My Experience With PTSD Therapy. (Mental Health Awareness part- 3)

(Trigger warning and disclaimer: In the following blog post I will be discussing mental health in a variety of forms. If you feel like you may be triggered in any way, please do not read the article below. I understand completely. If you don’t wish to read on, but would like to talk to me about my experience with therapy or mental health in general, please do not hesitate to contact me at: Authorleea@outlook.com

Now for the disclaimer part. I am in no way a professional on the subject of mental health. The views expressed here are entirely from my own experience and my opinions based on those experiences. Mental illness manifests itself in many ways that can be different based on the individual. Do not take my experience as fact. If you are struggling, please seek help from a professional.)

*****

Previous: (Part-1) (Part-2)

With the cognitive behavioural therapy finished, I was in a good place. I felt that my mood was better than it had been in a very long time. And with this, my anxieties dropped to almost none existent. (Which reminds me of something. When I first began therapy, I asked my therapist to make my anxiety go away. I now know that anxiety is a very natural and human thing. Anxiety is always there, in some shape or form. It’s something that is embedded into our system. What matters about anxiety is the level of it, and our ability to manage it.) From my CBT, I had learned many things and felt equipped to deal with my thoughts in a positive way. I felt different. I was me, but a different me. I felt confident in myself and my abilities. I felt happy. But despite this, something still lingered. There were still moments where my mood changed instantly. These moments wouldn’t last long, but they were intense and would often leave me feeling physically exhausted.

By this point, I was very comfortable talking with my therapist. The room in which we spoke had become somewhat of a sanctuary for me. It had become a place for me to vent and express concerns that I had with my own mind. I could never have imagined such a place at the beginning of my struggles. Such a place was out of my reach. But I got there in the end, and that’s what matters. In one of my final CBT sessions, I was asked if there was anything else bothering me. That was when my anxieties kicked in, for the first time in a little while. I realised, deep down, in the far corners of my mind, that something still lurked. I remained silent for a while, searching my mind for what was wrong. Through my CBT therapy, I had learned how to take my time with my thoughts and see them rationally, through questioning the negative. When I found the thought and the words to describe it, I explained what was bothering me.

After some positive analysis and discussion, we came to a conclusion. (I feel the need to note something here. One of my biggest fears about returning to therapy was that ideas and information were going to be forced on me. I was worried that my therapist would dictate what was wrong with me and how I should be feeling. Not once was this the case. Every conclusion that we reached was reached by me. Yes, my therapist would guide me through questions and agreed upon experiments, but every thought was my own, as was every conclusion.) We discovered that I was still having flash backs from a trauma that happened a while ago. These flash backs were triggered by a number of things. Perhaps I should tell you of the trauma, before anything else, so what follows makes sense. But I will make this brief and quite vague, for obvious reasons.

I was attacked by a large group of guys, on my way home from work one evening. I suffered multiple injuries to my face, arms and ribs. The attack was the result of mistaken identity. I tried to run but failed. I didn’t fight back.

(There was a time when that would have been impossible for me to write, or even think about writing. It is because of therapy that I received that I can access these thoughts without a negative emotional response. I will explain how this was achieved, I just needed to note this beforehand.)

After the conclusion was agreed upon, my therapist gave me the option of immediate PTSD therapy. I of course I accepted, but there was a risk of doing such a therapy immediately. Reopening metaphorical scars of the mind could have brought back the depression and anxiety that I had fought so hard to control through CBT. But I decided that the risk was worth taking. I wanted to fight all of my demons at once. I wanted to rid myself of the things that were holding me back.

The PTSD therapy began with a core method. This method was called reliving. I had to put myself back into that trauma. I had to feel everything again. I had to feel what the ground was like beneath my feet. I had to feel the temperature of the air around me. I had to hear their voices. I had to feel every punch and every hit. To do this, I had to talk in first person and not acknowledge my therapist, despite her guiding questions. I had to focus on an empty space in the room and clear my mind. I had to focus on recalling the memories that I had tried to erase. You see, the thing with the brain is… it doesn’t forget. Not a single event that happens in a lifetime is forgotten, it’s just put into storage. We can reclaim those events through extreme concentration.

