Some days are good, but some days you are just consumed by emotions you cannot deal with. On the good days, you feel relieved this incident is finally behind you. On the bad days, you are not sure you will ever recover. This is the emotional rollercoaster of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What Does Complex PTSD Feel Like?
PTSD is a reaction your brain can trigger when you experience or witness trauma. The symptoms of PTSD could sneak up on you over time, or they might begin immediately following the incident. They can include:
- Selective amnesia
Severe traumatic events can cause an overload of emotions. In an attempt to protect itself, your brain can block out certain parts of the event, change the details in your memory or in other ways keep you from fully experiencing these emotions because they are too painful.
Instead of risking an emotional overload, your brain chooses to shut down and let those unprocessed emotions build up. Sometimes it can feel like a skip in a record. Your brain constantly replays a part of the trauma without bringing it to a conclusion. You feel the emotions of that incident over and over again, and they can even intensify over time.
Because your brain cannot process these emotions, you get stuck in this escalating loop. Fear and anxiety build each time something triggers your brain to play back the trauma. The more you analyze it, the worse it gets. It feels like you cannot stop the trauma from happening, and you fear it could happen again.
Anything can trigger a PTSD memory. At first it might be particular places or sounds. Even a certain smell you don’t consciously remember can trigger your brain to bring you back to the incident again. As your PTSD develops, the number of triggers increases until everything seems to remind you of the trauma you wish you could forget.
Complex PTSD Emotional Flashbacks
The therapy for PTSD involves helping you face those emotions and deal with them in a safe way until they are gone. One way to do this is to recall the incident — the one thing you probably fear the most. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the only way you get rid of emotions is to feel them.
Having survived the worst experience of your life, the last thing you want to do is to relive it. Your brain keeps dragging you back to resolve the terrible emotions the incident created, but they are too intense to deal with. PTSD is like a catch-22. The solution can feel like walking through fire.
Facing your fears is the only way you can get past them, and in the case of PTSD, professional help is required. The whole idea of processing complex emotions you’d rather not face can be overwhelming. PTSD treatment is a careful balance of protecting you from those fears and helping you to face them.
In addition to PTSD, a number of other things can cause emotional overwhelm, including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Financial problems
- Having a child
- Job stress
- Loss of a loved one
- Poor diet
- Underlying mental health issues
- Marital problems
- Moving into a new house
It is often difficult to see that you are emotionally overwhelmed. Sometimes people think they are sick or going through a mid-life crisis. In the case of PTSD with the related trauma happening years ago, you might be slow to draw the connection between the trauma and your current state of emotional overwhelm.
Some of the symptoms of emotional overwhelm include:
- Panic attacks
- Physical illness
PTSD treatment can be emotionally overwhelming at times. Even though the treatment is designed to help you through processing emotions in a safe way, it can still get intense. Here are some tips for coping with the overwhelm:
1. Adjust Your Expectations
In our world of multi-tasking, we usually expect things to happen quickly and with a minimum amount of our attention. PTSD treatment works, but it can take time. When you want to get better right away, you set up unrealistic goals that can be overwhelming. Your brain will process the emotions from your trauma at its own pace. When you push yourself too hard, the result will be emotional overwhelm.
You may be telling yourself that in an instant, the trauma you experienced changed your life forever. That is not exactly true, though. Maybe the actual incident only lasted a few moments, but what changed your life was set in motion long before that. Not everyone who experiences a trauma develops PTSD. That is because it is not just the moment of trauma that causes this condition. There are underlying conditions that contribute to the development of PTSD.
In some cases, other events that happen after the trauma contribute to the development of PTSD. The trauma itself just made you vulnerable, but it is what happened or didn’t happen later that determined your PTSD. No matter the exact cause, something that developed over time does not go away in a split second.
Do not confuse the diagnosis with the cure. When you finally learned that you have PTSD, you were probably relieved. No matter how difficult the symptoms are, we are always reassured to know they have a name and a treatment. At the moment of diagnosis, some of your stress was reduced.
After that moment of relief, you can expect many more moments of struggle and hard work before your PTSD is resolved. The treatment for PTSD takes time to work, and that is different for each person. You cannot gauge your success by how others you know have managed with this disorder.
