Part 5: How To Have Conversations About PTSD

Hi all,

Thank you for reading my latest blog post “Part 5: How To Have Conversations About PTSD”. This post will cover my strategies for starting a meaningful engagement regarding your experiences with trauma, triggers & re-experiencing symptoms and the emotional & physical response to these triggers. For those who experience PTSD and other mental health conditions, this particular blog entry has a content and trigger warning. I will be recalling instances of trauma and the triggers that instantly transport me back to the emotions, thoughts and behaviours associated with these traumas. I understand and commend you on your journey if you are not able to read this particular blog entry.

I am beginning this blog by making the recommendation to speak to your GP or mental health clinician about how to speak with family and friends about your PTSD. Each individual’s circumstance is different and there may be a more appropriate manner regarding how to communicate your trauma experiences to friends and family. However, these are some of my tips on how I best communicated my trauma experiences with my loved ones.

Firstly, I recognised that if I was to truly process and take control of my mental health I would need the support of those closest to me. I realised that even though I was strong and independent, I needed the physical and emotional support of others to truly own my PTSD. Once again, this was a confronting process and I initially viewed myself as weak or inept at ‘handling’ my mental health. But, that was absolutely my ego talking and there is a great deal of courage and strength of character to be brave enough to reach out for help.

How to have conversations with loved ones if you experience PTSD

It’s common for a loved one to mislabel your actions and behaviours if they are unaware of your trauma experiences. Communicating about your PTSD will empower both parties to better understand each other.

It may be helpful to have this conversation somewhere that you have access to self-soothing tools like music, photographs of pleasant memories or being in a physical place that regulates your emotions like the beach or surrounded by greenery.

To begin, I would find a time that works for both you and your chosen confidant, without distraction and where both of you can be completely focused on the conversation. In a way that is most appropriate to both of you, open up an honest dialogue about your experiences, sharing as much information about these experiences as you feel comfortable. As well as experiences, I recommend that you also share your thoughts – thoughts before, during and after the experiences and emotions associated with these experiences.

During this conversation, I encourage you to share what may also be a trigger for you in your everyday life. A trigger is a subsequent reminder of an initial event or trauma. They can be and are not limited to: certain locations, people, interactions, sounds, sensations, behaviours, anything that may cause symptoms and emotions associated with the trauma to resurface.

I have had two recent triggers that I would like to share with you. Late last year I recall watching an episode of “Insight” called “On Trial – What is the impact of working on criminal trials?”, on SBS. The link for this episode can be found here. ***TRIGGER WARNING*** Whilst for some this episode may not be confronting or remotely triggering, for me – it took me straight back to my time wearing the suit of blue.

The episode is an open forum with Australian legal professionals who experience vicarious trauma after being exposed to confronting stories, clients and evidence. The episode is an account of representing clients who are accused of child sexual assault, murder, rape and many other series indictable offences. The stress and the vicarious trauma of facilitating criminal trials lead many of these Solicitors, Barristers and Supreme Court Judges to reach for substances including alcohol and drugs as a coping/numbing mechanism at the end of a hard day.

This episode instantly transported me back to my time as an operational Police Officer, being first on the scene to a number of murders, street brawls, countless domestic violence incidents and drawing my firearm on armed offenders.

I instantly recalled the physical, emotional and guttural responses I had when investigating sexual offences against children and viewing hard drives upon hard drives of child pornography, the numbness I felt while pulling deceased people from fatal car crashes and the rage that I felt when I was spat on, urinated and defecated on (yes, this actually happens) and assaulted during the course of my duties. I instantly felt the guilt of providing CPR to critically injured members of the community, knowing that my chest compressions and breaths were not going to bring them back to life. I’ve had to do this after responding to suicides, overdoses and critical injuries. Watching the life literally leave someone as you’re attempting to revive them still haunts me to this day.

While I was watching this episode I cried. Not a single tear, but streams of tears. I felt vulnerable, overwhelmed, ashamed, angry and sad all at the same time. I was meant to be fine, I’ve ‘done’ my counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy, I retired from the Police Service, why was this still happening to me? As I mentioned in my second blog post, ‘Part 2: Owning my PTSD story‘ –

PTSD is still part of my life. It doesn’t conveniently disappear when you make the decision to move forward and leave the situations that caused the mental illness in the first place. It’s a constant and daily battle.

I happened to be watching this particular Insight episode with my partner Lisa. Her response was amazing. She knew at that moment it wasn’t appropriate to talk at length around why I was triggered. Instead, she placed her arms around me and held me until the moment passed. It was a powerful, appropriate and human response.

My most recent trigger occurred while undertaking a gruelling mental and physical training session in preparation for my ultramarathon event in August. I’m constantly seeking ways to strengthen and resolve my body and mind while chasing performance, as I know that running a 250KM ultramarathon in Iceland will test every facet of my mental, intellectual and physical abilities, especially given my trauma background. As part of this training session, I endured sensory exclusion. I experienced ‘auditory exclusion’, which is a temporary loss of hearing that occurs while under high stress. Some refer to it as ‘tunnel vision’ or a slowing down of time. During this session, I was taken to instances of high-stress situations from my policing days. It was a sensation that I hadn’t experienced for many years and one that would manifest after engaging in high-speed pursuits and searching houses, warehouses, buildings with flashlight and firearm, looking for armed offenders.

