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Coping When PTSD Brings You to a Dark Place

Stressed soldier with head in hands.

My first client, Sabine, was a suicidal 50-year-old woman with posttraumatic stress disorder. She was clearly in a very dark place. As a PTSD survivor who has had her fair share of imagining suicide to escape PTSD symptoms, I understood what Sabine meant. However, in my recovery, I discovered that the road to freedom from PTSD symptoms had successes that replaced those dark thoughts with thoughts about what I would do when my life and mind were my own again.

Sabine and I dove head first into the work of recovery, using traditional and alternative processes to decrease feelings of trauma and increase feelings of safety and control. Working together once a week for eighteen months we reached our goal. Today, Sabine is not only free of thoughts of suicide, she’s free of PTSD symptoms, too. PTSD symptoms can bring people to a very dark place emotionally. Seeking professional help is a vitally important step in the PTSD recovery process. In addition to that, people can:

Acknowledge and treat symptoms of depression. People with PTSD often get depressed about their situation. While depression can make you lethargic and lack motivation for change, there are some ways of treating depression naturally that can make a difference. Other ways include incorporating exercise into your routine, eating (and avoiding) certain foods, taking vitamins and even looking into light box therapy if you feel you may have seasonal affective disorder (feeling depressed in the winter months).

Remove temptation to take extreme steps. One veteran I knew who lived with PTSD and traumatic brain injury shared that when he began to feel suicidal he took actions to create his own intervention. For example, he removed all firearms from his home. Other veterans have told me they have stopped drinking or flushed unnecessary pills until they started to feel better.

Share those dark thoughts. For many who struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide, the natural inclination is to keep it to themselves. We all want to be seen as courageous, brave, responsible and even heroic. At first look, it may seem weak to admit an internal struggle that threatens to overwhelm our ability to cope. However, admitting to the struggle and asking for help is a truly heroic and courageous act. Your local military treatment facility is a great place to start. You can also find providers in your area who donate treatment services.

Rev up your brain’s executive function. When the lower and mid-brain structures (those attuned to threat and emotion) overthrow your prefrontal cortex, your brain lacks its ability to focus, inhibit reactionary emotions, and make choices in your best interest. Practicing meditation and mindfulness can greatly improve your brain’s executive function because it engages your prefrontal cortex.

What do I need to feel a little bit better? One of my favorite methods to interrupt deeply dark thoughts is the employment of a simple process of asking one question: What do I need to do to feel a little bit better? Focusing on the answer, plus how to get it, and then repeating the question until you move your mind into a more resilient space can shift you from powerless to powerful. In this new space it may be possible to address the real pain driving the dark thoughts, and from there find ways to reduce and even eliminate it.

Visit http://afterdeployment.dcoe.mil/ to take a free and anonymous PTSD self-assessment.

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