Breaking Free from PTSD

By Lisette Johnson

For many, the beginning of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is experienced as an inexplicable feeling of dread, doom, fear or unidentifiable urgency. Unlike the movies and TV where logical connections are depicted, sometimes specific triggers are not always identifiable.

You may react to a smell, a sound, a color, the certain angle of light, but have no conscious association of why or what role those things play. To make matters worse, the inability to connect these triggers with actual memories can feel confusing and frightening.

When we experience trauma, our brains become micro-focused on what needs to be done next in order to survive. It could be escape (flight), defending (fight) or immobility (freeze). All other sensory input is put on the back burner while important resources are dedicated to surviving the threat. This can leave gaps in memory of details, although for some images remain vivid and unforgettable.

Because intimate partner violence is repetitive, layers of psychological, emotional, verbal or physical abuse compound, never allowing the mind to catch a break to properly process and heal the trauma from one traumatic event before there is another. This specific type of PTSD is called Complex PTSD and is common among survivors of abuse.

Since no two people are the same, PTSD symptoms vary from person to person and from day to day. Some may feel jumpy, irritable for no apparent reasons or become easily startled. Others try to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma, like places and people or avoid talking about it.

Other signs of PTSD include disassociation (checking out), daydreaming or shutting down. Some experience emotionally paralyzing nightmares or become consumed by specific memories of the traumatic event playing in their minds over and over. Many experience hypervigilance or feeling like they are on high alert, mentally assessing danger in every-day situations like compulsively sitting next to exits or checking doors.

If these resonate with you, I’d like to share with you some simple ways to help minimize the effects of PTSD:

  • Accept: Acknowledge your feelings are real and valid. They are normal reactions to abnormal experiences. Cry. Grieve. Allow yourself time to heal.
  • Be kind to yourself: Avoid self-recrimination and negative self-statements, and instead, redirect thinking to how you are doing the best you can. Remember: abuse is NEVER the victim’s fault!
  • Create: Unlock your trauma through music, writing, coloring or art. The method and end result aren’t as important as the process. Just begin!
  • Practice self-care: Limit stress, eat regularly and try to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Get outside and get fresh air—even if it’s walking up the block on your lunch hour or after work.
  • Socialize: Initiate and maintain social contacts and get involved in hobbies and pleasurable activities. Resist the temptation to withdraw, isolate or numb with unhealthy habits.
  • Ground: If something triggers your memory regarding your past trauma, ground yourself. Stay present by observing details of your surroundings and mentally describing them as if writing a letter to a friend. Remind yourself of the time and day, month and year. Change positions, if possible change where you are, even just a room or go outside for air.
  • Seek: PTSD isn’t a mind-over-matter proposition. It’s a real and treatable condition and you don’t have to go it alone! Domestic violence, PTSD and therapeutic support groups, individual therapy and specialized treatments like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) are available and have successful outcomes.

PTSD can leave you feeling like you will never get better. But don’t despair. You can move through it and come out the other side. Wherever you are today is OK. You are and will continue to be OK. And remember, if you need someone to talk to, the advocates at The Hotline are always there to listen, 24/7 and every day of the year.

About Lisette Johnson:

Lisette Johnson is a survivor of an attempted intimate partner homicide/suicide. She has been a featured speaker at conferences and universities, appeared in numerous national online and print publications and has testified before Congress and the Virginia General Assembly. Learn more about her story at

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