At the conclusion of this training session, I spent the rest of the day practising self-care. I listened to calming music, tasty and nourishing food, journaled my feelings in response to this session and spent time speaking with Lisa about my response to the session. Once again, she was fantastic. Judgment free, understanding and calming.

I bring up my own recent triggers for the purpose of demonstrating how they can occur in everyday life and how the behaviour and emotions associated may manifest. When it comes time to discuss your own triggers with others, be specific about what is a trigger for you and what is a potential or probable outcome both physically and emotionally for you. Communicate how the physical and emotional outcome manifests into your behaviour when you are triggered. Also, what do you require when you are triggered? This might look something like:

When (TRIGGER) happens, I experience (PHYSICAL REACTION), it makes me feel (EMOTIONAL RESPONSE). When this occurs I need (SELF CARE STRATEGY).

Communicate with that loved one about how they can best assist you when you are feeling triggered. For me, not being pressured to speak immediately, listening to calming music, eating nourishing food, mindfully moving my body through resistance workouts, running and yoga are all forms of self-care that I need to practice after being triggered. These are just some examples and I advocate finding ones that work for you.

Throughout these conversations please make sure you are comfortable in your environment and you are regularly checking in as to how you are feeling and the thoughts you are experiencing during this conversation.

You may feel guilty about exposing your friend or family member to your experiences of trauma and that they might not be ‘strong enough’ ‘resilient enough’ etc. to ‘handle’ the situations that you have experienced. In my experience, the ones who truly care about you want to better understand, support and love you through this process. Throughout this conversation make sure you communicate their strengths and continue to check in on how they are feeling during this process.

Knowing that someone you love understands your trauma experience and how it may manifest daily is an incredible support to have. I absolutely cherish the love and support that I have received from my amazing partner, Lisa.

IMG_2136
Lisa and I in Nice on the day of our engagement

How to best support someone you know or love who experiences PTSD

Having experienced trauma, I know that the support of a loved one is absolutely critical in the healing process. If someone you know and love has experienced trauma, here are my tips on how to help them through this process and open up a dialogue.

The behaviours of someone who has experienced trauma may be confusing, concerning and potentially irritating, especially when they are triggered. I appreciate that you may want to discuss their experiences with trauma and how it may manifest into their behaviour when they are triggered. I would encourage you not to place pressure on your loved one to talk immediately. This is my biggest take-home point. It can be incredibly difficult for someone with a traumatic past to speak about their experiences, especially when pressured. Practicing patience and compassion can go a long way and it can create a safe and supportive space for your loved one to open up an honest dialogue about their trauma.

When it comes time for your loved one to start this dialogue, in my experience one of the best things you can do is listen – actually listen, without judgment, without interruption to what they are saying. I implore you to not minimise their story, as everyone’s experiences and their ability to process is different. Their thoughts, feelings and emotions are absolutely valid.

Your own thoughts, feelings and emotions are also valid. During this conversation, I encourage you to check in with yourself around how you are feeling personally.  It can be quite an emotionally draining and stressful thing to hear experiences of trauma vicariously. Please be kind to yourself as well and practice your own form of self-care when needed. You also may benefit from the assistance of a mental health service or a conversation with your GP around how to best support your loved one and yourself through this process.

Finally, I advocate continuing to listen to your loved one when they share their stories of trauma. Communicate their strengths and their resolve for continuing on this journey. Offer possible support (relevant to the self care activities that your loved one may have spoken to you about) when they are experiencing triggers of their traumatic past.

Providing space for a safe and supportive forum, actively listening and touch (appropriate for some. Depending on the trauma experience and the particular trigger. If touch is a trigger please be mindful of this), can be exactly the kind of support that the person may require. Your support means more to your loved one than you may understand.

There is great courage and compassion in supporting someone through trauma.

Seeking Help for PTSD

Credit: Black Dog Institute

If your life is in danger call emergency services:

  • Australia – 000
  • New Zealand – 111

Lifeline Counselling (24 /7)

  • Australia – 13 1114
  • New Zealand – 0800 543 354

Men’s Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
Suicide call back service – 1300 659 467

You can also: talk to someone you trust, visit a hospital emergency department, contact your GP, a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

How To Show Your Support

If you are reading this blog and engaging with the content I’m sharing, thank you. Your subscription to this forum is incredibly humbling and I definitely appreciate your time and energy. If you feel inclined to do so, I ask that you continue to support this forum by one of the options below.

  1. Help me in my goal of raising awareness of PTSD and support options and my journey by subscribing to this blog, sharing it with your friends and social media platforms.
  2. If you know of someone who is going through a tough time, have the empathy and the courage to start a meaningful conversation that could truly change or save their life.
  3. If you wish to support my participation in my ultra-marathon event you can do so by making a donation through my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 until 1 August 2018. Funds raised through this platform will help to offset the significant preparation costs in representing Australia on the world stage as I run to raise the profile of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  4. Pledge a donation to Phoenix Australia: Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health via my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 as well. Your support means more than you realise, not only myself but to others who endure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Thank you for reading and for being an integral part of changing the face of mental health.

Yours in health,

James

One Reply to “Part 5: How To Have Conversations About PTSD”

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