Many men and women who have served our country deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In fact, between 11-20% of United States veterans are diagnosed with PTSD at some point. PTSD is a common ailment that can last for months or years and severely impact one’s quality of life.
Luckily, there are ways to minimize the effect that PTSD has on individuals and help them cope with their symptoms. Mindfulness can help train the mind to avoid the overbearing emotional burden that can arise from PTSD.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder and mental health condition that typically occurs in people who have either lived through or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event or a prolonged experience. For our veterans, this often manifests from having lived through a combat event but is not limited to combat-related experiences.
PTSD can start as early as a few weeks after the event but it is not uncommon for symptoms and episodes to manifest later, even years apart from the event.
While we typically associate PTSD with sudden episodes, it has a range of other symptoms as well such as:
- Uncontrollable thoughts
Symptoms of PTSD are grouped into four categories:
- Intrusive memories. The category most associated with PTSD. It involves reliving the event, nightmares, and severe emotional distress.
- Avoidance. A behavioral shift that involves steering clear of things, people, or places that may remind the individual of the event.
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions. These changes can make the individual feel as if they are always in danger and cause them to be easily frightened, irritable, and have difficulty sleeping.
- Negative thinking and moods. A general shift in disposition that can make the individual feel down on themselves, hopeless about the future, emotional numbness, and general detachment from people close to them.
PTSD can be triggered by things that remind the person of the event or experience such as a car backfiring or fireworks going off during the holidays. These triggers can cause the individual to feel as if they are reliving the specific event. PTSD can often seem as if it appears out of nowhere. However, it is almost always caused by a trigger.
Things that can trigger PTSD include but are not limited to:
- Sounds: The sounds of certain noises can be attributed to a sound from the event in question. If someone has PTSD from combat, loud sounds that remind them of gunfire could be a trigger.
- Scents: Because scent is strongly tied to memory, smelling things that remind the person of the event can be a trigger. For example, a person who was near burn pits during deployment may be triggered by the scent of fire burning.
- People: Seeing or remembering a person associated with the trauma or someone that has a similar appearance to the person from the trauma can trigger PTSD. For example, if the person with glasses was involved in the trauma, people wearing glasses could remind the individual of that moment.
- Places: A place that reminds the person of where the event took place could take them back to the scene of the trauma.
- Objects: Something as simple as an item could remind the person of the trauma that they experienced.
- Tastes: Our sense of taste is also strongly tied to our memories. Tasting something that takes an individual back to their traumatic event could be a trigger.
- Situations: Being reminded of how a scenario made someone feel could trigger their PTSD. For example, being in an enclosed room could remind someone of being trapped or isolated.
- Specific words: Recalling a word that is related to the traumatic event could trigger PTSD. For example, seeing or hearing the name of a city or country where someone experienced trauma could trigger an emotional response.
- Thoughts: Even feeling similarly to how the individual felt during the event could take them back to their trauma.
These triggers can vary in predictability. Some may be readily apparent while others will not make themselves known until they have already triggered an episode.
How Can Mindfulness Help with PTSD?
People dealing with PTSD may find themselves struggling to evade intrusive and often debilitating thoughts. Thankfully, research shows that practices such as mindfulness not only help individuals dealing with PTSD cope with their condition but also better equip them to handle emotional duress.
Mindfulness is a cognitive therapy solution that involves a stronger connection to and awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions as well as their surroundings and situations. The goal of mindfulness is to reduce the automatic response to PTSD.
Essentially, mindfulness involves changing one’s way of thinking to be able to better assess their current situation and realize that they are not returning to their traumatic event.
Since PTSD is often a recollection of negative emotions, mindfulness can help the individual focus on the present and also learn to let negative emotions more easily wash over them by grounding them. As opposed to having negative emotions rampage through their mind, successfully executed mindfulness can help the individual take a step back and detach themselves from negative emotions.
Mindfulness is a continual process that involves:
Awareness: Mindfulness involves focusing one’s attention on one thing at a time so that they can slowly construct the present world around them.
Non-judgmental observation: Because much of the trauma associated with PTSD stems from the shame of having lived through the experience, mindfulness trains the individual to view their current experiences objectively and to view their trauma with self-compassion.
Grounding one’s self in the moment: By placing one’s self soundly in the present, many of the negative emotions can fall to the wayside as the individual realizes they are not reliving the past.
The beginner’s mind: This part of mindfulness involves training the mind to experience new things as they are as opposed to going into new situations with preconceptions that may lead to PTSD being triggered.
While it may sound complicated, getting started with mindfulness is actually very simple. People dealing with PTSD can try a few exercises when they feel an episode or symptoms coming on such as:
- Chewing gum: Focusing on the intense mint or fruit flavor of gum can pull an individual out of their intrusive thoughts.
- Thinking of or listening to a favorite song: Taking time to get lost in something the individual already loves or trying to pick out new things in something familiar can distract the mind from negative emotions.
- Meditation: Maintaining a comfortable pose or stretching can help the individual pay attention to something they can feel such as the way their muscles feel as they stretch or the patterns of their breathing.
- Taking a walk: Taking a walk and counting their steps or how many of a certain objects they walk passed such as cars or rocks can draw the mind away from their negative thoughts.
- Focus on a specific object: If an individual is isolated to an area, they can observe a specific object and try to notice the different things about it. Focusing on its color, size, texture, and abstract thoughts like how it was made can help distract the mind.
Mindfulness is a relatively simple practice to begin but it takes dedication to see results. Finding a practice that helps and sticking to it can go a long way in helping veterans with PTSD deal with their symptoms and also keep them from having to avoid certain situations for fear of episodes. Instead of letting certain triggers take veterans back to a dark place, mindfulness can reduce anxiety by keeping the veteran in the moment and experiencing things as they are.