Imagine that you’re out playing a game of afternoon football and you tear your ACL. No doctor would simply give you a diagnosis and some medications then send you on your way. Instead, you’d likely have surgery followed by regular physical therapy. You’d also learn more effective warm-ups and conditioning and use them on a regular basis to stay injury-free in the future.
The same principles apply for recovery from post-traumatic stress injuries, sometimes called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS/PTSD). With the right behavioral health practices, it is possible to experience either total healing or marked improvement for mild to moderate stress injuries.
Bottom line: The idea that PTSD is an unalterable lifetime sentence is neurologically untrue.
Stress Injuries vs. PTSD
Stress injuries are natural responses to unusual situations, and they vary from mild to debilitating. Whether you’ve experienced a single traumatic event or multiple stressors over a long period of time, your body likely responded in a totally appropriate way by adapting to the threat. Your nervous system kicked into high gear: Your body and brain woke up and went into overdrive.
Your response was vital to navigating a stressful or dangerous situation well. However, now that imminent danger is past, your stress response may still activate out of context. When this happens, empathy may disappear, your focus may degrade, and you may struggle to make logical decisions.
It’s true that severe stress injury (also known as PTSD) is a complicated disorder. However, healthcare practitioners often apply the “chronic” label to mild or moderate stress injuries, which are 100% recoverable. This label can be psychologically deadly—sapping resilient people of the agency they need to learn and apply tools to quickly de-escalate the body and brain’s response to perceived threats.
The truth is that PTSD is not everyone’s stress injury. A misdiagnosis suggests irrecoverable brokenness, and can layer on a host of additional anxieties and worries. It also keeps us talking about problems rather than focusing on solutions and prevention through mental fitness.
Road to Recovery
One of the most empowering first steps you can take toward recovery is to seek out information about stress physiology. Work to understand what is happening in your body.
Self-education is an incredibly empowering step. You’ll discover that your out-of-context responses are natural, and you’ll simultaneously find ways to calm your body and mind through a variety of self-care practices.
When you put these tools into practice on a daily basis, your body and brain will respond in some really interesting ways. Your neurons will fire differently, you’ll shrink the amygdala (the part of your brain that activates the fight or flight response). Your brain will actually change. Stress hormones will drop, too.
Not only will your body and mind adapt, but so will your behavior. You’ll find that you’re better able to handle a fight with your partner. You’ll be able to focus better and exist with more empathy. Of course, you’re still human. Your stress response will still fire. But by practicing effective self-care, you can begin to respond to others in a more deliberate way.
But What if My Stress Injury is Severe?
Some people experience permanent changes to their brains. If your injury co-occurs with a Traumatic Brain Injury, depression, or an anxiety disorder, that is totally normal, but incredibly challenging. When you have a major stress injury and you’re dealing with a chronic condition, the symptoms can be extremely debilitating.
The symptoms of severe stress injuries can be improved upon, but—much like a bad back injury—you may need to accept that your condition will need to be managed for many years to come.
Note: For severe stress injury, you will need highly individualized clinical help. Seek medical guidance and talk to your clinician about your specific stress injury and wellness techniques.
Training for Mental Fitness
What is really exciting for today’s law enforcement, military, and emergency management communities is that mental fitness and resilience can be taught, trained for, and tested.
The three pillars of a resilient life are social support, self-care, and spirituality. The individual value of these pillars is backed irrefutably by science, and – when practiced together – their benefits increase exponentially.
Ready to get started? Here are some simple tactics you can start using today to build a better life.
Social Support: Surround yourself with good people—The first and most important step in building resilience is making the hard choice to surround yourself with great people. If you don’t have them around you, you can’t get started. You won’t start or keep growing.
Take a moment to honestly evaluate the influence of the people in your life. Is their influence negative and destructive or positive? If you don’t have great people around you right now, that’s OK. It means you have plenty of room to grow.
Self-Care: Calm your body and mind—Start here by choosing just one or two healthy practices you can incorporate as daily habits, then track how they benefit your life. Don’t worry about trying to change everything at once. Examples include yoga, playing a musical instrument, reading, or even getting a massage.
By practicing effective self-care to calm your body and mind, you can become less reactive to external stressors. When you’re less reactive, you’re more capable of engaging in positive social interactions. There’s a ripple effect here that’s really exciting.
Self-care can be as simple as cooking at home or going back to the gym. What you’re looking for is something that makes you feel relaxed. You might be working hard, but you’re going to feel your sympathetic nervous system (body and mind) calm down. Some people call it a click. An exhale. A down-shifting. When you feel it, you’ll know you found your thing.
Spirituality: Find your meaning—Finally, there’s a clear correlation between physical, mental, and emotional resilience and a sense of meaning in our lives. We all need a connection to someone higher— with God, or a sense of personal purpose. Whether you approach this aspect of resilience from a secular perspective (think Maslow’s hierarchy, with transcendence at the top) or with a theological view, give yourself some time to ask questions about the source of purpose and meaning in your life.
To plug into a community that supports you as you explore this aspect of resilience, consider getting involved with a faith group, volunteering, or taking time to study some concepts of purposeful living you’re curious about.
Remember: The practices that make us better warriors also make us better parents, partners, friends, and professionals. Make the time for mental fitness, whether you are recovering, preparing, or both!
[Publisher’s Note: This article was made possible by our partners at the WinX Conference, held Nov. 16, 2016, in Lisle, Ill. Sign up now with the promo code “2016Calibre” for $20 off your registration fee, and stay tuned for further details.]