Healing PTSD One Breath at a Time

Healing PTSD One Breath at a Time | Kimberly Hetherington

I never considered myself as a trauma survivor.

I didn’t believe I had something as severe as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A diagnosis of that calibre was only reserved for those who survived war or severe childhood abuse.

It felt dramatic and attention-seeking to label myself as a “trauma survivor.”

I suppose the confusion comes because I didn’t fully understand what trauma actually was. The term tends to be loosely thrown around, and the diagnosis of PTSD was always fused with people who survived war.

But now I’ve come to realise that trauma is more widespread than I once believed. It’s simply an event that overwhelms the central nervous system and exceeds our ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. The more frightened and helpless we feel, the more likely we are to be traumatised.

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after a person has been through a traumatic event or has experienced repeated exposure to trauma. But not every traumatic event will result in PTSD.

It’s natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Our inner “fight-or-flight” response is our body’s way of ensuring our survival and protecting us from danger. While virtually everyone will experience a range of reactions after a traumatic event, it’s those who are unable to integrate the experience properly, and when it starts to interfere with daily life, that it develops into PTSD.

Symptoms like flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts that last for more than a month and are severe enough to interfere with our life is considered to be PTSD.

Those who know me well are aware that my sister died of suicide. While I rarely ever speak of the subject, I have written about my grief and pain extensively on my website. It’s been seven years since she died, and I still feel the trauma from those years leading up to and following her death.

Anyone who has lost someone they love to suicide might be able to understand the guilt, shame, and isolation that pile on top of the unbearable grief of their loss. We are often plagued with guilt. “Wasn’t there more I could have done?” Suicide is still so misunderstood and stigmatised. I feel it to be the most isolating form of grief, if that’s even possible.

For years I was oblivious to the accumulation of trauma on my body until I moved to the other side of the world, met the man I am with today, and created a life where I finally felt safe and secure in my home environment.

For the first time in many years, I stopped running. Without any actual threats anymore, my mind was bewildered by the stability of my life. For over ten years, I was coping with actual life or death situations, and now there was none. It was just calm and quiet.

Inevitably all the symptoms of trauma that I suppressed by running away and moving country resurged in my body. I found myself in a job that granted me the visa to stay in Australia but I could not quit for two and half years. The feeling of being trapped and helpless triggered memories of my past, when I was fighting to save my sister’s life. I started having intense chest pains and difficulty breathing almost all the time from the moment I woke up. After having a panic attack at work and being prescribed three different types of medication, I became seriously concerned about my health.

Eventually those painful two and half years passed, and the day came where I could finally quit. When I walked out of that office for the very last time, I almost kissed the ground in euphoria. I felt so free and alive. Magically, all of my physical symptoms subsided. I could finally breathe and cherished every single unstrained breath.

Sadly, it didn’t last. Slowly but surely, all the familiar physical symptoms of anxiety slowly came back. This made it clear to me that all this unprocessed pain is still in my body. I finally understood what Eckhart Tolle was referring to when he talked about the pain body. I knew I needed heal myself and the first place to start was by gaining more of an understanding of my unconscious triggers.

Of course, I had no idea how to go about that because, well, they are not conscious. This led me to where I am now; undergoing something called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

The goal of EMDR is to process and integrate traumatic memories into standard, less emotionally charged memories. My psychologist explained that EMDR tends to work best for a one-time traumatic event like, for example, a car accident. For those like me who have complex PTSD, a few more sessions are usually required. In addition to monthly EMDR sessions, my psychologist recommended that I read The Body Keeps the Score and try out trauma-sensitive yoga. I also started a diploma in meditation facilitation where I meditate daily, and am learning from wise teachers like Tara Brach, Eckhart Tolle, and Deepak Chopra.

While the process of healing has been much slower than I’d like, I have noticed that the pain in my chest is slowly lifting. The days of difficulty breathing are nowhere near what they used to be. Sometimes I go an entire day without straining to breathe. This is a huge victory for me. It shows that my body is starting to heal, and maybe it’s doing that because I’ve finally stopped to listen. I’m finally doing what I’ve never done: slowing down. Creating time for deliberate quietness through meditation and connecting to my body to learn its language through yoga.

This has led me to a whole new relationship with my body-mind. I am so much more aware of my inner landscape. While I still have moments where I feel triggered and my whole-body tenses, I’m learning to stop. In those moments I relax my shoulders and take a deep breath. If I’m swarmed with fear-inducing thoughts about all the worst-case scenarios, I then reflect on the opposite of those thoughts. This pause might last for less than a second and then the rush of thinking swarms me again. When it does, I try my best to be compassionate and forgiving to myself for falling back into that pattern.

We are who we are because of years of repetition which has resulted in habits. I can create a new one. Every single day I’m changing. These moments of stillness and peace throughout the day add up. They are the building blocks for a new way of being. They are the daisies and sunflowers on the road to healing, and they can only be seen when I stop to pay attention.

There are no shortcuts or accelerator programs to get ‘healed.’ At least none that I’m aware of. It takes time to break through the fog of the past and settle into the stillness of the now. To unravel ourselves from the pain we once endured and return to the life that’s in front of us in this present moment. We don’t need to drag it with us wherever we go. We can leave behind. It takes continuous daily effort and requires inordinate amounts of self-forgiveness and compassion.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely healed, and maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is to expand my tolerance of all that it is to be human. Maybe the path of being a healer of any kind is not show people the way, but to just be with them. We all experience things so differently. There is no one size fits all.

In the meantime, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing. Or, continuing what I’m ‘being.’ Taking each day as it comes. One breath at a time.

Canadian writer, meditation facilitator, and transpersonal art therapist based in Sydney, Australia. Read more on her website: https://kimberlyhetherington.com/

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