The fact that lots of bad stuff happened last year doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again this year. That was 2019, and this is 2020. The fact that some patterns repeat each year, like the start of school, holidays, and anniversaries, doesn’t mean that the same events of the same type of events will happen again this year. Each year is different and new in its own way.
A lot of bad stuff happened to me in December/January/February of last year. I feel better now than I did a month ago, and I haven’t been thinking about those things as much, but sometimes I just can’t shake the feeling that something bad is going to happen purely because a certain date on the calendar is coming up.
Right now, the anniversary of my grandmother’s cremation ceremony is coming up. It makes me anxious. I know that it’s the date in particular that is making me anxious because when I imagine the date being after this particular date, I feel relieved.
In December, I was so scared before each important date happened, and so relived, happy, and hopeful the day after, once it passed and nothing bad happened.
I’m trying to ground myself when these feelings come up and focus on what is going on around me in my life in the present. Reminders like this affirmation help, too. The dates repeat each year, but the events change.
As part of the prolonged exposure therapy I’ve been doing, I do imaginal exposures, which involve talking through a traumatic memory. I tend to dissociate when talking or thinking about the trauma, so it’s sometimes hard for me to continue thinking about the memory because my mind goes blank with dissociation. However, I need to engage with the memory in order for the memory to make me less scared in the future, so I can’t just block it out. I have to balance not dissociating (by grounding myself in the present moment) and remembering the memory (which brings me a little to the past).
This affirmation is to remind me that it is possible to do this. It is possible to remember without having a flashback or dissociating. I can remember non-traumatic events and still know where I am in the present. With time and hard work in treatment, I am gradually able to do the same with traumatic memories.
I’d like to share some websites I found recently that I really like and have found helpful. (to be clear, I’m not getting paid by these websites or anything; I have just found them helpful and want to share them in case they could be helpful to others, too)
Anxiety symptoms: This one lists a ton of symptoms associated with anxiety and describes what they feel like and what causes each symptom. I have struggled with identifying what I am feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally, describing it, and knowing when it is something worth worrying about or something harmless. This website helps by including lots of different ways people might describe a certain feeling or symptom.
For example, the “dizziness or lightheadedness” description includes feeling “off-balance, unsteady, that you might faint or pass out,” “difficulty placing your feet because your perception of the ground may seem wrong or incorrect,” feeling like “your legs may not support you,” and about 10 others. It notes the different ways dizziness can occur, like out of the blue, in waves, persistently, at varying intensities, etc. The page also offers possible anxiety-related causes of dizziness, like hyper- and hypoventilation, an active stress response, persistently elevated stress, and sleep deprivation and fatigue.
I think this is useful if you want to understand what is happening in your body or mind, learn more about anxiety in all its different forms, put a name to things, or to help with hypochondria and differentiate between illness and anxiety symptom. A list like this is something I’ve felt a need for in my life for a long time, and I’m so glad I finally found something like this.
Grounding techniques for coping with flashback and distress: I think I’ve linked to this website before, but I really like it, so I’m sharing it again. It lists a lot of things you can do right now if you want to become more grounded. It’s easy to read, even if you’re in that flashback-y state and are having trouble concentrating. I had bookmarked this site a while ago, and I recently used it again when I really needed it because I had it conveniently bookmarked. It was helpful. If you think bookmarking this site could be helpful to you, too, then I recommend doing that! 🙂
What’s your grief: This is basically a blog about grief with lots of niche topics that are written about in helpful ways. I hadn’t really dealt with grief, at least not debilitating grief, in my life before the recent deaths of my uncle and grandmother. This website helped me understand it, see how normal it is, think about how I’m grieving / going to grieve, and gave me some recommendations for movies about grief (Coco and Mary Poppins Returns, apparently! I’ll have to check them out! 🙂 ).
Saving your grades from a mental health crisis (by Not Yet Hermione on Tumblr and rewritten in what I think is a more readable way on 7cups here): This is a guide on how to deal with school when you have a mental health crisis or near-crisis / rough time. It has helpful and realistic tips and things I didn’t think of, like asking to submit homework through email if you can’t make it to class to turn it in (something I could have used earlier this week but that didn’t occur to me) and making time for “I feel like crap” time in your schedule so that you don’t avoid your emotions and don’t just push through all the time. And the guide reminds you that your mental health is more important than school and has some encouraging things to say, which I kinda knew logically but are still nice to be reminded of.
Today has been a rough day for a number of reasons that I don’t want to dwell on right now.
I wanted to hurt myself, but I decided I would look at my pros and cons list (pros and cons of hurting myself vs. using skills and not hurting myself) before I did anything in order to be sure that I was making the right decision. (This story is going somewhere, I promise, and it even has a happy ending!)
