how to heal from ptsd

LITTLE EARTHQUAKES – Recovering From PTSD

It was the deep of night, I was warm and dreamy, happily invested in the process of sleep. Then the night changed. I was ripped awake by a call on the community radio. Someone in the rural plotlands where we live was calling for help.

After dragging myself into some clothes, I fumbled through my gear expecting that I would soon be on my way to another neighborhood crime scene. I met up with my fellow patrollers, and we began the search.

We were told people had heard a man’s voice continuously calling out for help.

Sound can be deceptive at night.

Our area encompasses large tracts of paddocks and grasslands. At night when it is still, sound travels much further than in the day.

After some searching, we found a property, which might have been the source of the man’s desperate calls. We climbed through a disused electric fence and saw a building with a light on. We were not prepared for what we found… 

Working in the Security Industry

Over the many years of working in the security industry, people have commented that the work must be dangerous, or that I must have seen horrible things. They imply that security work in Johannesburg has led to my sometimes edgy, angry façade and that I’m in fact traumatized.

Yes, I have occasionally seen horrible things.

In truth, trauma is not a standalone condition different from other pressures life throws our way. Stress can be measured on a continuum, and trauma is a form of stress that occurs on the outer red limits of the stress-rev gauge.

In truth, I mainly enjoyed an emergency call as it gave me the opportunity to escape the office and get involved in the action of the street. Exhilarating yes, traumatizing no.

If I had to say my condition was fed by anything, I would say the daily grind. Long hours of running a security company and reporting to demanding corporate overlords was far more exacting on my resilience towards stress. The human-resource nightmare of running a large staff base, dealing with demanding communities, cash flow problems and endless spreadsheets never seemed to satisfy.

Burnout is an insidious enemy. It doesn’t rush out of the darkness with a knife and it has no snapping razor-sharp teeth. Burnout slowly consumes your energy, until one day you struggle to wake up, and you wonder what happened to your life. 

……The building stood at the top of a dew-covered slope. We could see an orange glow emanating out of the southern window.

Unusual for a light to be on during the early hours of the morning, we realizedmore we were about to face serious trouble. As we approached the doorway, our noses were filled with the smell of burning electrics.

It became clear that the orange glow was a fire.

The entrance to the house was barred by a locked security gate, but behind it the door was open…

and that was when we saw the body.

Introduction to Post Traumatic Stress

The effects of post-traumatic stress are not new to me.

Years ago, I faced a brutal armed robbery that left one of my neighbors with serious burn injuries and my mind in a state of disarray. I had fits of uncontrollable anger that drove me onto the streets to look for my attackers.

Banging and clicking sounds triggered flashbacks of the incident, and to this day my wife wakes me as I thrash about dreaming while I confront faceless attackers.

Gradually other symptoms of trauma slipped into my life.

Being a martial arts instructor, I had to confront the reality that my training had failed me. With that realization came guilt.

Guilt arrives on scene trailing a cookbook of badness behind it.

Depression, shame and poor self-esteem are some of its favorite ingredients. Post-traumatic stress also likes to share, so, it wasn’t long before I passed on my hyper-vigilance and fear onto the rest of my family.

People told me I was traumatized and “I should go and see someone”, so I made a booking with a psychologist at a local clinic. This was my first professional exchange with a psychologist.

It didn’t go very well.

In fact, it went down like a ham sandwich in a synagogue. The psychologist kept paraphrasing my comments with lines like “I can see that this has made you very angry”. I felt like saying, “No! The fact that you are repeating everything I say is making me very angry”. I already felt like an idiot, and it seemed that she was emphasizing this. 

A few years later I made a second attempt to face my trauma.

Reasoning that I could help other people that were traumatized, I enrolled in a trauma-counseling training course.

This taught me two things:

  1. Firstly, I learned all about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress (Click here for a detailed explanation of the signs and symptoms of PTSD). My anger, nightmares, and flashbacks were normal and to be expected. My faceless enemy could be identified, dissected and understood.
  2. Secondly, it taught me how to say things like “I can see that this has made you very angry”, which again made me very angry.

The course facilitator wisely told me I couldn’t be a counselor. Apparently, I said shocking things that indicated that I was in fact traumatized. I imagine she kept thinking “we’ve got a live one here”!

…On the floor next to the gate lay a partially burned body of a man.

A collapsed electrical cable was draped across his body. The fire had burned so hotly that it had warped and bubbled some of the windows.

The stench of burning plastic and human flesh combined to fill the air. The smell remained in my nasal pathways for hours after the incident. We immediately called on the neighbors for a bolt-cutter and firefighting equipment to be brought to the scene. 

