This will be the second to last update on my book “Phoenix Rising: Healing from Sexual Abuse through Spirituality”. It has been several months since I posted an update on the progress of this project as I needed to take time-off (six months to be exact) because the whole thing simply became too painful. I am feeling much better now and have progressed to writing the second half of my story. I am almost finished the chapter on self-healing which has the same title as this blog post. Below is one section of it which focuses on what I did to remain healthy during the most severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) episodes. I hope this will help if you are currently experiencing this type of distress (or if you should happen to live through it at some point in the future).
The PTSD symptoms interfered with every area of my life: sleep, diet, social life, work etc. There were a number of things I needed to do in order to take care of myself on a day-to-day basis not only to get me through this type of ordeal but also to maintain my health so that I could get on with my life when it was all over. Below is a description of what I believe was most important during those phases.
Going outside can take some effort in adulthood but during PTSD phases extra motivation is required. The benefits of fresh air, the sun and even sitting on the ground are fairly well known but not always appreciated. During my childhood nature played a major role in my staying calm and healthy especially after we moved from the inner city to the outer suburbs when I was eight years old. Our family home was surrounded by paddocks. Some of these neighboring properties had cows and horses so it almost felt like we were living on a farm which is the way my parents were raised in the old country. We took it for granted just how good we felt outside. I became conscious of the healing power of nature in my twenties when I was anxious about moving back into my early childhood home. I had been to visit the place to see how far along the renovations were when I began to feel very fragmented – I simply couldn’t concentrate. I had a strong urge to go to the ocean so I got on a bus, then a train before I finally reached the water’s edge where I allowed my feet to sink into the wet sand. Immediately, I felt calm, back in my body and happy to be on the planet again.
The plant life offered by nature was also very helpful to me in the form of natural or homeopathic remedies. My preferred medicines were the Bach flower essences as well as certain aromatherapy oils. I have already mentioned the RR (Rescue Remedy) several times as it was the main one I used. I often combined it with other essences as it would take the edge off if more emotions and/or memories surfaced. For example, I would take Star of Bethlehem (with the RR) for grief when I found it difficult to get motivated as this is often a sign of intense sadness. On one occasion, I cried immediately after I took the dose and within minutes I was up and about getting on with my day. I also used White Chestnut just before bed to help me sleep and Clematis in the mornings when it was difficult to face the day ahead (the latter helps with being happy to be in the present moment).
The aromatherapy oils I turned to most often were lavender, rose and peppermint. Lavender was used primarily for headaches and to help me sleep at night. I also rubbed it on my neck and back when my muscles were sore which served to calm me down from head to toe. Rose oil was used primarily for grief – I would smell it, rub it on my wrists or directly onto my heart when I was in profound pain. I once used it when I was experiencing a panic attack overseas by rubbing it on my wrists – within seconds I felt peaceful. Peppermint oil helped me the most with digestive issues and sinus problems which are common during high-stress situations.
Diet and Exercise
There are huge digestive problems during PTSD because stress causes blood to flow away from this part of the body out to the extremities in order to prepare a person to run from or fight the danger that is supposedly present. This means that the energy required to digest food properly is not readily available and the good gut bacteria which aids this digestion is also diminished – it really doesn’t matter how healthful the diet is when under such extreme physical and psychological pressure. Trying to regain this energy happened in therapy when I was retrieving the lost bits of me still left behind in traumatic events. In my own time, I had to find ways of calming down before I ate in order to make the most of the nutrition I was about to ingest. The quickest way was to take the RR or smell the peppermint oil. I also drank peppermint and/or chamomile tea before and after meals. For the second digestive issue I found that eating yogurt (even the soy variety) replenished the healthy digestive flora. Sometimes this was too difficult to absorb so I turned to miso soup which does almost the same job (apparently it is better to consume the live bacteria found in yogurt).
The other thing I found very useful was taking a soluble (i.e. easy to absorb) vitamin B and C supplement. The B-group vitamins help with energy especially releasing the energy from food during digestion and the C variety helps with immunity. Actually the beneficial gut bacteria constitute most of the immune system so combining that with vitamin C goes a long way to strengthening overall physical health.
