and gratitude for their new coping skills.
Replacing Sensations of Fear with Those of Peace
When I needed help coping again with PTSD, knew I didn’t want to talk about my trauma. My several soul retrievals had helped me feel whole and strong. Because I’d had a little experience of EMDR for other issues, I knew it worked pretty well for me.
On my first visit, after I explained that I wanted to be finished with 50 years of fear-based reactivity, the therapist told me to think of a beautiful place that I love and feel safe in. Immediately a lake in the high Andes Mountains—a lake I had visited in person and visualize frequently in my meditations—popped into my mind.
Basically I was instructed to visualize that lake the moment I got triggered. I learned to replace sensations of fear with those of peace.
We did the eye movement desensitization with a light machine, slowly diving into my physiological responses to trauma memory while practicing this simple replacement. The process helps you train and embed the practice. You get better at doing it faster, catching your reactivity, and shifting out of it.
A dear friend of mine whose house burned in the 2017 Northern California fires was given a similar instruction. He was also taught to tap his arm, to bring himself into the present, whenever he got triggered.
Both of us learned to nourish ourselves with the beautiful image and mitigate the somatic trauma by shifting our attention.
We both know that when new events related to our original trauma recur, we have to work hard to keep from backsliding. And we know what’s possible: we can live fully, without fear and anxiety running our lives.