The moments after reliving the trauma were… strange. I remembered parts of what I said, but only parts. It was like a dream, in a sense that the more I tried to remember about the recollection, the more I would forget. It felt like I had been talking for about fifteen minutes, but in reality, almost an hour and a half had passed. It was almost like I was in a trance. Which is interesting because I never thought that I would be susceptible to such a thing. (That’s not me be ignorant of hypnotherapy methods, I know they work… they just don’t work for everybody.) It took my eyes a while to adjust because the event happened in the dark. My body felt like it had been physically attacked once again. I felt dazed and confused. However, as part of the therapy, I had to bring an object to anchor me to reality. The object that I brought was a paperback version of my recently released book. This book was a reminder that I survived the attack and achieved something. It was a reminder of who I became after the attack. Holding my book in my hands brought me back to my reality.

Aside from letting my therapist know the details of the trauma, the main purpose of reliving was to record it (I used my phone, as that was the easiest option for me). As part of the therapy, I had to take that recording home and listen to it at least three times between sessions. Every time that I listened to it, I had to let my emotions flow naturally and try not to hold any back. Through doing this, I could highlight the key trigger points of the event. These trigger points were the moments that were stuck in my head. The parts that would force themselves forward during flashbacks.

When these trigger points were discovered, the following steps were to analyse them and break them down into the different emotions that I felt throughout. Through doing this, we could highlight the negative beliefs that I was clinging to. These were the things that were keeping the trauma active and making it surface in certain situations. For me, my negative beliefs were the following, and this is how I dealt with them.

  • I am weak- I believed that I was weak because I didn’t fight back. Through rationalising this with my therapist, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t weak. I was strong. I was the better person for not wanting to harm them. Not only this but despite not fighting back, I survived and became the person that I am today. In many ways I was victorious.
  • I am a coward- I believed that I was a coward because I attempted to run. Through rationalising this with my therapist, I realised that this simply wasn’t true. I ran because my survival instinct kicked in. It was a fight or flight situation, and in that moment of fear, my instinct chose for me. It wasn’t a choice, it was my body and mind protecting itself. We all have this built in. It’s how we survived and evolved as humans many years ago.

PTSD happens because the logical sides of our brain, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, aren’t communicating properly with our fear part of our brain, the amygdala. When we are reminded of the trauma, our amygdala activates, making us feel like we are back in that moment. And, because of the lack of communication from the other parts of the brain, there is no reasoning. For me, in these moments, I experienced a rush of adrenaline and anger. For example, upon seeing any group of guys that I would consider a threat, my body would automatically prepare itself for fight or flight. My muscles would tighten, and my heart would begin to pound in my chest, attempting to get blood to the most needed areas. This, of course, was quite exhausting for both my mind and body.

Through repetition of the trauma, I was able to become familiar with it, and through questioning it, I was able to understand it. And through this, my mind began to communicate more efficiently. By the fourth session of PTSD therapy, I had listened to that recording of myself reliving the trauma about ten times. Every time that I listened to it, the flashbacks lessened, and because of this, a lot of aches and pains stopped. I’m not going to pretend that this therapy was easy. It’s not. Just like CBT, it requires hard work and willing. But because I went through with it, I can now talk about the trauma without it affecting me. I can now walk past a reminder without my body tensing up. I feel like I have complete control once again. My mind feels clearer. In combination with the cognitive behaviour therapy, I was again feel like myself, but more than myself. I feel confident. I feel stronger. I feel capable. I feel like I can once again stand tall.

*****

Hey everyone. Well, that turned out a lot longer than I expected, I just wanted to put in as much information as possible. I want to say a quick thank you for the support that I have received on this series. It means a lot to me that people are reading it. Not only am I writing this to inform people, but also as a kind of closure for myself. The next part will be the final piece on this subject, and I will be telling you all about the relapse prevention side of the therapy, as well as my final thoughts.

Lee A. Vockins.

