You may be aware that if you have PTSD your symptoms may be more problematic after the events of this past week. Traumatic events in our communities that are on the non-stop news cycle can trigger those of us who live with PTSD which might require us to be more attentive to our needs and what heightened symptoms might be telling us.
It was in February of 1991 that I first learned this lesson. I was halfway through my second year of seminary and I was beginning to wonder if I’d make it to the end of the semester, never mind the end of the degree program. I wasn’t sleeping well and had nightmares when I did. I was tense and easily startled. I was short-tempered and more emotional than usual. I felt that the world around me was not safe and was sure that I was in danger, though I couldn’t identify it. I didn’t know what was wrong with me or how to make it better.
When I finally told my therapist what was happening, she gently explained that I had PTSD from the childhood trauma she and I were processing. Not only was that trauma closer to the surface because we were talking about it each week, but Baghdad had been bombed a few weeks earlier and the First Gulf War had started. I lived on a campus where the news was on all the time and people were debating the morality and necessity of the war. People I knew were being deployed to the Middle East. Fears of World War III hung in the air. I felt like there was no safe place for me anymore.
Learning about PTSD and how to manage symptoms was helpful. I learned breathing techniques and self-soothing activities that helped me regain a sense of balance in my life. In the years since then, my own symptoms of PTSD have faded and generally don’t have a lot of power over me. However, this week has been difficult. I’ve been tense and more easily startled. I’ve been less patient with others and with myself. And it has taken me most of the week to figure out the reasons why – triggered by the events in Charlottesville and added to by the terrorist activities around the globe in the subsequent days.
I’m sharing this small bit of my story to encourage us all to be gentle with one another and with ourselves. This doesn’t mean we get to avoid the issues of racism and violence in our society, but it does mean that we may need to take some time to ground ourselves firmly in the present before moving forward. It may mean that we need to spend more time breathing, praying, meditating, and relaxing than usual. We might need to focus on the mundane routine of everyday life for a while. It’s okay to take time out to comfort and care for yourself.
What works best for me is basic self-care – getting enough sleep, consistent exercise, eating right, etc. In the immediate moment of stress, I might read Psalm 139 to remind myself that God is present through all the chaos and that no matter how I may be feeling, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I have also made a kind of mantra of these verses from Isaiah 43: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I remind myself that God is present in all times and places. When the world erupts into chaos and violence and it seems that those with power are squeezing the life out of people, I remember that the people of God have been here before; God knows what to do with the Pharaohs and Herods of our time. When I remember that God hears our cries and desires more for us than racism, violence, and despair, I find balance once more. Then I can do what God is calling me to do.
PTSD is real and can be devastating. If you are struggling, please seek help. It is possible to manage your symptoms and find wellness even in these troubling days. My prayer is for peace – peace of mind and heart, peace in our lives, and peace in the world.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author, and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com