I was diagnosed with PTSD as a teenager after experiencing frequent nightmares and flashbacks.
Now, as a young adult, I don’t experience nightmares as often as I once did thanks to therapy, but I still have flashbacks every now and then. Like a few weeks ago, when I had a flashback while trying to fall asleep. I teared up, then full-on cried. My heart was racing, and I felt panicky. As I wiped away tears and curled up in a ball underneath my blankets, I kept telling myself, “I am safe.”
The first therapist I worked with encouraged me to find a safe place to picture when I feel this way. That night, I chose the upstairs living room of the Pink house of The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia. I was in treatment for my eating disorder there as a teenager and was a patient over the winter holidays. I picture the Christmas tree all lit up in the living room, and me looking out the window at the snow on the ground while warmly wrapped up in a blanket inside.
For trauma survivors, feeling safe is very important.Most of us have experienced moments when we were not safe emotionally or physically. We may be constantly thinking there is danger that could occur just around the corner. We may be fearful of trusting others. To live healthy lives, we must be able to work through trauma, ideally in therapy, to establish safety in a healing way. We must take back the power from the situations that have harmed us.
Working Through Trauma
I’ve done a lot of trauma work over the years with my therapist. She would have me write about my trauma for a few minutes — speaking it outright felt too scary — and I would read to her the things I felt comfortable sharing. We would then go over my emotions and reactions regarding what I wrote. If I felt ashamed or felt like a traumatic event that happened to me was my fault, she would help me reassess and affirm that it wasn’t.
My therapist also worked with me on exercises from “The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms” by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poiju-la. One of my favorites directs you to create five drawings: a self-portrait, your view of the world, your life’s history, a portrait of your family/relationships and a second self-portrait after completing the first four drawings.
This exercise was very cathartic for me. I’m in school to become an art therapist and love activities that allow people to be creative. Anyone can be good at art, and using these skills can be a powerful way to express your emotions. I gained a better understanding of myself and truly set the foundation for my trauma work. It’s much easier to ground yourself in the present moment during a difficult situation when you have a strong sense of self.
It was really helpful to have my therapist there to help me work through these exercises and fight back against my fears. For a very long time, I kept my trauma to myself. Whether it was because I wasn’t stable enough in treatment to talk about it openly, or because I didn’t feel safe enough to talk about it, I didn’t let anyone in.
While letting my therapist in helped me on the path to healing, it also took a toll on me. I had more flashbacks and nightmares after these sessions. According to my therapist, this happened because I was actively opening up old wounds in an effort to reframe my experiences. However, I have also learned from her how to cope with flashbacks when they did occur.
Using My Coping Skills
Saying “I am safe” as a mantra has helped me, especially in distressing moments. Even when I worry it’s not true, it is true in the moment. Telling myself I’m safe, closing my eyes and picturing myself in my safe place helps put to rest my past trauma so I can breathe again.
After visualizing myself in my safe place, I practice grounding techniques like 5-4-3-2-1, where I count five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can touch, two things I can smell and one thing I can taste. The purpose of this exercise is to bring yourself to the moment and exit a flashback effectively. It is a good challenge to really slow down and observe your surroundings. Sometimes I’m surprised at what I can list because I simply wasn’t aware of it before in my heightened state.
I also like to use a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skill called paced breathing, in which you exhale twice as long as you inhale, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. I start breathing in on a count of three seconds, for instance, and then exhale for six seconds. You can do whatever count works best for you. This breathing exercise slows down your heart rate and initiates relaxation in your brain.
Breathing in essential oils is another technique that helps me. You can pair essential oils with paced breathing by breathing in your favorite scent and exhaling to your preferred count. My favorite essential oils are mint and lavender, which I’ve found are both relaxing. Mint can also be stimulating and more effective in bringing me back to the present moment.
What I’ve concluded from all my nights of worry and panic is that I am allowed to tell myself I am safe. Although safety is never promised, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth practicing it in our own bodies and minds. We all deserve feelings of safety and healing.
For those of us affected by trauma, we must move forward from our painful experiences and find a way to live again. We must create for ourselves intentional, braver lives.
Lexie is a writer, body positive activist and mental health advocate from New Jersey. She writes about her struggles to process and heal. Lexie shares her words with the world with the hope of helping others see they are never alone. You can find more of her work at https://lexiemanion.com/.