My Experience With Cognitive Therapy. (Mental Health Awareness part- 2)

(Trigger warning and disclaimer: In the following blog post I will be discussing mental health in a variety of forms. If you feel like you may be triggered in any way, please do not read the article below. I understand completely. If you don’t wish to read on, but would like to talk to me about my experience with therapy or mental health in general, please do not hesitate to contact me at: Authorleea@outlook.com

Now for the disclaimer part. I am in no way a professional on the subject of mental health. The views expressed here are entirely from my own experience and my opinions based on those experiences. Mental illness manifests itself in many ways that can be different based on the individual. Do not take my experience as fact. If you are struggling, please seek help from a professional.)

*****

Previous: (Part-1)

As I sat in the waiting room, my heart pounded in my chest as I focused on controlling my unsteady breathing. I’d had many panic attacks before, so controlling one wasn’t much of a concern. Not even in an unknown place surrounded by unknown people. Luckily, my therapy appointment was very early in the morning, so I had forgone the terrifying necessity of alerting the reception to my presence. Yes, such a thing is an easy task for the majority of people. But in my anxiety-wracked mind, uttering “Hello, I’m here to see blah blah at blah blah,” would have been quite the challenge. And it would have been for a lot of people. Especially anybody else suffering with an anxiety disorder.

I waited with thoughts racing through my head. How do I great my therapist? What are they going to look like? Do I go in for a handshake? Are they going to think I’m crazy? Each racing thought makes my hands tremble a little bit more. I could have brought someone with me, to help ease my anxieties, but I didn’t. I chose to do it alone, to prove to myself that I could. I may have regretted my decision while sitting there, but looking back, I did it. And I’m proud that I did it. (But this doesn’t mean that you have to do anything alone. This was my personal choice, and everyone suffering from mental illness is different. If you feel that you need someone, take someone. Chances are they won’t be allowed into therapy with you, but they can ease your mind during the wait.)

“Hello, are you Lee?” A female voice came from beside me. My heart felt like it was going to explode in my chest as the anxieties were becoming overbearing. But as I looked up to my apparent therapist, my anxieties eased a little. You see, anxiety is at it’s very worst while you are anticipating an event. During an event, it can either go one of two ways: 1. It remains until you can barely function. 2. It slowly dissipates. Luckily, in that moment, it did the latter. Maybe it was the welcoming demeanour of my therapist. Maybe it was my will to get better. I don’t know. All that I do know is that things were okay when they needed to be. (Later in therapy, I learned that this was an important lesson. Things can turn out to be okay, even if we think for certain that they won’t. Some events we have no control of and we cannot predict the future with any certainty.)

I took a moment to control my breathing before I answered. She waited patiently, still smiling. My hello and confirmation were probably slightly wobbly from breathlessness, but again, it was okay. She led me to the room in which I would go to once a week for almost eight months. As I sat down for the first time, I never knew how significant that room would become to my life. I never knew how important those therapy sessions would become. And, I certainly did not know how much it would change how I feel. Let me explain that further for a minute. I was always very sceptical of the therapy process. It wasn’t my first experience with therapy, but it was my first experience with Talking Therapies.

My very first experience with therapy was about nine years ago, and it was a very negative one. I pretended to feel better just to get out of it. It left me feeling that I could not be helped. I struggled to open up and connect with my first therapist. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for me to heal, but regardless, it left me with a negative impression of therapy. But despite that, I was there with another therapist in a different room, trying again. My determination to get better overcame my doubt.

And so, I started my therapy. I began this process with a cognitive form of therapy (known as CBT), and this built the foundation of my path to recovery. Here’s a quote from mind.org.uk, so you have an exact idea of what it is: “Cognitive behavioural therapy is a type of talking treatment which focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviour and teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems. It combines cognitive therapy (examining the things you think) and behaviour therapy (examining the things you do).”

