Archives for August 2017

Soldier on! Learning to “Be With” Unwanted Thoughts, Feelings, and Sensations

Post-traumatic stress can create situations that are very difficult to manage. If you happen to find yourself unexpectedly dealing with unwanted symptoms like feelings of terror, a rapid heartbeat, or profuse sweating, you will need practical tools and techniques on hand to help you through these trying moments.

The following are a few practical mindfulness-based tools you can use anywhere to center yourself when you are experiencing strong emotions, distressing thoughts, and uncomfortable body sensations:

  1. Use your sense of smell: You might find that taking a whiff of a calming scent like eucalyptus oil can help you refocus your mind away from the distressing thoughts, feelings, and body sensations and onto the particular fragrance.
  2. Use your sense of taste: You might also try sucking on a mint or biting into a piece of fruit and, then, practicing being curious about the food’s particular texture, smell, and taste as well as what it feels like to consume it with the different parts of your mouth.
  3. Use your sense of breath. Pause for a moment to focus on the sensations of breathing. If you find that your thoughts seem particularly difficult to escape, try counting the cycles of your breathing. You might say to yourself: “In breath one, out breath one (first cycle) …in breath two, out breath two” (second cycle) and continue for a few cycles.
  4. Use nature. Take a walk outside and practice noticing the different elements of your natural surroundings. Do you hear sound of birds? Can you feel a breeze? What do you sense about the temperature? What does it feel like to walk on the particular surface beneath you?

Working through the symptoms of post-traumatic stress is challenging. The good news is that it is possible to “grow through” these unpleasant experiences. The more you practice the skills of “being with” discomfort, the better able you may be to encounter the next set of symptoms, perhaps with a little more resilience. Someone once said, “Powerful avalanches start with small shifts.”

Written by Tony Madril

The Psychological Toughness of Veterans in Therapy

“Let’s do this!” This is the statement made to me by an Army veteran and psychotherapy client of mine when I asked if he was ready to directly process his past trauma using the tools of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), the trauma-focused type of intervention he requested. Since then, this comment has become a constant reminder to me about veterans because it epitomizes the psychological toughness veterans regularly exhibit when they are invited to explore thoughts, feelings, and body sensations related to their past trauma.

While a few studies suggest that the “emotional toughness” classically associated with veterans may inhibit therapeutic progress, vis-à-vis the suppression of emotions, my clinical experience points in a different direction. I’ve noticed a silver lining to such a “show-no-weakness” frame of mind. When I am able to help veterans focus their well-developed conquering attitude onto the therapeutic task-at-hand, it can often draw out a strong sense of their personal resilience in the face of challenge.

In the case of the Army veteran, his stout-hearted readiness to face the images associated with his trauma allowed him to directly follow me into a part of his mind where various unprocessed memories were stored; then, it equipped him with the willingness to remain in his emotional discomfort until I could help him process through the distressing memories.

I have not witnessed this type of psychological hardiness in my 20 years of clinical practice with mostly non-military clients. Is this a coincidence? Probably not. The fact that the veterans I’ve worked with seem to show up better equipped to process through trauma appears to be a by-product of their military training. That said, perhaps helping veterans work through their past trauma can be enhanced by helping them continue to cultivate the unique qualities of their psychological toughness, a strength they may not consider to be an asset for therapy and healing old wounds.

 

Written by Tony Madril

PTSDVets