Coping with the Symptoms of PTSD

Here are some direct ways to cope with these specific PTSD symptoms:

Unwanted distressing memories, images or thoughts

  • Remind yourself that they are just that, memories
  • Remind yourself that it’s natural to have some memories of the trauma
  • Talk about them to someone you trust
  • Remember that although reminder of trauma can feel overwhelming, they often lessen with time

Sudden feelings of anxiety or panic

Traumatic stress reactions often include feeling your heart pounding and feeling lightheaded or spacey. This is usually caused by rapid breathing. If this happens remember that:

  • These reactions are not dangerous.
  • They often come with scary thoughts that are not true, like ‘I’m going to die’. It is the scary thoughts that make these reactions so upsetting.
  • Slowing down your breathing may help.
  • The sensations will soon pass and then you can go on with what you were doing.

Each time you respond in these positive ways to your anxiety or panic, you will be working toward making it happen less often. Practice will make it easier to cope.

Feeling like the trauma is happening again (flashbacks)

  • Keep your eyes open. Look around you and notice where you are.
  • Talk to yourself. Remind yourself where you are, what year you’re in, and that you are safe. The trauma happened in the past, and you are in the present.
  • Get up and move around. Have a drink of water and wash your hands.
  • Call someone you trust and tell them what is happening.
  • Remind yourself that this is a common response after trauma.
  • Tell your counselor or doctor about the flashback(s).

Dreams and nightmares related to the trauma

  • If you wake up from a nightmare in a panic, remind yourself that you are reacting to a dream. Having the dream is why you are in a panic, not because there is real danger now.
  • You may want to get up out of bed, regroup, and orient yourself to the here and now.
  • Engage in a pleasant, calming activity. For example, listen to some soothing music.
  • Talk to someone if possible.
  • Talk to your doctor about your nightmares. Certain medicines can be helpful.

Difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Keep to a regular bedtime schedule
  • Avoid heavy exercise for the few hours just before going to bed.
  • Avoid using your sleeping area for anything other than sleeping or sex.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. These harm your ability to sleep.
  • Do not lie in bed thinking or worrying. Get up and enjoy something soothing or pleasant. Read a calming book, drink a glass of warm milk or herbal tea, or do a quiet hobby.

Irritability, anger and rage

  • Take a time out to cool off or think things over. Walk away from the situation.
  • Get in the habit of exercise daily. Exercises reduces body tension and relieves stress.
  • Remember that staying angry doesn’t work. It actually increases your stress and can cause health problems.
  • Talk to your counselor or doctor about your anger. Take classes in how to manage anger.
  • If you blow up at family members or friends, find time as soon as you can to talk to them about it. Let them know how you feel and what you are doing to cope with your reactions.

Difficulty concentrating or staying focused

  • Slow down. Give yourself time to focus on what it is you need to learn or do.
  • Write things down. Making ‘to do’ lists might be helpful.
  • Break tasks down into small do-able chunks.
  • Plan a realistic number of events or tasks for each day.
  • You may be depressed. Many people who are depressed have trouble concentrating. Again, this is something you can discuss with your counselor, doctor or someone close to you.

Trouble feeling or expressing positive emotions

  • Remember this is a common reaction to trauma. You are not doing this on purpose. You should not feel guilty for something you do not want to happen and cannot control.
  • Make sure to keep taking part in activities that you enjoy or used to enjoy. Even if you don’t think you will enjoy something, once you get into it, you may well start having feelings of pleasure.
  • Tkae steps to let your loved ones know you care. You can express your caring in little ways: write a card, leave a small gift, or phone someone and say hello.

Try using all these ways of coping to find which ones are helpful to you. Then practice them. Like other skills, they work better with practice. Be aware that there are also behaviors that don’t help. Learn about lifestyle changes that can help you cope with PTSD.

Plan Ahead to Protect Yourself

A few years ago I was at a restaurant in Halifax enjoying a meal with friends. Like many hip restaurants there is a stark lack of noise-absorbing fabric. The decor features smooth cement floor, glass, metal. Even in the quietest corner of the restaurant, the background level of music and conversation was so loud we can hardly hear each other. I left earlier than the others, my ears ringing as I walked through the blessed quiet of the night to my car. Driving over the bridge on my way home I burst into tears. A few weeks later I was at the movie Interstellar. The noise level was so extreme I had my hands over my ears for half the movie. I felt assaulted by the sounds.

My son mentioned these earplugs that drummers and musicians use to protect their hearing. I went to our local music store and bought a pair. Wow! It wasn’t until I protected myself from invasive noise that I realized how much it had affected my nervous system. 

The beauty of the little ones is you can still hear normal conversation. They work by reducing the maximum sound level to 12db, which doesn’t hurt the ears and doesn’t feel invasive. These are tiny enough to carry with me and I use them when I’m in jazz band, listening to a concert, a movie or any noisy environment. I also have a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones that cover my ears and I use those when travelling.

If you have a stressed or jangled nervous system and/or if you are affected by PTSD, give these a try.  Look for noise attenuation ear plugs. They’re inexpensive, about $20 to $25. In my experience, it was money well spent.