Stress & Decompensation: When Therapy Comes In Handy
While this year has been a great year for building Momentum in my life - with lots of progress in several areas - 2018 has also been another hard year for my family.
Eden's health is still complicated, Josephine's health is growing increasingly so, and as I begin to set up this post, I'm sitting on a folding couch in my mother's hospital room. My van is just about falling apart, I'm trying to work things out for the upcoming move, my dog's got a weird little growth next to his belly button that I can't really afford to get checked out right now, and I'm struggling to keep everything together.
It's getting better in some ways though - things I've been working toward for a while now are starting to work out well, the move will be a huge stress relief, I've got hope - and my therapist is amazing.
Which is handy, because for those living with PTSD (or Complex PTSD), stress is a huge trigger for psychological decompensation - and I am stressed.
Psychological decompensation, in technical terms, is the temporary worsening of symptoms related to mental illness - in my experience in living with PTSD, this means periods of being significantly less able to function, loss of therapeutic progress, and most notably in light of my recent circumstances, inability to cope with stress.
I've mentioned the use of medication here before, at first to briefly note that I didn't want to use medications due to related anxieties, and most recently to note that I've started taking medication to help cope with the combined symptoms of PTSD and PMDD.
But with everything going on ...
- I don't sleep much anymore. When I do sleep, it isn't restful; I struggle to fall asleep, struggle to stay asleep, often have nightmares, and wake up every morning just as tired as I was when I went to bed.
- My mind doesn't turn off. I have a running litany of things going on in my life that are on constant replay in my mind, not because I'm a worrier but because there isn't time between stressors for me to be able to adequately process one before another comes along. This is twofold - partly because I do have a lot going on in my life right now, but also because I tend to need extra time to process things and I obsess over problems until they are solved, even when they aren't mine to solve and I am powerless to solve them.
- My emotions don't turn on. I mean, I laugh and cry and love my kids, but other than that I am largely numb. I don't care what we eat for dinner and probably wouldn't bother if not for the girls. I don't care to go out and do things and again, probably wouldn't bother if not for the girls. I wouldn't care to clean, but the kids deserve a clean space and the dog eats whatever I don't pick up. I find many things boring lately, and when they aren't boring, they're overwhelming. Which is weird because ...
- My emotions won't turn off. I spend a lot of time not feeling much of anything - but when I do feel things, I feel all. the. things. at once. I'm laughing at something funny but in my heart I'm crying over something sad. In my mind I'm angry over something, or wishing I could tell someone something, or checking (and rechecking) my mental to-do list. I might even be celebrating some milestone or accomplishment, while also grieving deeply over my mother's health and worrying myself sick over my kids. Not even kidding, yesterday I went from one hospital with Joey to another one with my mom.
- I'm stuck on "SLOW." This morning Eden wanted a weird lunch-for-breakfast kind of thing; she asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with cole slaw. And as I made her plate, I noticed myself walking myself through the process. "Okay, gonna need the bread. Two pieces, side by side. Peanut butter. Not too thick - she doesn't like too much. Not too thin, or she'll be missing protein. Jelly. She likes the raspberry one, which is almost gone. Gonna need some more of that when I get to the store. Not too much, it'll drop out on her clothes because she's messy, but then it'll bother her because she's got OCD and we don't have time to change clothes before school." Because of things like this, everything in my life takes too long to get through, from making breakfast to taking a shower to ... writing this blog post.
- Life is made up of short mental health breaks. I got in the car to take Eden to school today, and we sat for a few minutes just so I could breathe. I did it again when I got home from dropping her off. Again when I got into the house. Again after I fed the dog. Again when I got out of the shower. Again when I got in the van to drive to the hospital. Again ... again ... again. Not because I can't breathe, but because every moment is a struggle for me right now.
Fortunately for me, I'm still attending weekly therapy appointments - I literally don't know where I'd be or how well I'd be functioning without that outlet. Therapy at this point is acting as crisis control in my life, giving me a place to unload, quiet space to process, and safety to brainstorm solutions without pressure, discouragement, or negativity.
The strategies I've learned are mostly simple CBT techniques, such as:
- writing my thoughts out so that I can verbalize them to myself, process them, and make them actionable
- challenging my inherent negativity with more positive possibilities (along with a return to a more regular practice of using positive affirmation)
- practicing mindful self-compassion, which reminds me to give myself the same grace as I tend to give others - and to stay right here in this moment, which is the only one I can control right now
- bilateral tapping, which is a super simple (and almost strangely effective) strategy for dealing with anxiety in a way that's free, easy, and discreet.
There are other techniques as well, but these have been my favorites thus far, the things that have proven most useful for me personally. The thing is, I might not have realized how to make the best of these techniques, especially when under significant stress, if not for my therapist being there every single week to hear me out, validate my concerns and issues, and encourage me to empower myself in regard to boundary-setting, self-protection, and advocacy for myself and my family.
What I wish I had known earlier is how accessible therapy was - I would have sought treatment much sooner had I known that finding a good therapist could be as easy as finding a site like BetterHelp.com, which is an amazing resource for free information about how to improve and maintain strong mental health (and even articles on how to find a local in-person therapist!). The thing that would have really struck me, though, is that BetterHelp is an online therapy service I could totally have used from right inside my home - perfect for me, since I struggle with agoraphobia in office settings particularly in the medical field.
I've been fortunate to find a local therapist I have a great connection with, and she has formed a solid impression on me about the benefits of seeking treatment for mental illness. Besides that, she's the reason I finally worked up the courage (after a year of seeing her) to make an appointment to establish a primary care doctor (after not having one for almost a decade) - which in itself has led to a ton of growth in my life, including my finally being able to admit (both to myself and to my doctor) that it was time to add medication to my treatment plans.
It's how I manage to keep moving from one moment to the next, how I keep pushing toward my goals. It's how I find the ability to muster whatever strength I can find to keep going.
It's how I stay undaunted.
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Note: This post is a partnership with BetterHelp.com, in conjunction with my love of their site and content combined with their love of giving people a better, more personalized way of accessing quality mental healthcare. All thoughts, opinions, and ideas expressed in this post are my own - and as you know, I would never recommend any site, service or product I didn't authentically love.