A period of thawing out from PTSD’s ice tomb of isolation can occur as we learn how to understand and manage our PTSD. As we crack out of our PTSD-induced Ice Age, we become less frozen in terms of our relationships with our own selves, our various communities, God, and the Creation. Like a Spring thaw it can be a period which allows for the germination of new life. And like a Spring thaw, it can rapidly melt the ice and raise the water over our head. In this sense, the process of thawing out from our PTSD isolation can feel like a two-edged sword.
The Thaw Can be A Two Edged Sword of Joy and Pain
As we recover from PTSD’s negative effects, especially isolation and relationship harm, we can start to feel more and potentially heal more. This is a two-edged sword as it means we can possibly get re-traumatized because we may not be prepared for the depth of memories and sensitivities associated with this deeper immersion into a fuller life.
When the car we are driving speeds up it gets us to our destination faster (normally considered a good thing). Yet, we also run the risk of greater injury if we crash due to those higher speeds. We have to be more careful while we learn how to cope with higher speeds.
As we thaw out from some of our PTSD behaviors, we re-enter society at what one might call a “higher speed.” This is a good thing because we can begin to experience more of life, the Creation itself, and one another at more intense levels. Yet, that obviously means we are going to have the potential for more negative encounters and also have the potential to walk into potential PTSD triggers.
We have to be careful as we thaw out.
How to Thaw Out? Ask a Scout!
Back when I was in cub scouts and boy scouts they taught us a lot about first aid. Growing up in the eastern part of Washington State, we got a lot of bitterly cold winters. It was not unusual for folks, myself included, to get hands and feet which were extremely chilled.
Our First Aid merit badge was taught by a medical doctor. He stressed to not apply heat too fast to cold injuries like chilled or frostbitten hands. We were taught to NEVER immediately run hot water over those hands or there would be screaming. You started with colder water and as the hands and fingers gradually warmed, you raised the temperature of the water.
As the hands got warmer, they could feel more sensation. We needed to respect that and not turn up the heat too fast.
With cold injuries, we wanted to get the hands and fingers warmed up, but too much heat, too fast, was more painful than the already painful chilled condition.
Like a thaw from PTSD isolation, too much heat, too fast, can end up causing unnecessary pain.
We gradually warmed the hands, and the hands gradually could handle more heat as they returned to their normal state.
Survive and Thrive From the PTSD Thaw
As we thaw out from our PTSD-induced isolation we should be careful to not immediately place the equivalent of our ice cold fingers into piping hot water.
If I’ve only been able to be out of the house and around people for 30 minutes at a time, yet feel I might extend myself a bit further, then my next step should be gradual.
Attending a stadium concert with thousands of screaming people as a next step is way too much, way too fast.
I’d be screaming too, but not because I was enjoying myself.
Many of us are metaphorically chained by PTSD’s isolating symptoms. “Just” getting out to a coffee shop, a library, a walk around the block, a bus ride, or going to church, or “just” going grocery shopping can feel like an insurmountable struggle. We have PTSD, this is normal for us. Yet, we want, we need, to break out of PTSD’s icy control. Life and light lie outside PTSD’s stifling grip.
We can do it. We have what it takes.
But it often feels like we are the frozen hands when cold water is run on them.
It aches, it hurts, but it is restorative.
As we are able to handle more presence in society and potential triggers, we turn up the temperature and engage warmer water, warmer situations. Instead of ordering a coffee and immediately leaving, maybe I graduate to being able to drink some or all of it at the shop. Every inch of progress diminishes PTSD’s hold over us.
As we thaw, endure the pain, we heal and are able to thrive more. We are able to enjoy life more. We can begin to more fully experience our own selves, our various communities, God, and the divine Creation.
Flexing Damaged Limbs
As we break out of the PTSD isolation shell, it is not always like a baby bird pecking its way out of its egg. Sometimes, it is more like dealing with the hard, baked skin from a bad burn (and if you are still bothering to read this, it probably is).
To regain the use of our limb again after a severe burn, we have to flex it. The burnt skin pulls, and early in therapy it sometimes cracks and breaks. That hurts.
But this painful flexing of our limb will lead to more function, more opportunity to be creative, interactive, and in control of your own life. [To state the obvious: If you have a severe burn, immediately seek medical assistance!]
