To me, one of the more taxing symptoms of (C-) PTSD are the physical responses of fight-or-flight or “freezing” to triggering situations. Taxing, because they manifest the discomfort of stress in the body and often at maximum level. Depending on what the initial trauma content was, the number of such situations vary from one person to the next. In my case, too much physical proximity from other people – regardless of its nature – would be one of my triggers amongst many other. Anyone moving in on me too fast and too close would inadvertently trigger panic including all the visceral sensations that go with it. Very debilitating, very stressful. The good news here: I seem to have managed to roll that back to an extent by relentlessly exercising “cognitive interception” for the past years. Waiting in line at the supermarket, getting jammed in congested traffic, waiting in general with no clear course of action or instructions – all those were pronounced triggers. Yesterday afternoon I had an appointment at my neurologist’s, whom I see for discussing medication. There was a short waiting period, which I bridged by reading in one of John Gray’s books that was on the coffee table. A short while later, someone switched seats and chose to sit to my right. In earlier years, this would have probably urged me to remove myself from that proximity by looking for a chair with noone sitting left or right, if possible. This time, however, I noticed that the typical physical responses were no longer there. I could successfully keep reading with only a brief and minor distraction. Same thing with another incident like this just a short while later: Another lady came in and seated herself – to my left. So now I found myself “sandwiched” between the two of them. Again, some years ago, this would have certainly compelled me to look for a different chair or even stand, just so I wouldn’t have to tolerate the physical proximity. Not this time. I was very pleased to notice this along with missing physical manifestations typical of such situations earlier, like e.g. sweaty palms, accelerated pulse and respiration. This time I remained completely cool.
But I meant to make this blog about something else and more serious – and the headline is really open for discussion once you’ve familiarized yourself with this: In recent years, latent anxiety in me had risen to unprecedented levels, thus bringing about panic attacks at an intensity I only remember from early childhood, when I’d often “wake up” shortly after having fallen asleep and possibly in my first REM phase, at the top of an acute panic attack that often had me scream with terror. I clearly remember the terror coming from or being associated with the conscious realization that I was in the flesh and being, that I was conscious and had no way to escape said consciousness – now or ever (depending on your personal belief system; mine at the time was largely defined by a Christian-Catholic “mindset”, which posits eternal life after the physical existence on earth). You see – the terror I felt was not over being afraid to die or being dead. The terror expressed itsself through the realization that I was aware of myself! And since you can’t switch off awareness right away, I felt locked into it, cornered, helpless with all my guards down. It’s hard to put the terror in words, but this is as close as I can get, I think. But I’m digressing again. The point I meant to highlight here is this: In the past two years, I’d often suffer from such panic attacks out of the proverbial blue, while e.g. taking a walk in bright sunlight or when being in a contemplative, fairly relaxed mood. What’s worse, I’d often also feel it while riding my bike outdoors or when swimming in the lake. Now… picture this: You’re in deep waters, there is no life guard on duty and only few people in the water with you, all of them at least tens of yards away. I consider myself a fairly decent swimmer and in good enough shape to swim for a distance of, say, about half a mile, sometimes more – when I’m breathing normally instead of panting at double speed, of course. So you’re in the water and suddenly it hits you: If I don’t keep swimming, I’ll drown! If something happens, I’ll drown. Now. Immediately. As a panic attack from a triggering situation is the physically perceived equivalent of immediate lethal danger even with no visible threat present, imagine the level of panic when you actually find yourself in a potentially life threatening situation…. not blissful an experience, to say the least. It’s been bugging me to notice this thing going on as of late, as I usually enjoy being in the water and have come to appreciate the sensation of water caressing the skin and body. When not panicking, there is a wonderful relaxing, easing and calming quality to the act of swimming. It’s a meditation of sorts. And an effective workout as a welcome side effect. I hated to see one of the few remaining “escapes” from the ongoing torture of prevalent symptoms of (C-) PTSD slowly being taken away from me. There were only so many “places” left, where I was able to find temporary relief, being at and in the lake a part of that list of “emergency exits”. (There aren’t any self-medicating options available to me any more, seeing as I had developped severe side affects to pharmaceutical medication and as drinking binges would leave me with painful immobilizing gout inflammations in the joints. Medical marijuana isn’t available to me as of now and it’s not clear at this point, whether I’ll manifest an allergic reaction to it. I’m shit out of luck in this regard to put it quite bluntly).
