A Simple Tool to Help Reduce Posttraumatic Stress

Recently, I shared some information on the impact of trauma with a closer look at how posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, affects us. There have been some questions as to whether these effects can be mitigating. In the last few days, I released a new Topic Expert article for Goodtherapy.org discussing one practice for helping to decrease the impact of traumatic stress.

By practicing Mindfulness for even a few minutes each day, we may begin to quiet PTSD’s hallmark alarm signals and ground ourselves in the present moment. Read the full article HERE for more information!

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A Closer Look at PTSD

One of the areas of work I feel particularly passionate about in my practice is facilitating recovery after a traumatic incident. Last week, I began a discussion of trauma and PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder, one of my areas of specialty.

We often think of veterans when we think of PTSD. In large part, much of what we do know about trauma and PTSD is a result of the experiences of Vietnam veterans. Prior to that, while trauma responses existed, there had not been a whole lot of focus on understanding traumatic reactions. Although PTSD tends to be the issue that most often comes to mind when we consider trauma, there are a number of other responses to trauma, including things such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and difficulties in relationships. We will address some of these elements but, in our multi-episode Looking at Trauma series, we will mostly focus on PTSD. Most of these other issues are embedded within the constellation of PTSD and will make more sense as we understand PTSD.

To begin with, it’s important to understand what exactly a trauma is…

If we think about the definition of a trauma, it’s generally defined by dictionaries as a deeply distressing or disturbing occurrence. Often, in medical contexts, it’s described as a disruption. Different experts and different fields describe trauma in different ways, which can be confusing and even intimidate if we are looking to do our research.

However, there are some common elements in thinking about what a trauma specifically is. From the lens of mental health or psychology, trauma, as described by the American Psychological Association, is typically an emotional and somatic response to a terrible, overwhelming, situation.

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, traumatic events are shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity. While the World Health Organization describes trauma as more of an emergent/disaster based situation.

There are a number of different events that can be traumatic. Some examples of these situations that may immediately come to mind include a serious and potentially life-threatening accident, assault, natural disaster, or combat. Other types of experiences can be traumatic as well such as surviving or witnessing a crime or physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as bullying or even a big move. Sometimes, trauma responses can follow any major change or disruption in a person’s life.

Many people are exposed to traumatic events. In the time immediately following a trauma, most people will have the experiences of PTSD that we will talk about. However, over time, for many people, those experiences naturally decrease, and they are not diagnosed with PTSD. In other words, they naturally recover from the traumatic event. There are some people who do not recover and are later diagnosed with PTSD. Based on that, it is helpful to think of PTSD as a problem in recovery. Something got in the way of you having that natural process of recovery, and the work of therapy is to determine what got in the way and to change it so that you can recover from what happened. You and your therapist will be working to get you ̳unstuck.

Let’s look at this in more depth…

Because we know that PTSD experiences are nearly universal immediately following very serious traumatic stressors and that recovery takes a few months under normal circumstances, it may be best to think about diagnosable PTSD as a disruption or stalling out of a normal recovery process, rather than the development of a unique psychopathology. A therapist needs to determine what has interfered with normal recovery. In one case, it may be that someone believes that they will be overwhelmed by the amount of emotional reactivity that will emerge if he stops avoiding and numbing himself. Perhaps s/he was taught as a child that emotions are bad, that s/he should just get over it.‖ In another case, someone may have refused to talk about what happened with anyone because s/he blames herself for ―letting‖ the event happen and she is so shamed and humiliated that s/he is convinced that others will blame her, too. In a third case, a person may have seen something so horrifying that every time s/he falls asleep and dreams about it, s/he wakes up in a cold sweat. So, in order to sleep, s/he drinks heavily. Yet another person may be so convinced that s/he will be victimized again that s/he refuses to go out anymore and has greatly restricted his/her activities and relationships. In still another case, in which other people were killed, a person may have survivor guilt and obsesses over why s/he was spared when others were killed. S/he feels unworthy and experiences guilt whenever s/he laughs or finds himself enjoying something. In all these instances, thoughts or avoidance behaviors are interfering with emotional processing and reshaping our beliefs. There are as many individual examples of things that can block a smooth recovery as there are individuals with PTSD.

There are several categories of experiences that tend to follow a traumatic event. Last week, we more closely examined each of the categories.

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The Vicious Cycle of Trauma and PTSD

As a Good Therapy Topic Expert, it is important to me to share information about the impact PTSD. In particular, with June the month of PTSD awareness, it is crucial to help provide accurate information about the struggles with this challenging experience.

Posttraumatic stress is characterized by intrusion, arousal, avoidance, and cognitive shifts—a cyclical experience that impedes the natural recovery process. You can read more about these experiences in my Good Therapy article here.

What did you learn in reading this? I’d love to hear your reactions and realizations – hit reply and let me know!

