Traditionally, many people make New Year’s resolutions that they hope will make themselves better people, healthier, or maybe even wealthier. Often, as trauma survivors, we will also endeavor to make our own sets of resolutions. But, there are risks involved when PTSD is part of the equation. Making resolutions, taking a vow, making a promise that we will engage in some behaviors and disengage from other behaviors can all be for the good. Yet, there are also some risks involved. These risks for an individual with PTSD can be substantial. For this, let’s look at creating a sense of achievement and growth in general, and then later look at creating the start of a prayer relationship with God in particular.
Programming Success and Not Failure
We make quite a commitment if we decide to adapt ourselves to improved behaviors and/or discarding negative behaviors. We need to ensure that we are not setting ourselves up to fail. In a fit of “good intentions” or “desired outcomes” (or effective marketing from an advertiser) I may vow to do something that is not realistic for me to do.
In my own case, I’ll never run a marathon, for that matter, I’ll never walk a marathon…in fact it would be painful to just drive that distance. As much as I used to enjoy running I would only be programming myself for failure if made a New Year’s resolution that I would train for and complete a marathon. I need to be sure that I am realistic in setting my goals. While this is probably painfully obvious, it still remains something we need to hear.
One Step Forward and Two Steps Back?
For people who are afflicted with PTSD, failing at something make be a trigger that leads to bad coping mechanisms, often self-medication through drugs, alcohol, violence, or porn.
If we set ourselves an unrealistic goal and then fail to achieve it, we may damage our sense of self-worth. If this happens, the PTSD-Identity will seek to exacerbate those feelings and then further magnify them through poor behaviors. Those behaviors will cause ripples of further alienation from all of our most important relationships.
I need to make sure I don’t routinely take on a bigger task than I am currently suited for. If I fail, my PTSD may push me into a deeper hole than the one from which I had started.
It is all well and good to occasionally try something pretty big with little chance of success, but it should be an exception and I need to be realistic of my chances at success. Again, I need to ensure I don’t program myself for failure that can lead to PTSD despair and alienating behaviors.
Having said that, we must be careful to not become so risk adverse that we isolate ourselves away from all opportunities to strive and achieve.
The PTSD-Identity wants us to feel inadequate, lacking, of little worth.
Thus, the PTSD-Identity will encourage us to do nothing, or at the opposite extreme, to bite off way more than we can chew. Either way, we will feel the sense of isolation, failure, and lack of achievement on which PTSD thrives.
If we do actually achieve something, that success helps scrape some of the tar off of our souls that PTSD had placed there. We need to look at why we succeed and apply those successful traits to other goals.
So if I decide I want to engage God more this coming year how can I ensure I am not programming myself for failure? Knowing that prayer makes PTSD easier to bear, how can I ensure I don’t fail at prayer and encourage the soul wound of PTSD despair?
Growing Prayer a Minute at a Time
When I teach people how to pray I am often told that they cannot pray for the length of time we had earlier agreed upon.
Let’s say we had agreed on 10 minutes a day of prayer. Due to family, work, and even forgetfulness, they may discover they cannot at this point in time commit to ten minutes of daily prayer. When they discover this, they often feel as if they have let themselves down, let me down, and even as if they had let God down. The PTSD-Identity will jump on that and try to create despair and breed alienation.
To prevent PTSD despair, we need a mechanism to create achievement and success.
If someone cannot engage in prayer for ten minutes, then we should try for five minutes. If we find that is not working out, we keep cutting the time in half. Eventually we will find that there is something that each of us can do daily – or even twice or thrice a day – for a minute or two. Depending on the individual’s needs, experiences, and abilities, that may be two minutes of silence, being open to God’s presence, or it may be the single recitation of the Our Father, or the reading of a Psalm.
Part of this adventure is finding out what types of prayer we are receptive to.
In sports, folks gravitate to certain positions, e.g., most football quarterbacks do not make a good defensive lineman – but they are both players. While I am no authority on track and field competitions, I don’t think most serious marathoners are also training for the shot put or pole vault.
There are many different and legitimate forms of prayer. For some people, the Rosary is an exciting and dynamic encounter with the Living God. For others, it is not so. But there are always several forms of prayer a person can engage in if they have the curiosity and the will to learn, try, and do so.
Each of us can do something, no matter how short or how small.
If we are willing, we can find something positive to succeed at on a daily basis!
From that discovery we can build further habits of success. If I become successful in a commitment of six minutes of prayer, I can then realistically increase the amount of time and most likely succeed at it. Success breeds success, as they say.
PTSD hates success almost as much as it hates love.
If I am successful at a small thing, it can grow into a big thing.
If I learn how to pray a little and over time start to experience its benefits, I will be suited to deeper and more meaningful conversations with God. My initial efforts may be as small as a mustard seed, but if I allow them to grow and I nourish them, that seed will grow into a tree that can support not only my own life but that of others.
One Step Forward and then Two and Three Steps Forward!
Making realistic resolutions, setting doable goals, can be productive behaviors for anyone, not only PTSD survivors. Just about everything we do can move us ahead or back.
We strive to move ahead: For the PTSD survivor that means each day I control more of my life and PTSD controls less of my life.
You can also insert words like “relationships” or “goals” or Love” in place of the word “life” above. Take a moment and try it. What other words would work there for you?
Each day, we make decisions and form habits that either improve our relationships or alienate them.
What we do and think brings us into deeper love with God, or it can facilitate an abandonment of God – even though God does not abandon us.
For many of us with PTSD we will cope with our symptoms and horrific memories through one of two paths: One path is with life-affirming prayer; the other path is with some combination of alienating self-medications, such as booze, porn, or absurd sexual affairs.
The Necessity of Daily Soul Work
Unlike the movies, there is no soundtrack at the end of a hard day and then we get to go on and live happily ever after off-screen somewhere.
Rather, we succeed in not allowing a hard day to destroy us, we medicate ourselves with prayer and healthy relationships, that is, we embrace Love.
We keep our goals realistic, with the occasional big goal attempt thrown in…never hurts to try one of those once in a while after we have created a habit and sense of achievement.
We daily affirm the value of our own lives and the value of the lives of others. The next day, it gets a bit easier and we discover that we have formed a habit that affirms life.
Each day we do the soul work that affirms our lives. If we know it or not, others are watching us and some people will take their cues from our behaviors. Some of them make their own life decisions on how we live our own. Together we daily affirm our lives and their lives in our sanctification journey.
A life sanctified in prayer is a life less susceptible to PTSD.
Each day we can polish our souls or allow the PTSD crud cover their light and life. A resolve to meet God in prayer enhances our life, our loves, all of our relationships. At this time when people make resolutions, we can program ourselves for success and meet God daily in prayer.
Your life has value.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z