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Back in 2004 an unfortunate accident with my Wheaten Terrier (that’s Baylee in the pic — he looks harmless but when he chases a squirrel, watch out!) broke the last two fingers on my dominant left hand. Reset by the orthopedist for the NY Jets (don’t ask how that came to be) the fingers healed but in a crooked way that sort of fused them together. By the time the bandages were removed the fingers were tense, tight and unable to bend. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me in physical therapy.
I went to a physical therapist in downtown Manhattan near where I worked. I walked in, sat down, was told to soak my hand in paraffin to soften things up and then…. I was given a handful of what looked like Play-Doh and told to form a fist. I tried to curl the fingers — no go. They were stiff and stuck in their frozen position. The therapist insisted I start bending the fingers despite the pain. I resisted; she insisted and gently cupped my hand in hers and started to force the bend. I just about jumped out of my seat from the pain.
I stuck it out for a few more sessions before deciding that the pain of healing my fingers wasn’t worth it. Surely they would loosen up on their own over time, right? Wasn’t it reasonable to expect that they would learn to curl and bend with regular use? I decided to wait and see what would happen. After a month I discovered why that was a bad idea: The fingers remained curled in a hook and stuck together. They would require consistent albeit painful intervention to retrain to their normal state. I went back to the physical therapist, gnashed my teeth through the pain and gripped that Play-Doh for all it was worth until I could write, type and hold a fork again with terrific skill.
Healing those fingers — getting them out of their frozen, stuck state — could only happen through a process that created pain. Healing PTSD is like this, too. We become bent and distorted from our traumatic experience, and then frozen in that disfigured way through the repetitive process of PTSD’s neurophsysiological and psychological changes and symptoms. Healing will hurt. Learning to thaw and become flexible again will crack the ice of our numbness and splinter it until we break through to a place where the pulse of life, once again, beings to flow.
Healing PTSD symptoms hurts because healing anything hurts: The process of learning to use something that has been immobilized must engender pain as the muscles, ligaments, tendons — heart, mind, spirit, soul — start to stretch, bend and flex in unfamiliar and/or long-forgotten ways. The pain is like a red neon light flashing: “Recovery in process.” The pain of the thaw lets us know healing posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms is happening.
During any time of painful process one way to make the pain more manageable is to focus your mind in a mode of self-creation. The past created you; now you have the choice to create the future.
When healing PTSD symptoms hurts much of that pain comes from fear. Reducing fear during recovery can greatly ease the entire process. One way to do this is to focus on reclaiming a positive sense of self. Symptoms of PTSD always reduce self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence — all things that you can really benefit from in the PTSD recovery process. (In fact, studies have shown a link between self-esteem and resilience, which is a necessary growth factor in how to heal trauma.)
The ideas below, lifted from the “Strengthen Your Recovery Process” section of my new book, Heal Your PTSD: Dynamic Strategies that Work, offer ten ways to start flexing your healing muscle; speeding up the thaw so that you can more easily learn to live again.
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