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A Closer Look at Reiki, Part 2

Last week, we looked a bit more thoroughly at understanding Reiki on the heels of my recent interview regarding how Reiki can impact our healing from compassion fatigue. Today, I wanted to further explore some questions about the impact of Reiki on our mental health.

Let’s begin with looking a bit at navigating overwhelming, stressful, and traumatic situations. An experience of trauma really takes a toll on us, particularly when there might be a greater sense of powerlessness and horror. In addition to the ways that Reiki can help to contribute to a greater sense of relief from the sadness and pain in secondary trauma and the stress and anxiety that accompany it, Reiki can help us stay more resilient when we are met with difficult situations and to also bounce back from them more readily and quickly. Another way that Reiki can help is that it can help us remain focused and think clearly which can help to navigate a difficult situation with more ease and set into motion factors that can bring on a better outcome. That on its own helps to cultivate a sense of empowerment and control which can really aid in combatting trauma.

We can also explore the ways that Reiki impacts depression. According to a study published in Alternate Therapies in Health and Medicine, patients who received regular Reiki treatments showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of psychological distress and depression. This symptom reduction continued for one year after the treatment regimen was complete.

The way that this works is that Reiki helps restore a person’s overall sense of balance, both in the mind and the body. This may help to improve the person’s mood and help him or her to overcome feelings of guilt and/or sadness that typically accompany depression.

We mentioned a few minutes ago that Reiki helped to slow down a person’s sympathetic autonomic system. This is the system that is activated when we experience anxiety and stress. It’s the primary mechanism in the fight or flight response. While the fight or flight response is valuable for us in the instant of a major stressor, over time, it begins to weaken us emotionally and physically. This then makes us more vulnerable to the negative impact of stress and anxiety. With this mechanism slowed down, our physiological responses to stress and anxiety begin to subside as well and provide us relief. In the Reiki mindset, there is a mind-body component to any kind of ailment whether it is physical or emotional and, in this case, there is an element of both present. Reiki works to restore the balance and harmony in both the emotional and physical body which can help us get back on track. Sessions provide a relaxing, soothing healing environment that ensures comfort and peace during the healing process. It’s this relaxed, peaceful state that helps to contribute to our emotional, physical, and mental well being.

Often, insomnia and fatigue come about as a result of something else going on – for some it’s stress, others anxiety, and we also often see it with depression and PTSD for example. In most cases, fatigue and insomnia tend to have an underpinning that indicates some kind of disharmony. Because Reiki works to restore balance by clearing away energetic or electrical blockages that get in the way of this harmony, it works to address the root cause of insomnia and fatigue.

I hope the last two weeks have given you a greater understanding of how Reiki can contribute to enhancing your life. You may still have questions or just be curious what it can offer you – just hit reply and let me know what you’re wondering!

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An Introduction to CPT for PTSD

Last week, I shared an overview of PTSD with a brief video. In the coming weeks, I will be exploring a bit more specific information about each cluster of what comprises PTSD. As we move forward in the next several weeks with this examination, I wanted to share an article I recently wrote for Natural Awakenings magazine wherein I take a closer look at one of the gold standard treatments for PTSD, Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). 

This short-term approach for PTSD issues has been documented to provide long-standing relief in a number of scientifically robust studies. I have also seen it transform the lives of many people grappling with the challenges brought on by living with haunting trauma symptoms. It has been meaningful for me to be one of the few in NY state to offer this highly effective programs.

What areas of PTSD do you or a loved one struggle with?? Send me a quick email to let me know – that way, I can support you with information that can be helpful.

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Exploring the Impact of Mindfulness, Part 2

Last week, we began to examine some of the scientific principles behind how and why Mindfulness benefits us while we are adapting to life changing circumstances. We will be building upon that discussion today with an overview of some scientific findings.

Modern scientists began studying the brains of people who regularly engaged in meditation practices sixty years ago. They found that these practitioners could weather stressful events with more resilience, come up with more original and creative ideas, and engage in improved cognitive functioning such as memory recall. In the last ten years, however, we have come to also discover that every time we think, feel, or act, a neural connection occurs in our brain. Things that we think, feel, or do most often strengthen these connections and pathways. In the same vein, those connections that we don’t use become weakened and begin to fall away. We can notice this with our habits that have become automatic and often mindless. Our thoughts and thought patterns work in the same way.

We can notice this with our habits that have become automatic and often mindless. Our thoughts and thought patterns work in the same way. Worry thoughts, angry thoughts, guilt, shame, and even sadness can all become habitual and strengthen the neuronal connections that forge them. It then becomes much easier to go there – and more readily.

Because these connections become so strong, habitual, and repetitive, it often begins to feel like we are powerless to change them. Yet, we merely need to understand how we can change our brains and these neuronal connections to make effective and enduring changes. This is where neuroplasticity can be impactful.

Neuroplasticity refers to the idea that our brain is, in many ways, like plastic and malleable. Things we find difficult can become easier with repetition – the more we do, think, and feel, the easier these challenging tasks become. Restructuring our brain through

Restructuring our brain through Mindfulness happens through the practice of noticing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations and bringing our awareness back to the present experience of these things rather than getting caught up in them. As we do this, we begin to both create and strengthen new neuronal pathways as well as weaken previous, maladaptive ones that were not helpful for us.