At times, as we expand our souls and identities by reclaiming our lives from PTSD, it might hurt at the moment of action (while we are at the coffee shop) and it might hurt later (when we are back home). Regardless, we have taken actions which drive back PTSD the way light pushes back the darkness.
PTSD anxiety will try to cripple us. It will try to make us never step out that door and stop us from the moment of action. And if we do act, PTSD will later, back home, try to create follow-on anxieties in order to make us doubt our victory.
The PTSD Thaw Can Create Anxiety
Often, when we have ventured out of that hard PTSD shell of isolation we find we can enjoy life more. Then, the second and third guessing that comes after the fact arrives.
If we had a success by breaking out, even for just five or ten minutes, of our PTSD isolation, then PTSD wants us back frozen in the ice ASAP. To do this it foments fresh anxiety from our success by encouraging us to second guess ourselves.
Our PTSD-induced anxiety asks:
- What did they think of me?
- Did I say the right thing?
- Did I say the wrong thing?
- Did I make a mistake?
- Do they think I’m crazy?
- Did I talk too much?
- Did I not talk enough?
These forms of second guessing seek to diminish our victory, our achievement, our pushing back the darkness with light. They can paralyze us from standing up for ourselves and engaging activities which create light in our lives.
This is a Version of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
It’s PTSD’s way of trying to push you from the light into the darkness.
PTSD loves taking a success away from you.
PTSD wants to destroy your success by making you unnecessarily anxious about it.
PTSD wants you constantly second and third guessing yourself so you can’t savor your earlier victory.
There are dangers in second and third guessing ourselves. Such guessing lead to debilitating doubts that prevent us from savoring our victories and prevent us from risking to ever extending ourselves again.
Joy giving way to anxiety is common for many of us. That’s one of the sharp edges of this particular two edged sword.
In the extending of ourselves into light we can experience joy and healing. In the act of extension we are empowered. No surprise that PTSD wants to drive you back from your healing progress by invoking second guessing and anxiety.
Yet, Anxiety Can Also Give Way To Joy
How can anxiety give way to joy? By at least two means:
- First: Self-Directed Action. Taking an action which manifests control of our lives empowers us. This diminishes PTSD’s attempts to control us.
- Second: Creativity. Any form of creativity celebrates our humanity created in the image and likeness of God and diminishes PTSD’s grip on us.
If you go outside, with or without interaction with other people, you are diminishing PTSD’s grip on you. If you cook yourself a meal (instead of calling a bag of chips dinner) you diminish PTSD’s grip on you. If you exercise your body, mind, or spirit then you push away the darkness and open space for the light.
If you can create some music, hum a tune, sing a song, just snap you fingers a few times, sketch, smile, doodle, or engage in something more ambitious, then you are snatching your life back from PTSD’s numbing grip.
Are taking action and being creative two easy things to do? Of course not! If it were easy, neither you nor I would still be fighting the good fight to keep PTSD from taking us over.
But action and creativity bring self-determination and joy.
We Choose Life Over PTSD’s Desire For Our Death
It won’t always feel like we are making great strides.
But, we are.
Indeed, not giving in to deeper isolation and self-harm are great strides.
The Thaw Can Be Painful, Yet Life-Giving
As we recover from parts of our PTSD, we can start to feel more sensations and potentially begin to heal more. This is a two-edged sword as it means we can possibly get re-traumatized because we are feeling more … but also that we can heal more deeply as we are able to better get our minds and souls around the wounds which have afflicted us.
We know that PTSD will not go quietly into the night. It does not want us to be free and able to enjoy life.
PTSD will try to convince us that the risk of a new trigger or a bad experience means we should further self-isolate.
If we do go outside or engage in a creative act, we know it will try to make us second and third guess ourselves. By inflicting us with extra anxiety, PTSD wants to prevent you from acknowledging you ever took control of your life, that you risked a healing moment.
Just knowing these things gives you more understanding about the dynamics of PTSD and how it attacks your spirit. This knowledge gives you more control of your life.
Instead of only one step forward and two steps back, you can shift to two steps forward and only one step back, and then one day, you’ll be going three steps forward with no need to second guess and ever look back.
Thawing out from PTSD can be a two edged sword. But the pain of the thaw, if understood as part of the overall healing process, can help us to engage the light, repel the darkness, and further step into a life that has joy and positive meaning.
You have value.
Semper Pax, Dr.