I didn’t know where I put my hard copy of my pros and cons list, so I went hunting through the photos on my phone in my “Lists” album, where I keep pictures of a lot of my go-to self care / skills info. Instead of finding it, I came across a picture of strategies I had a while ago for “reorienting yourself,” or grounding yourself.
zoom out in time
zoom out in space
close your eyes and open htem
take stock of your limbs
how long until death? Is this an urgent, life-or-death problem?
what was happening before this?
look at a to-do list, planner, email, recent texts
I was feeling dissociated, so I tried some of these. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I tried to really see everything around me. I counted how many limbs I have. I realized that I am not in imminent danger, and neither is anyone in my family. I reviewed what I did earlier in the day.
And, I zoomed out in space. I imagined myself where I am, in my room, and then I zoomed out… to our house… our town… neighboring towns… our state… this part of the country… North America… the globe… little earth… the moon… our solar system… our galaxy……
It was at this point that I wondered if the Milky Way is part of a cluster of galaxies. Are there other galaxies near by us? Do galaxies even cluster together??
So I followed my train of thought because it was positive and a good distraction, and it made me feel curious and interested (emotions I haven’t felt much recently).
I googled “is the milky way part of a cluster.” It turns out it is! It’s part of the Virgo Supercluster.
Then I remembered that there was some youtube channel I couldn’t remember the name of that had a bunch of good astronomy videos I had liked. I wanted to find the channel, so I got my computer and dug through google drive to find the website that I had made for my high school astronomy class, thinking my website would help me find the youtube channel.
I looked through the website and was reminded of the cool things I learned in astronomy that year. I had pictures of the moon and of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons that we took right outside our high school one evening. I had essays I wrote about the more philosophical parts of astronomy. They were good to read.
I eventually found the part of my website where I linked to the youtube channel I was trying to find. Yay! I went to the channel, SciShow Space, and watched some videos.
One was about how the universe could be shaped like a torus (a donut). I had never really thought about the shape/topology of the universe before. I assumed it was spherical and infinite, I suppose. At the end of the video, the person talking said that if the universe were a torus, that you’d maybe be able to look out into the sky and see our galaxy, the Milky Way, but much younger — the way it was many years ago. You’d be able to wave to yourself.
Mindboggling. The universe is so weird.
A supernova could explode in our direction at any time and obliterate not just us, but our planet, our sun, and our solar system. There are things out there that operate on such different scales than our lives normally revolve around.
I can’t believe I forgot we live in a universe. There is so much more that exists than just me and my family, than everywhere I’ve been in my life, than our entire planet… there is so much more.
So, yeah, wow, that sticky note was actually incredibly helpful. Zooming out in space was just what I needed to do. And looking through the “Lists” album on my phone was the thing that led me to that, so that was helpful, too.
It was also good because it rekindled interests I forgot I had. There were many years growing up where I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I used to think about the universe a lot.
It also made me think more about geometry, math, science. I love geometry so much. I think I’ve briefly mentioned on here that I’m in engineering school. I’ve loved math and science for as long as I can remember. Since I’ve been on winter break, I haven’t gotten to spend much time on those interests. I was actually really craving math homework recently.
Wow. It was really good to be reminded of all that — the things I love to do, the universe we live in, the awe and wonder and imagination.
This morning in bed I read through a blog about being in a mental hospital. It reminded me somewhat of being in the day treatment program at the mental hospital this summer, but it actually reminded me more of a traumatic time in a hospital, being treated for physical reasons…
I am aware that writing about this could trigger me and give me flashbacks or dissociation, and I’m also aware that I haven’t been this open on this blog before, or in person, for that matter… I normally avoid talking about trauma things, even in therapy. Although that will hopefully change soon. But I think these thoughts all the time, and I want to put them in the world, and I’m finally feeling like maybe I’m able to do that without getting super triggered…
(And also, be aware of yourself while reading this and mindful of if it’s the best thing for you at the moment. It’s not very graphic, but it is about injuries, hospitals, being away from home, doctors, a dangerous city, etc.)
Okay, so I’m going to try to write this, and I will do it mindfully and stop and take a break when I notice myself getting worse, and I will do grounding skills. 🙂
Okay, here goes!!
So, it reminded me of being in the hospital and getting kicked out before I was ready to leave. I was in a bad state… with a broken bone knocked two inches out of place (i.e. no chance of it healing properly on its own), with a concussion that doctors refused to acknowledge or treat, barely able to walk…
In a country where I didn’t speak the language, in a part of town where you could get shot if you walked around right outside the hospital – my family members were staying at a bed and breakfast two blocks away from the hospital, and people advised us to take a taxi there because it was too dangerous to walk.
As I write this, I notice that I am getting a bit of a headache, feeling nauseous, and my thinking is getting a bit foggy. I’m gonna take a quick break…
I’m back! I ran up and down the hall and jumped around. I also got some more water to drink. It is TWENTY EIGHTEEN, I am at home, I am in college, I am on fall break, I am studying engineering, I have new friends, my watch is blue, I am thinking about a distressing memory, but it is not happening now. Memories are painful but not the present reality. It is safe to write about. Whew. Deep breath. Okay.