Understanding PTSD – Twin PeaksTwin Peaks

My third opportunity to deal with trauma came years after my trauma-counseling course. Our company was given the opportunity to participate in a training initiative that required a blend of security and trauma knowledge.

The trauma information was provided by a clinical psychologist and noted trauma expert, Dr. Merle Friedman. Dr. Friedman introduced us to some excellent trauma coping tools and to the Twin Peaks Effect.

The model has nothing to do with who killed Laura Palmer but has everything to do with trauma patterns and psychological resilience, especially in the life of a first responder

The Twin Peaks Effect is like a war of attrition on the psyche of the first responder. First comes the first peak.

The responder is exposed to a traumatic event. For instance, a young policeman is in a shootout, or a medic must deal with a dying child at an accident scene.

Post-incident life goes on, and the responder is expected to simply absorb the event and deal with it.

Dr. Friedman explains that to do this, we conceal our negative reactions and become numb and dissociated to the events around us. This she calls “negative resilience” (Friedman & Higson-Smith, 2003).

Then comes the second peak.

A major trauma that results in the breakdown of the responder. The outcome can be hospitalization, suicide, depression and in extreme cases even family murder.

Ask any first responder.

They will tell you the quickest way to make an unnatural death scene go from level 10 bad to level 50 bad, is when the family of the deceased person arrives.

The burned man’s wife was brought to the house. Not only did she have to deal with the death of her husband, but she witnessed how terrible his last moments were. 

Sound travels at night, and the sound of her anguish filled the air. 

Little Earthquakes

Over time I have created my own internalized metaphor for Dr. Friedman’s model. One day I was reading about how police scientists studying predictive policing were adapting geophysics models used for earthquake prediction.

These statistical models could be used in different geographical zones for crime forecasting. It turns out that it’s not really possible to predict earthquakes with precision, but it gave me an idea.

As we face life’s predicaments, it is like experiencing minor seismic events that rock our world.

Little earthquakes.

These seismic events are precursors to a bigger event, and then BOOM! We experience a mental Krakatoa. An event so significant that we are not left standing.  

…The little earthquakes started to take their toll on me. I was already burned out and under severe work stress.

Earlier in the year I had sat with a family of one of our officers and explained how he was killed on duty.

A month before the burning incident another of our officers was involved in an extremely violent altercation.

The charred man lying at his gate was the cataclysmic event that began my mental Krakatoa. I could not reconcile my mind to the fact that we were unable to get to the man in time.

About a week later I came home from work, sat down and calmly finished half a bottle of vodka. Then I wept while my wife kept her arms around me. I was not sure how I was going to continue.

I was lucky to have support. 

The grey fog of depression made it hard to get out of bed and face the day. But it also gave me the impetus to self-reflect and realize my life was going in the wrong direction. This last-straw event gave me courage. It was time to leave my job and start a new life.

Recovery From PTSD – Recovery in the Epicentre

Important Public Safety Announcement:

It is possible to recover from post-traumatic stress

It may be natural for us to feel that we need to stand up and fight our enemies. But sometimes making peace is more possible than achieving a crushing defeat. If you are facing post-traumatic stress, consider the below avenues as part of your recovery:

