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4 Steps to Transform Triggers

Watching Ukraine news? Make a self-care P.A.C.T.

Key points

  • These difficult times and news of suffering in Ukraine are especially triggering for those with PTSD.
  • Scientific research and ancient wisdom offer fascinatingly similar and effective healing techniques.
  • Calming yourself and taking concrete “outside world” action retrains the trauma triggers and heals while being actually useful.

I wept as I watched the video that Volodymyr Zelenskyy played in his speech to the U.S. Congress, and then I reflected on my body's response to vivid images of the people of Ukraine suffering under Russian bombing attacks.

Summarizing his plea for leaders to assist Ukraine, Zelenskyy called on all democratic government leaders to lead from the context of peace. I sat at my kitchen table feeling my body's tension, how short my breath had become, and how my brain started to flit back and forth causing an internal conversation about my 2022 New Year's theme: peace.

I had chosen "peace" in July 2021 when I started a new modality called neurofeedback to address complex PTSD that will continue to affect me for the rest of my life. In my teenage years, I successfully incarcerated the pedophile who had tortured me when I was between the ages of 8 and 18. My EMDR therapist, Sarah Mims, LCSW, recommended I start neurofeedback at the Institute for Applied Neuroscience in Asheville, North Carolina when my PTSD symptoms reached a different high in the pandemic. I got on a waiting list and Jordan Hamlin, neurofeedback pioneer Ed Hamlin, Ph.D.'s daughter, called me and told me she could start seeing me. I didn't know what to expect, however, upon reflection, this morning's news would have affected my body quite differently if I hadn't discovered how breathing changes in my body and brain.

After I ate breakfast, I started work on my international PR campaigns, still feeling the knot in my stomach and lack of breath from the video I had watched during my meal. My first meeting of the morning was with former Yale professor Dr. Elvir Causevic. Elvir not only wrote a dissertation on how the brain works but also created and patented three medical devices to measure brain waves, including patterns indicative of PTSD.

While at Yale for five years, Elvir did research and taught classes on neuroscience. He's also a Bosnian war refugee who had to cope with four years of constantly losing touch with his parents during the Serbian aggression on Bosnia. During that ordeal, he often went weeks or months not knowing if they were dead or alive, with only horrible images on CNN to go by. He joked on the phone, "I'm not just a guy on TV who teaches about PTSD; I'm also a card-carrying member." We both laughed.

After talking with Elvir, I was inspired to share some of his wisdom with others who might be experiencing PTSD triggers while watching news coverage of Ukraine or other upsetting content.

I recently signed up for coaching on indigenous pearls of wisdom at the social enterprise Elvir started called UpEnd. Here is what he coached me to do while watching the news coverage of Ukraine:

Make a P.A.C.T. With Yourself to Transform Triggers Into Healing

  1. Pause: We live busy lives and can’t just stop the kids, mortgages, and conference calls, but we can pause long enough to notice that our bodies are being triggered. The trigger can come from anything: seeing an image from Ukraine on TV, hearing a story of a refugee that is eerily close to our experience of being alone and lost, or who knows what. The trigger happens in the brain, but the brain is usually not aware of it—that’s just how the wiring works, unfortunately, so we ruminate and stress. Luckily, a triggered brain, in turn, triggers our autonomic nervous system, and something physical changes in our body: tightness in our throat, heavy chest, some difficulty breathing, lifting our shoulders toward the ears (to cushion the blow), super-cold feet and hands, etc. These, we can recognize, even if we are not fully in tune with our bodies. Learn how your body shows you the trigger, as any good PTSD book teaches, and any time you feel it coming, pause—here we are. Now I know what to do!
  2. Ask: What will best serve to soothe me right now? Is this too strong that simple breathing won’t help, do I need to take a walk, talk to a friend, grab a bite? Is it something I can manage without calling for help? Is it as simple as reminding myself that I am safe, right here and right now, and my family is safe and well, or do I need more? Given the zing of the trigger, what do I need to help me to get back to me? Before taking any action, calm the body, and teach it that it is safe, here, now.
  3. Choose: You have the power to choose your “outside world” response now that the trigger has been soothed. This is critical: Take concrete action in the outside world directly responsive to the trigger. It will give you an incredibly powerful sense of agency, control, and effectiveness. Choose how much you will do, not more, not less: I’ll write a letter to my congressperson, send a simple care package to Ukraine kids with a handwritten note and share my experience and hope, I’ll donate to a focused charity. Don’t do too much—you still have those kids and that mortgage. Choose something realistic you can do in a day; no longer than a week.
  4. Tackle: Gather the courage to do it and do it quickly. Just get it done. The act itself is healing. It will help teach your brain that you literally have the power to make the situation that caused the trigger better, even if in a small way. Your action might be small but your healing will be big.

What’s fascinating is that there is nearly complete alignment between the cutting-edge neuroscience on PTSD and a vast trove of ancient and indigenous wisdom on healing through ritual, ceremony, and traditional tools. Meditation, reflection, choice, action is the same pathway proposed by both, and it works.

I completed my own master's thesis on the four modalities people use to pursue health, wealth, and love in the 21st century. This included research on transpersonal avenues, such as indigenous ceremonies or other sacred paths typically found at church, as well as personal development, behavior modification, and support groups.

If I'm honest with you, I've been on a campaign to find the best practices to soothe my PTSD since I turned 18. At the age of 52, it's a lot of knowledge. Yet, I'm still discovering and coping with my PTSD. Writing helps me process.

There are days and days I go without being triggered and I'm finally seeking stillness. Keep in mind, I didn't start to seek the stillness people report in meditation until I understood from the data my neurofeedback sessions show me. Hamlin actually shows me at the end of my sessions what my brain waves were doing before the summer of 2021 and now what they look like. When I was in my session yesterday with her, she showed me last summer's lines so far apart I thought I was looking at two different graphs. Then she showed me how my brain waves are firing more closely together today. I feel the change in my body and what it's done over the past few months is bringing about a deep appreciation for breathing.

So let's make a P.A.C.T. together. As we watch this horrific war unfold, let's take Elvir's steps to transform our triggers together. Because we need us all to get into action to lead with peace as Zelenskyy so eloquently requested of us all this morning.

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