Yeah. So I did not feel ready to leave the hospital. I also didn’t have my belongings. I was in a foreign country. I was a bajillion miles from home. For a good amount of time, I didn’t have shoes, and had to walk around the hospital barefoot until I pleaded enough that someone gave me giant navy crocs.
One day, they had me move to a new bed in a different wing of the hospital because someone needed the bed I was in. This happened suddenly, in the middle of the day. My family was not around, and I had no way of contacting them. I owned a cell phone at the time, but it was at home across the ocean. I hadn’t brought it on the trip because I didn’t use it much at the time (I was kinda young), and I knew it wouldn’t work anyway because I didn’t have an international data plan. But anyway, I had no way of telling my family where I was. I thought they would just show up to my old room, looking for me, and not know where I had gone or have any way of knowing. I ended up telling a relative of someone I shared the room with exactly where I was going. I think that helped. I don’t actually remember how it turned out, but my mom definitely found me eventually.
I know that this is kinda disjointed. Apparently that is how trauma memories are: not in order, random snippets. These aren’t even the super traumatic parts. Sighhhhh
There’s a lot more I could write about being in the hospital, but I think this is enough for now, so I’ll say one more thing to end on a good note.
In the room I was in, there was an older woman being treated for some sort of heart problem. Her family was with her. Her granddaughter was in her 20s and studying to be a doctor, I think. The granddaughter was really sweet. When I was super nauseous, she went to the drugstore in the hospital and bought me cinnamon gum to chew. Apparently chewing gum and experiencing strong smells or tastes helps with nausea. I didn’t actually chew the gum at the time, but I have chewed gum more recently to help with nausea.
One time, she took me on a walk. She let me lean on her arm for support (because I wasn’t walking well and was also very dizzy and nauseous). We walked through this peaceful spiritual garden thing in the hospital. It was only about 20 minutes, but it was my first time walking since I’d gotten to the hospital, and my first time away from my bed in a while. It was so nice. I felt so taken care of. She was so kind to me.
This week I learned a new technique to use when I’m dissociating.
I started an intensive outpatient treatment program in DBT last Monday. I think DBT is awesome. 10/10 would recommend. I am learning a ton of new skills and getting answers to every question I ever had. I feel very lucky to be able to participate in this incredible program.
I have learned many new skills, but this is one that I had no idea existed beforehand and that has been really helping me. I’m not sure if this is a DBT skill or just a grounding skill, but it was my DBT therapist that explained it to me and helped me to practice it, so I am crediting the program with this.
Basically the thing is this: Our brains can’t dissociate and coordinate our movements properly at the same time. So, if someone is dissociating, or beginning to dissociate, doing some sort of coordinated movement can help to stop the dissociation and bring their mind back to the present and their surroundings.
What is a “coordinated movement“? It’s something you do that requires you to focus your body on moving. My DBT therapist suggested standing on a balance board, playing catch, and dancing.
I have learned on my own over the past year that dancing can bring me out of a flashback surprisingly quickly. I have a playlist of specific songs that I dance to in order to ground myself. So, it was validating to hear that dancing requires coordination and that that’s probably why it was helping.
If I don’t have a balance board readily available (I can use one while I’m at the program, but not at home), or if it would be too hard to get access to one in the moment, I can just try to balance while standing on one leg for as long as I can. If that’s too easy, I can stand on my tippy toes, too.
Throwing something around is also great. If there’s someone else around, and they’re willing to do this with me, we can play catch. If I’m on my own, I can throw a ball against the wall or bounce it on the floor. If I’m in a group of people, I can simply toss anything from hand to hand without feeling like I’m being weird.
I am going to start carrying around a bouncy ball!
I am also learning that I dissociate a lot. I’ve known for a long time that dissociation is a symptom of PTSD, but I’ve always thought of it as “that one symptom I don’t have.” I don’t think I really understood what the word was describing.
Now I am beginning to pick up on the clues that I am starting to dissociate. I feel dizzy, all thoughts flee my mind, I zone out, I’m not really looking at anything in particular, it’s hard to remember what I was just saying, I ask “whaaat?” in my head or out loud, my muscles feel weak, my legs feel like they’re dropping out from under me and disappearing, I feel like I’m not here, I feel like things aren’t real, I have an urge to run away and hide.
Grabbing something and throwing it up and down or from one hand to the other is hard in the moment. It is hard to remember to do it, it is hard to be willing to do it and trust that it could probably help, and it is physically hard to do it because I am attempting to override the dissociation.
Standing up when I want to freeze and stay still forever because I think that if I don’t, something bad will happen, is hard. Moving any part of me, even just readjusting the position I’m sitting in, is hard because that is not what my body is wired to do.
But I am safe now. In this moment, I am safe. It is okay to move. It is okay to stay present and to experience this moment. I am having a reaction, that is all. I have gotten through this before, and I will get through it again. It’ll be okay.
Had you heard of this skill before? Have you tried it? If you dissociate, what helps you bring yourself out of that?