Avoiding alcohol and drugs was also beneficial during those tumultuous times as their consumption only suppressed emotions which were later intensified. For me this happened naturally at the age of twenty-five when my body no longer wanted alcohol (because only a sip made me very irritable) and nicotine (one puff of a cigarette felt like acid going through my lungs). In my early twenties, I also used marijuana to help me sleep. I tried this three times before it was abandoned because I disliked the lethargy and increase in appetite which followed. The one narcotic I have not given up is caffeine. I drink two cups a day, occasionally three. I believe it has assisted in controlling or even eliminating the asthma I had as a child. Besides this, I simply love the smell and taste of it and I don’t think it is doing me any harm.
Exercise was very important during my twenties. I tried the gym for about a year which I eventually gave up due to boredom. Then I began my daily walks which kept me physically fit and emotionally calm. However, in my early thirties this all went out the window. For the first time ever I understood what it was like for people who did not respond to a change in diet and increase in exercise in order to lose weight. The hormonal changes I underwent during those years modified my body to such an extent that I didn’t recognize it. My metabolism slowed down and my reproductive (i.e. sex) hormones were also out of whack. At one stage my testosterone levels skyrocketed which brought on a hair-trigger temper that I had never before experienced. My lymphatic system had become stagnant so that toxins weren’t being flushed out efficiently. All of this caused weight gain and fatigue. Even short walks made me ill – nauseous, bloated and emotionally fragmented. The only thing that helped was rest. My body was already using so much energy to deal with what was happening it needed major time-outs to regain strength and to keep functioning as normally as it possibly could. For years the only exercise I underwent was the movement involved with running errands and even then I needed regular pit-stops. This taught me to go with my own flow probably more than anything else.
Time and Space
The time required to heal is inextricably linked to the space needed – that is, time alone. This often meant not working or working less, not socializing or socializing less than the usual. During these intervals I was able to process my emotions, rest my body (as mentioned above) as well as rediscover who I was becoming without anyone else’s interference. I would spend time alone in nature and doing other enjoyable activities like watching movies, going out for meals or to cafes that served exquisite coffee. These were also the instances when I did most of my writing.
Finding the motivation to have fun can be like trying to lift a ten-ton boulder during PTSD. I made an effort by watching funny movies and doing other things that I loved which gave me such pleasure that I was able to forget about my pain by being reminded that there is so much more to life. I have mentioned some of these things in other parts of this chapter: eating out, coffee, movies, visiting nature, spending time with children…I also enjoy reading spiritual and (auto) biographical books.
Setting boundaries with people was a very difficult task to undertake at first because I didn’t understand what that meant. Since I grew up without any healthy physical boundaries being bombarded by the influence of others – even on a psychological level – was normal. As I began to heal, my overall sense of self was strengthened which then improved my self-esteem. From this point, I could actually start saying “No” to people who took up too much of my time and energy and gave nothing in return. (If they did ‘give’ me anything it was usually a headache and/or fatigue.)
During the most painful phases in my life staying away from people like this was essential for my health. This is because it takes every ounce of energy to deal with such major emotional turmoil so being around individuals who were sucking the life out of me was making it far more difficult to heal. Some of them had to be let go of completely whilst others could be dealt with only in small doses. The first time I moved out on my own it was a two-hour drive away from everyone I knew since they all wanted a piece of me and I simply could not do it anymore. Considering how many ‘pieces of me’ were still left behind in past traumatic events there was hardly anything remaining for me let alone anyone else.
It wasn’t until I moved away that I discovered just how much crap I had been putting up with throughout my life. The people I met in my new hometown treated me with far more respect than anyone I had EVER known. It finally dawned on me that I deserved so much better – that I was (am and always will be) worthy of love. (Copyright Helen Papadopoulos 2012)
(Copyright Helen Papadopoulos 2009)
Take care of you
Know your worth
Enjoy your life
Do what you want