Scientists looked to see how, over three months of Mindfulness practices can change the brain structure of people engaging in this practice. Findings indicated a greater amount of grey matter in the regions of the brain responsible for working memory and executive decision making. These areas, interestingly, are typically associated with decline as age increases. Yet, the converse of this effect was found amongst those practicing Mindfulness over three months. In other words, Mindfulness slows down and prevents the natural age-related decline in cortical structure.

A follow-up study looked to target whether these effects in the brain were, in fact, due to the meditation instead of other potential factors. As a result, these other variables were isolated to see what changed amongst practitioners of Mindfulness meditation. The findings that were illuminated highlight valuable benefits for a regular Mindfulness practice.

Scientists noted an increase in the size of the hippocampus amongst practitioners of Mindfulness. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that aids in managing emotions, learning, and memory. In fact, we see a decrease in this area among people with PTSD and depression. In addition, scientists also noticed changes in the temporo-parietal area of the brain, which contributes to perspective taking, empathy, and compassion. This is not a surprising result of studies since, often, one of the documented benefits of Mindfulness has been an improvement in interpersonal relationships.

Additional findings were also reported in these robust studies including some that suggest Mindfulness is a particularly useful tool for overcoming disruptions and challenges in our lives. I explore further findings in next week’s blog post as well as in an episode of the “Beyond the Couch” podcast.

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Exploring the Impact of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that’s gotten a lot of attention over the last few years, but not many people really get a full understanding of what it is. The benefit of this is that a lot of awareness has been brought to this powerful exercise. And yet, unfortunately, much of the important components of it have become overlooked in the shuffle. Because of this, many people have an incomplete and partial understanding of Mindfulness. In the “Beyond the Couch” podcast, along with this multi-part blog post series, I set out to help bring to light much of the scientific backing to how and why Mindfulness works to benefit us. In particular, the way Mindfulness can impact us and help us to work through the various disruptions and stressors in our lives can really bring a deeper level of benefit, growth, and enduring change as we redefine and recreate our lives.

With things changing in our lives, even when that change is internal, we might be feeling a bit restless and stuck in a rut. You may be finding yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed and rundown. In fact, you might even feel this in your physical body where you may be having a hard time catching your breath and feel your muscles tightened and clenched. Maybe you are feeling rushed from one thing to the next without a moment to slow your racing mind down. You’re even catching yourself walking into a room and don’t even know why. Or, you find yourself looking for your cup of coffee and realize it has been in your hand while you’re frantically searching for it. You may have even had an entire conversation with someone and realize that you have no idea what you just talked about. It may even have gotten to a point that things have become so frazzling that, more and more, you’re finding yourself reactive without knowing what set you off and you are just having a hard time focusing on what you are trying to do.

You wish you could find a way to just clear your head, de-stress, refocus, and find your footing again.

With a brief and consistent Mindfulness practice, you can find simple ways to get yourself feeling more focused, alert, and calm again so that you can get into a productive and meaningful mindset. This way, you are ready to tackle all of the things you are juggling from a state that can help you make the best choices for your meaningful, fulfilled life.

Mindfulness refers to a practice that focuses on awareness of the present experience without judgment and without attachment or reactivity. This allows our mind to be calm and peaceful so that we can have greater clarity and even increase happiness, peace, and decrease discomfort.

It tends to be difficult for most people to control their mindset – we often feel as if our thoughts are maintained by external circumstances. As we build our Mindfulness practice, we can more easily maintain awareness and control of our thoughts and mindset. To understand this, we will explore a concept called neuroplasticity – or, the changing nature of our brain.

Generally, our brain is looking to proactively solve future problems and rework past issues so that, when they arise again, it is best prepared to quickly and efficiently resolve them. This, however, keeps us from being fully immersed in the present moment.

Not only this, but our mind does not see a distinction between a past, future, or present stressor. It gets us to react to past and future stressors with stress in the here and now. To our mind, it’s all the same. As a result, overthinking, worrying, depressive thoughts, and anxiety elicit the stress response of fight, flight, and freeze. Over time, this can make us vulnerable to mental health issues.

Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the size of the amygdala, which is our brain’s center for fear and negative emotions. This is important because it also helps to reduce the stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Overall, shifting our state in this way helps us to respond in more productive ways to the things going on in our lives. There is a further cumulative effect of this benefit in that it first allows us to participate in our lives in ways that allow us to build confidence, self-efficacy, and more meaningful relationships. Furthermore, as we will explore in Part II of this series, Mindfulness practice on a consistent basis facilitates creating and building more positive and adaptive neuronal connections while simultaneously dissolving the older, less helpful neuronal connections.

I look forward to further elaborating on the impact of Mindfulness on our neuronal connections, neuroplasticity, and overall state next week!

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