Yesterday I went for another extended lap of swimming (about 30 minutes). I had been on a short bike lap right before that and went straight into the water when arriving at my usual spot. It was mildly crowded and for safety reasons I had made it a habit to stay closer to areas where I could easily reach either a pier with a few bold strokes in case of panic or get to shallow waters, where I would likely be able to stand. However, there is one stretch of way where I “launch out”, which leads into deeper waters and which I must take in order to get past the anchored boats and piers. I was fine when swimming out into the open and felt strong and confident throughout the larger part of my 30 min. lap. Upon returning and right when approaching the last 100 yards of water – the part of my “route”, where I have to go around a long pier in deeper waters – I noticed a panic attack building in my system. It came at known levels of intensity. I remembered my hypno therapist telling me about abdominal respiration as a physical defense mechanism. It is the exact antagonist to panic. In other words: Abdominal breathing – where the abdominal wall rises and falls with every breath – doesn’t “work” with a panic attack. However, when working out, the pulse rate rises above the pulse at rest frequency, which one typically compensates for by breathing faster, thus automatically resorting to chest breathing. So abdominal breathing would not have worked here, as I was not in a restful position. What to do?
I…. had to make a choice. The choice was to either channel the hyperagility from the panic into a number of very bold, borderline desperate strokes in an attempt to get to the pier poles and hang on to them for rest. (I subconsciously knew that this would possibly mean defeat as far as my “joy” in swimming in lakes, like falling from a horse and never climbing back up again – ever). The other “choice” was to give in to panic and call for help (Call for help? I was swimming, who would have thought it to be a threatening situation?). I opted for choice number three, which also seemed to be the only feasible one in this situation: I chose not to panic by reminding myself that I had previously and many times overcome similar panic attacks. In all honesty, I also prayed a little. Like “if it’s my time, so shall it be.” Seriously. I am aware of how pathetic this may sound to a reader who’s never suffered from a real panic attack. When it takes hold of you, however, it feels – ghastly.
I am not sure to what extent my little experience here lives up to the loud-mouthed title of this blog. I’d love to think that we actually do have control over our bodies, even when living with residual symptoms of (C-) PTSD. Admitted: This is kind of a violent “self-healing” method – the quotes here for reasons of the healing effects not being permanent for now. It’s more of an exercise (like the “cognitive interception” on physical proximity, the latter of which however did yield lasting effects – uhm, tentatively speaking :-)). And … for safety reasons, I can’t and won’t really recommend it as too many unknown variables factor in with regard to your own particular physical condition and knowledge of swimming in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, I have tested and explored my physical “prowess” over the past few years and think, I have a fairly accurate and realistic idea as to what extent it’ll last me.
Anyway… thought I’d share this for those who think they’re – physically – safe to give it a shot. Because I am certain of one thing and from experience so: Overcoming your worst fears by yourself equals maximum healing – at least for a while -, boosts self-confidence and courage and removes you from the role of a victim. And with everything else – perpetual exercise makes a master. Wouldn’t this be wonderful to master our symptoms by way of rising above our fears, time and time again, until the new behaviour becomes our new nature? Telling from my first experience in the beginning of this blog, there seems to be hope.
Anyway. Thought, I’d toss this in. Feel free to share your thoughts on this.
P.S. Ramping it up some as far as overcoming fears. Went for a very quick night swim in the lake all by myself. Might try to expand on the latter.