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We’re all living through trauma, here’s how to avoid PTSD

Tips on how to take care of your mental health

_WELLNESS / HOW TO AVOID PTSD

If you spotted someone sporting a stylish teal ribbon recently, it symbolizes PTSD awareness, which had its official month in June.

PTSD awareness couldn’t come at a better time. After all, post-traumatic stress disorder, a common and treatable anxiety problem triggered by exposure to jarring events, affects people in all walks of life, not just combat veterans.

This awareness is vital now that PTSD is predicted to grow exponentially as we all cope with the pervasive stress from our Covid-19 induced anxiety and hyper-vigilance. The World Health Organization recently issued a report on its impact on mental health, noting the long-term consequences of physical isolation, fears of infection, and economic turmoil.

PTSD wreaks havoc on the mind as sufferers are often trapped in negative thought patterns and are unable to relax. Just look at how terrifying common pleasantries like shaking hands, holding a door open, or sharing an elevator have become.

It also damages the body. A new study shows people with PTSD had increased dysfunction in their small blood vessels, which is often a precursor to stiffening or narrowing of the larger arteries. That can lead to a heart attack, stroke, hypertension, or other forms of heart disease.

“PTSD is not just a mental disorder, it’s a physical one, too,” says Ryan Garten, PhD, professor of Kinesiology & Health Science at Virginia Commonwealth University, and an author on the paper.

Fortunately, those teal ribbons are working. PTSD awareness is growing and losing its stigma.

Hospitals nationwide have invested resources in counseling after recent studies have shown that medical workers who treated Covid-19 patients suffered increased rates of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, has certified some of its doctors as health and wellness coaches to support frontline clinicians.

While talking to a trauma counselor is the best medicine for handling or avoiding PTSD, here are three other strategies you can do on your own.

“PTSD is not just
a mental disorder,
it’s a physical
one, too”

Ryan Garten, PhD

TAKE CARE OF THE BRAIN-BODY CONNECTION

Garten and his team suspect that people who suffer from PTSD are over-burdening their flight-or-fight response hormones. When we feel “keyed-up” or on-edge, as so many of us do during the pandemic, our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, which can lead to cardiovascular problems.

“One of the best treatments is exercise,” says Jennifer Weggen, a PhD candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University and a co-author of the study. “Moving the body with vigor can really help calm down the nervous system.”

Vigorous exercise exhausts the body, which quiets the mind. That’s an essential ingredient in handling PTSD since it allows sufferers to sleep deeply and to escape negative thought patterns.

As for what type of exercise is best, Weggen says whatever you enjoy is what you should do.

She notes that team sports and working out near friends have the added benefit of social interaction and accountability, while a solo yoga practice is wonderful for working the trifecta of the body, breath, and mindfulness.

PUT A RAINBOW ON YOUR PLATE

An overworked flight-or-fight response leads to a chain reaction in the body that boosts oxidative stress. When that heightened sense of anxiety sneaks up on you, it’s beneficial to have some antioxidants nearby.

Garten and Weggen found that when study participants downed a cocktail of vitamin C, vitamin E, and alpha lipoic acid, their blood flow returned to normal and their nervous system calmed down.

“Antioxidant-supplements modulate the sympathetic nervous system,” says Garten. However, he cautions, “they aren’t effective in the long-term like a healthy diet is.”

To stave off damage from oxidative stress, it’s important to consume a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Red, green, orange, yellow, and purple foods all contain different antioxidants that protect cellular health.

CHECK YOU, CHECK TWO

The check you, check two protocol helps maintain balance in your own life while supporting others.

The idea behind the system, which several hospital systems have adopted, is to slow down, self-assess, and attend to your own needs. That means eating well, hydrating, resting, pacing yourself, and decompressing when you need to. These daily breaks offer temporary relief from stress and anxiety, which can stop future PTSD from creeping in.

From there, you touch base with two other people for two minutes, ask how they’re doing, and listen attentively to honor their experience.

These mini-breaks coupled with peer-to-peer checks keep up social connections, keep us from reaching our wits' end, and help restore energy before returning to the demands of caretaking, parenting, or staying infection-free.

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