2. Challenge Your Thoughts
When you are feeling overwhelmed, it is because of your thoughts, not what is actually happening to you at the moment. You already survived the trauma physically, and you are dealing with the aftermath, which includes a lot of emotion. Your thoughts easily turn to what could have happened or what might happen next time, though, and you get that overwhelmed feeling.
The thoughts that are overwhelming you are exaggerated and inflated based on reality, and they are stressing you out. If you could change these thoughts, the challenge of completing your PTSD treatment would be more manageable. You are thinking about what could have happened and how your trauma could have been even worse — but it wasn’t. Remind yourself those things did not happen, and you are out of danger now.
Examine what you are thinking when you start to feel overwhelmed. Look for statements in your mind that are absolutes. You may be telling yourself you will never get better, will always have this problem or will never be able to go back to that place, etc. Absolute statements are always false.
Stop yourself with these negative statements and make them more detailed and realistic. Telling yourself you will never get better is an exaggeration. You do not know what is going to happen in the future. Try changing that statement to say you are a little better today than you were last week. You will not complete your treatment today, but you could make some progress.
Adding some positive contingencies to those negative absolute statements will help de-escalate your anxiety and other emotions you are experiencing surrounding your trauma. When you are telling yourself you could have died, also remind yourself that you didn’t. Focusing on the positive can turn your thoughts around and make you feel more hopeful for the future.
3. Get Busy
When you are feeling overwhelmed, it is usually your brain that is setting you up. You cannot think all your problems away. Sometimes you have to stop trying to think it through and walk away — literally. Engage in exercise, like going for a walk or playing a sport, that will distract your mind from the repetitive thoughts that are so painful. Physical activity is a good balance for emotional stress.
PTSD is marked by obsessive thoughts about the trauma. Your brain is stuck in a loop that just keeps playing over and over again. This type of thinking is not helpful. In fact, it serves to escalate your anxiety. Using your brain for something else, so it cannot continue to obsess about the incident, can reduce your feeling of overwhelm.
PTSD treatment involves paying attention to your thoughts about the incident so you can feel your emotions and resolve the condition. It is okay, however, between sessions to escape from these thoughts for a while and let your brain rest. Physical activity can provide that escape for you.
When you get moving, your brain needs to focus on a whole range of functions and sensations. It is hard to do things that are physically demanding and “daydream” at the same time. Physical activity will affect your brain chemistry in a positive way. It increases the flow of oxygenated blood to your extremities and produces feel-good chemicals in your brain.
Physical activity can also create tangible results. Stacking wood or cleaning the house, for example, end with a new visual. There is a certain amount of satisfaction in getting these types of jobs done. You can see what you have accomplished. Organizing anything in your physical world gives your brain the satisfaction of completion and visually reduces the chaos.
4. Focus on the Moment
A lot of the overwhelm that results from PTSD treatment is created by an obsessive big picture view. Something bad happened to you, and you were lucky to survive. You witnessed something terrible, and you now have to live with the results. Maybe other people involved in your trauma did not survive.
Part of your brain is now struggling with understanding how this happened, why it happened to you and what made the outcome what it is and not even worse. One thing is for sure — you do not ever want this to happen to you or near you, again. A portion of your obsessive thoughts right now are dedicated to protecting you from a repeat incident.
As you move through your days, now, you consider every contingency and run countless scenarios through your mind before you make a move. The simple tasks you used to take for granted are fraught with projections of danger and paralyzing what-if scenarios. You are exhausted and overwhelmed with the idea of keeping yourself and your loved ones safe from here on out.
In reality, most of the contingencies you are constantly planning for will never happen. Even though something bad happened once, the odds are still overwhelmingly in your favor that the same thing, or something else equally as devastating, will not happen to you.
To cope with that overwhelming feeling of trying to protect yourself in the midst of your struggle with PTSD, focus on the moment. Instead of planning and preparing for those what-if scenarios, just take care of yourself in the moment you’re in.
Getting yourself through this moment, this hour and this day is enough for you to worry about. You cannot accurately predict what will happen tomorrow or a month from now, so your efforts to prepare for it are mostly wasted. Set your sights on right now and live this moment.
If something unexpected comes up next week, you will deal with that at the time. You cannot deal with it until it gets here, anyway, and no amount of preparation can keep something from happening to you in this random world. Meanwhile, you may waste countless hours of good living preparing for a disaster that never happens.