I will bullet point the main things that I learned from CBT:

  • I learned to challenge my negative thoughts- I did this by using a percentage system. I asked myself, how much do I really believe this thought, then gave it a percentage. After doing so, I looked for evidence to support the thought. With every doubt I found, I brought the percentage down. This was a lengthy process with some thoughts, because some were stronger than others. But not once did it fail. There is always some doubt in every negative thought, you just need to find it. The thing with negative thoughts are, they speak so much louder than the positive ones. Once you bring their volume down with disbelief, you begin to hear the positive. And I found this to be a snowball-like effect. Once I started to feel better by doing this, I started getting better every day. I started to feel happy about myself.
  • I learned that it’s okay to be different- This ties in with the first bullet point, but this one was very important to me. I have always felt very different to those around me, for a variety of reasons. And because of this, I have felt that I do not belong in this world. Through CBT, I learned to think of these things in a different way. I learned that everybody is different, in their own way, even if they choose not to show it. I learned that there are others that feel the same way that I do, and in that, I didn’t feel so different after all.
  • I learned that I’m not useless- Again, this ties in with the first bullet point, but it’s another very important one. The bottom line was, I felt useless. I felt that I couldn’t achieve the things that I wanted to and I felt that no one would ever be proud of me. I challenged this thought by remembering all of the things that I had achieved, no matter how great or small. I reminded myself how capable I was by putting myself into situations that I was not comfortable in. I believe the absolute opposite now. I believe that I am capable of doing anything that I set my mind to. It was in the early stages of challenge that I released my first book out into the world, just to prove to myself that I could.
  • To stop living in the past and future- I was living in my mind. I was scared of things that hadn’t happened, and I didn’t know for certain would happen. I was ruminating about past mistakes and things that had happened. I learned that there were certain things that I had no control over, and I couldn’t change things that had already happened. Through this, I learned to remain in the present. I learned to concentrate on the things around me. The things that I could control.

My cognitive behavioural therapy lasted for a while, but it seemed to go by really quickly. It became a weekly routine that I eventually began to enjoy. It was a place that I could vent and express myself in a way that I never had been able to. It was a place that I could practice speech, and through that, find the confidence to speak. As the sessions bled into one and I came to the end of that chapter, another problem surfaced. I discovered, through talking to my therapist, that I still had problems with PTSD, from a trauma that happened a long time ago. Where CBT had helped me control my anxiety and depression, it didn’t help certain moments of pure fear and anger that I was experiencing. Talking Therapies decided to help me immediately with this, despite already going overtime with sessions. So that was going to be my next chapter in therapy, it wasn’t over, but I was even more determined to finish my journey. I was on the path to being a better me, and nothing was going to stop that.

*****

Hey everyone. So that was my experience with cognitive therapy. I hope everyone found this useful in some shape or form. Therapy can be a scary thing, so I guess my main aim here was to give an insight into what exactly happens.

Its okay to be afraid, but don’t give up through fear. If you push through the fear, you’ll come out the other side so much stronger. As you can see, I learned an incredible amount about myself through the process.

In part 3 of this series, I will be going through my experience with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) therapy. Thank you for reading.

Lee A. Vockins.

My Experience With Cognitive Therapy. (Mental Health Awareness Part- 1)

(Trigger warning and disclaimer: In the following blog post I will be discussing mental health in a variety of forms. If you feel like you may be triggered in any way, please do not read the article below. I understand completely. If you don’t wish to read on, but would like to talk to me about my experience with therapy or mental health in general, please do not hesitate to contact me at: Authorleea@outlook.com

Now for the disclaimer part. I am in no way a professional on the subject of mental health. The views expressed here are entirely from my own experience and my opinions based on those experiences. Mental illness manifests itself in many ways that can be different based on the individual. Do not take my experience as fact. If you are struggling, please seek help from a professional.)

So, where do I start this? I guess the beginning would be a good start. But in truth, I don’t really know where it began. My problems happened so gradually that they seemed like a natural progression. Like they were just part of my growing up and part of me. And I guess in a way, they were. Mental illness is not something that we choose. It is something that builds. It builds ever so slightly until we begin to feel its weight. Then over time, that weight becomes almost unbearable. I think that this is something that most forms of mental illness have in common. But absolutely no form of the illness is our choice.

I could go on to speculate and guess at the causes, but that will come in time. I will get to the point of this article now, and that is my experience with cognitive therapy and how I got there. About a year ago, my struggles bore me down to a point where I simply could not function. I know that’s blunt and kind of general, but I don’t think that there’s any other way to describe it. I was at a point where I couldn’t eat or sleep properly. In fact, I barely did either of the two. I felt useless and alone. I felt like I did not belong. The only emotions that I felt during this time were sadness and anger. These things led me into a number of coping mechanisms and avoidance behaviours.

