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Healing from trauma: ‘Comfort and distract’

February 25, 2017

I was invited into my old IOP group today as a kind of “guest speaker.” If *I* can get better, then anyone can. Seriously. I have carried diagnoses of Major Depression, Borderline, PTSD, and Anorexia Nervosa. And that’s just in the past couple of years. I’ve also (at one-time-or-another) been diagnosed with Bipolar and DID. And those are just the ones that come to mind.

There was a woman in the room who looked particularly compromised. I knew right away that she was the one who my group leader had wanted me to address. So he motions to her and asks me to “tell her it can get better.”

I looked into her eyes… or I tried. She was crying. She was rocking. She was me. I gave her a brief history of myself, and then told her what I’m going to tell you:

It’s not gonna get better today. Or tomorrow. Probably not the next day, either. But it WILL get better.

As a nurse, I have spent a large portion of my professional career working with people who have cognitive limitations, and now that *I* have a cognitive limitation (amnesia related to ongoing ECT), I apply the same concept to myself that I did to patients with Alzheimer’s: “comfort and distract.” It is widely known and accepted that you don’t correct an Alzheimer’s patient who has forgotten that a loved one has died, because to do so would mean the patient experiencing the loss all over again. Likewise a person with PTSD, when reminded of certain aspects of the trauma, experiences it all over again. There is no way to eliminate all triggers. I cannot, for example, ask…or expect…the people in my life to stop using the phrase “go to bed,” which is a trigger for me reminding me of a sexual trauma. I *can’t* change the input, so I have to instead change my response to it.

“Comfort and distract” is how I respond to it, and for a trauma survivor it looks like this. Comfort: “I am okay right now in this exact second. Nothing bad is happening to me. I am safe, and I am in control.” Breathing exercises would also fit in here.

“Distract” would mean engaging enough of your brain that it is too busy to focus on memories. For me this means reading a book (I recommend Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, my 11-year-old recommends anything-and-everything by Rick Riordan), or doing a jigsaw puzzle while binge-watching Netflix on my laptop. Also knitting. And baking. Hands, eyes, and brain all engaged? Winning approach.

The other place that “comfort and distract” comes in SUPER handy, is in the middle of the night, when I am waking up from one of my countless PTSD-related nightmares. It’s the last thing I want to do, to force myself to awaken fully, but if I go *right* back to sleep, I am liable to fall back into the exact same dream. This is something as simple as pulling my phone off the charger and losing myself in Facebook, or as complex as peeling myself out of bed and attacking any of the distractions from the daytime (yes, I have been known to bake, knit, and watch documentaries on my laptop at 3:00 AM).

“Comfort and distract” is not a long-term solution, but it is a day-to-day method to survive while you are doing EMDR or ART in therapy (or whatever your therapist recommends), and taking your medications as prescribed. Life can be scary. Even the innocuous comments of friends and family are liable to trigger elaborate memories or fears. I know sometimes it seems like it only ever gets worse, but I promise… not only CAN it get better, but it WILL get better. Comfort and distract, and don’t give up.

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