  • Get help: It is strongly possible that you may need a leg-up from an outside person or even some medication, so you can press the reset button. Post-traumatic stress is now a well-studied phenomenon. What was once vaguely referred to as shell-shock is now taking the field of psychology to new places. There’s online support, workplace councilors, and cognitive behavioral therapy. But wait, there’s more! Some research universities are reporting excellent results with the administration of psychedelic substances as part of a therapeutic process. The recreational drug, MDMA seems to be leading the way, and scientists are even exploring psilocybin mushroom therapy (this falls strongly under the don’t try this at home category).  If you are going to find a professional, check that they have specific knowledge about post-traumatic stress. You need to deal with the effects of a life-threatening event, not what your mother said about your shoes on the way to the prom 20 years ago. 
  • Exercise is the best medication: Of the various interventions I’ve tried; exercise has been my best refuge. This doesn’t mean you need to spend hard-earned money on a tattooed personal trainer or join a mirror-filled gym that sounds like the inside of a washing machine. It could be a brisk walk, a 20-minute jog or even a home kettlebell workout. Whatever it is, get out there and do it hard and consistently. The feel-good endorphins your body produces from exercise will help you deal with the over-abundance of stress hormones that your hyper-vigilant brain is making.
  • Breathe, Mother-trucker! You can’t go wrong with breathing exercises. They help to get your mind into the present and break the adrenaline cycle, which is constantly trying to prepare your body for danger. There are some good books and excellent online resources on this topic. I enjoy Wim Hof’s work. He is infectiously positive, and his exercises leave you euphorically lightheaded. Like good drugs for free. (Try a tutorial here).
  • Create a safe environment: Post-traumatic stress sufferers often struggle with sleep. You can’t heal if you are waking up every time there is a bump in the night. Take some physical action by securing your home, car, and workplace. Convert your paranoia into calm and confident situational awareness. Luckily you’ve come to the right place Security Adviser is full of resources to help you take these steps.
  • Don’t play the “what if ” game: What if I got there sooner? What if I had a gun? What if I turned right? Delving into other future scenarios of what could have happened, are simply ways to relive the event and inject some guilt to a bad situation. When you catch yourself doing this, stop! Reset your mind and start again in the present. Self-awareness is an important recovery tool. 
  •  Develop a support system: Pick your supporters with care. Create a simple checklist, is the person a listener, are they capable of showing some compassion to you? This starts at home by educating your family and close friends. They need to understand the effects of trauma. It isn’t their job to feel sorry for you. It is their job to support you and to identify when the trauma software is running the ship. Beware of competitive people that want to tell you how much worse their incident was or the “it will never happen to me” crowd. 
  • Get some four-legged support: Author Christopher McDougall refers to programs like “Paws for Purple Hearts”, where dogs are being used to assist traumatized war veterans. While stress is flooding your body with fight or flight hormones like cortisol, dogs can be an instant source of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone. McDougall writes that dogs are so good at emotional support, that the FBI uses them at active shooting scenes to help witnesses recall what they have seen. 
  • Alcohol is not your friend: Alcohol and drug abuse are common in first responder communities. It’s like an anesthetic that takes away the shock of the surgeon’s knife. Bottom line is that you are still being cut. It just seems easier to get through the day when you can’t feel the damage. Ask yourself, what are you trying to anesthetize? Often, it’s not just the memory of the event; it’s the emotional state that the memory recreates. Emotions are like messengers that will keep knocking on the door until you answer. Your mission is to put down the bottle and open that door. Remember that you don’t need to do this on your own.

Dedication

This blog is dedicated to First Responders world over, those that continue to be Heroes in spite of the little earthquakes that rumble at their feet. 

Also dedicated to the members of our patrol group, who without recognition, have spent endless hours in the dark keeping good people safe in their beds.

References & Further Reading

American Psychological Association. (2017, July 31). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Retrieved from American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/cognitive-behavioral-therapy

Brodwin, E. (2018, October 11). A team of Johns Hopkins researchers is calling for magic mushrooms to be made legally available as medicine. Retrieved from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/johns-hopkins-researchers-magic-mushrooms-psilocybin-medicine-legal-schedule-5-2018-10?IR=T

Friedman, M., & Higson-Smith, C. (2003). Building Psychological Resilience: Learning from the South African Police. In D. Paton, J. M. Violanti, & L. M. Smith, PROMOTING CAPABILITIES TO MANAGE POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS: Perspectives on Resilience (pp. 103 – 118). Charles C Thomas.

Healthworld. (2020, January 18). Common party-drugs show promise in treating PTSD. Retrieved from Healthworld: https://health.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/industry/common-party-drugs-show-promise-in-treating-ptsd/73352810

Hof, W. (2018, September 28). Wim Hof breathing tutorial by Wim Hof. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzCaZQqAs9I

Johnson, M. W., Griffiths, R. R., Hendricks, P. S., & Henningfield, J. E. (2018). The abuse potential of medical psilocybin according to the 8 factors of the Controlled Substances Act. Neuropharmacology, 143-166.

Mahmood, H. (N.D.). Comparative effects of MDMA and Psilocybin on Depression and PTSD. Retrieved from Eukaryon: https://www.lakeforest.edu/live/news/10166-comparative-effects-of-mdma-and-psilocybin-on 

Mann, A. (2017, October 6). How Science Is Helping Stop Crime Before It Occurs. Retrieved from NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/how-science-helping-stop-crime-it-occurs-ncna805176#anchor-CrimeandGeophysics

McDougall, C. (2019). The Beastmaster. In C. McDougall, Running With Sherman (pp. 56 – 76). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Millán, K. (N.D). Signs and Symptoms of PTSD. Retrieved from The Oaks: https://theoakstreatment.com/ptsd/signs-and-symptoms/

National Center for PTSD. (N.D). PTSD Basics. Retrieved from US Department of Veteran Affairs: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/what/ptsd_basics.asp

Peterschmidt, D. (2019, November 4). The Rise And Fall Of Earthquake Prediction. Retrieved from Science Friday: https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/earthquake-prediction/

Wikipedia. (2020, February 05 ). First responder. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_responder


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