It took me a while to realise that I had a problem. It took a number of breakdowns and people trying to get through to me, but I’ve never been a big talker. I had become adept at hiding my emotions from others and keeping my thoughts inside. Now these things I know to be the result of being bullied throughout my school years, but I will go more into that later. There were a number of things that made me realise that I needed help, but one thing stood out like a beacon. I realised that I needed confidence in my self and my abilities to become a full-time writer. I clung on to my passion for writing, and it gave me hope. I realised the things that I needed to achieve my dreams, and in this, it gave me the strength that I needed to seek help.

So, I did just that. My first step was a call to my doctor to tell her about how I was feeling, both mentally and physically. (I don’t think many people realise this, but mental stress of any kind has a serious effect on the body. It’s exhausting. It makes muscles tighten, which in turn creates aches and pains. Our brains use up a lot of our energy, so if we’re overusing our brains, it leaves us fatigued and drained.) My doctor was extremely understanding and compassionate. This wasn’t the first time that I had been to her with these problems, however. This episode is part of a very long story of ups and downs, but I will stay on track with my purpose of getting to cognitive therapy. After my appointment, I was left equipped with a phone number and a prescription. These were the tools that I would use to sculpt my future and beat my demons. But they were only tools, I knew that a long fight was ahead. A fight that would require all of my strength and will.

The prescription was for anti-depressants. Now, please allow me to address the elephant in the room that just appeared after that sentence. It is okay to be on medication for mental illness. If you have a broken leg, you will likely need a cast and a crutch for it to be able to heal properly. Anti-depressant medications are the cast and the crutch for someone struggling with depression and/or anxiety. It’s an aid to get better. It is certainly not something that can be entirely replaced with a walk and fresh air. To recover fully and properly from any mental illness takes a combination of methods and hard work. With that rant over, I’ll continue. I got the medication that was recommended to me by I professional, and I took it. As you should with any illness.

The phone number was for a place/group called Talking Therapies. I’d not heard of them before, and they weren’t around when I first reached out for help with mental illness about ten years ago. I remember laying on my bed, terrified of calling this number. I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears and my chest tightening with anxiety. Thinking back, I was probably on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. But despite this, I pushed through. I broke the first barrier that was going to try and stop me from getting better. I dialled the number and held the phone to my ear. The break between each ring saw a breath catch in my throat until they answered.

“Hello, Talking Therapies. How can I help you today?” It was a woman’s voice; her tone was kind and reassuring.

“H-H-Hello.” I barely articulate. I pause for a moment and take a deep breath. “Hey, I was given this number by my doctor. She said that you can help me.” It was easier to speak once I had reminded myself how to breathe.

I was on the phone for about an hour after that. After answering a series of questions to determine the severity of how I was feeling and which sort of help I needed. It wasn’t an easy conversation, I’m not going to lie. It required me to be completely honest about how I was feeling and what I was thinking, and that wasn’t something that I was good at. But after that hour of talking through the tears, a conclusion was reached. My depression and anxiety were severe enough to need weekly face-to-face therapy. This conclusion was terrifying at first. Therapy was something that scared me, and my anxieties only pushed that fear even further. But with that thought in my mind of being able to become a better me and a full-time writer, I was determined to get better. I was willing to do what needed to be done.

*****

Hey everyone. That’s the end of part 1. In part 2 I will be going through the cognitive side of my therapy from start to finish. Just thought I’d put a slight explanation down here as to why I chose to write about this. It’s been three weeks now since I completely finished therapy. I feel great. Better than I have been in a long time and better than I thought I could ever feel. It’s because of this that I wanted to share my experience. I want to show people that it is possible for therapy to be an entirely positive thing. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy. Like anything worth doing in life, it’s not easy.

If you are struggling with your mind, in any way, find your voice. Find that passion to hold on to. We all have the strength to do what we want in life, we just need to find it sometimes. Help is there if you need it, you just need to want it. Above all, you need to help yourself.

Lee A. Vockins.