5. Accept Your Feelings
Working hard to not be sad or angry can be exhausting. Sometimes you just have to accept that sadness and sit with it for a while. It can be uncomfortable, but you need to grieve. Whether you are facing the loss of a dear friend, your innocence or a limb, it is okay to be sad. You may experience a wide range of emotions surrounding your trauma, and they are all perfectly natural.
Understand that your extreme emotions will last as long as they last and will go away in their own time. If you allow yourself to feel the emotions, they will not be this intense forever. Eventually, they will fade and allow you to move forward with your life. In the meantime, be prepared to ride a rollercoaster of emotions and know that you will eventually be okay.
Hiding your feelings or denying them will not make them go away, and trying to keep them to yourself will not help, either. When you deny your feelings, they usually turn inward. You may begin to experience unexplained pains or illnesses. Your emotions are trying to get your attention, and if you ignore them, they will cause physical distress.
When you are overwhelmed with emotion while you are recovering from PTSD, the best thing to do is accept. The feelings may seem strange to you, and their intensity might be unfamiliar, but feeling these emotions is part of the process and can be considered a sign of progress.
Exercises to Reduce Stress Levels and Relax
Probably the most important thing you can do is take a deep breath and just stick with your PTSD treatment. It may require more determination, stamina and patience to resolve your PTSD. Here are some exercises you can try to relax and reduce your stress:
- Meditation — It may seem mystical, but mediation is really an easy technique. It is all about practicing your mental focus and is achieved through repetition. While sitting in a comfortable position in a quiet room without distractions, you want to clear your mind and focus on nothing. Similar to a physical balancing exercise, meditation challenges you to see how long you can maintain a clear mind. If you have trouble with random thoughts running through your mind, pick a word or phrase to repeat to drown them out. At first you may only be able to meditate for a minute or two. With practice, though, you will be able to extend the amount of time.
- Progressive muscle relaxation — This exercise is especially good for falling asleep at night. While lying in a comfortable position, consciously relax each muscle group one at a time. Start with your feet and work up to your head. Every couple of minutes, add another body part to the relaxed portion of your body. If you struggle to relax certain muscles, try tightening them first. Then, when you relax you will feel the contrast.
- Guided imagery — Like taking a vacation in your mind, guided imagery can transport you to an idyllic place. You can buy guided imagery recordings, or you can record your own. A guided imagery script will ask you to imagine places or things and then use your senses to explore them. It is a good mental exercise that can turn on the positive sensory perceptions in your brain you may not be using right now. Getting more positive thoughts into your brain will help heal you.
- Deep breathing — Literally taking a deep breath can reduce your stress in the moment. Spending a few minutes breathing deeply will relax you and create a healthy habit you can practice almost anywhere. Take a long slow breath in, hold it for a moment, and then slowly release. When you do this, you will feel your heart rate slow and your mind stop racing.
- Yoga — You do not have to be flexible to do yoga, but if you do it consistently, you will gain flexibility. You will also gain a sense of calm inner strength, and you will sleep more soundly. Take a class, watch a video or get a book on yoga. It is not difficult to learn some basic poses you can do on your own each day. When practiced fully, yoga combines mediation with deep breathing and muscle relaxation.
All of these exercises can help you cope with the overwhelming feeling you get sometimes during your PTSD treatment. You can practice one or more of them each day. It might be especially effective to begin and end your day with a relaxation exercise.
Overcoming PTSD takes time and a lot of support. When you feel overwhelmed in your treatment, reach out to a friend or loved one to talk about what you are experiencing. You may want to talk with someone else who was involved in the traumatic incident. Others could be feeling the same way as you and be afraid to say anything.
Talking about a common experience and your responses, even if they are quite different, can be helpful. You need a professional to diagnose and properly treat PTSD, though. If you are struggling with that overwhelmed feeling, contact 12 Keys for guidance right away. PTSD and other mental disorders are serious, and you will benefit best by immediate help.
At 12 Keys, our compassionate staff can answer all of your questions about PTSD and any other trouble you may be having. Let us help you or your loved one cope with PTSD and guide you to living a happier life free from the emotional entanglements that have you stuck right now.