How to Offset the Negative Emotional Effects of PTSD

Person hugs fake fur blanket to faceTrauma is defined as an injury, either physical or emotional, which can lead a person to experience psychological, physiological, and emotional distress. This distress can manifest in our thoughts, emotional experiences, and body sensations. When these symptoms persist, this sometimes leads to the development of posttraumatic stress, also known as PTSD. Posttraumatic stress is a condition that can significantly affect a person’s ability to enjoy life, relate with others, and function normally.

Signs of Posttraumatic Stress

Posttraumatic stress can manifest as frequent fearfulness, persistent unwanted thoughts such as flashbacks and nightmares, and avoidance of certain people, situations, or stimuli. Individuals with PTSD often describe feeling outside of their body, “disconnected” from themselves and others and often experiencing a sense of “meaninglessness.”

PTSD can originate from a single traumatic incident or from chronic traumatic stressors experienced over the course of a lifetime. These traumas can include, among other things, abandonment or a lack of nurturance from key attachment figures. Commonly held beliefs by a person experiencing PTSD are “It was my fault” or “I am unsafe” to more defective beliefs, such as “I am unlovable” or “I am incapable.”

It is important to know that while these beliefs are deeply ingrained and painful, each of us holds the capacity to heal. With proper treatment, one can process through these traumatic memories, connect with
strengths and resources, and allow healing to take place.

Shifting a Negative Memory into a Positive One

Given that PTSD generally has to do with negative memories leading to negative emotional experiences, the best immediate antidote when experiencing emotional distress is to bring up or “install” a positive memory. Installing positive memories refers to a person’s ability to intentionally generate a positive memory and allow it to shift their present emotional state. When done correctly, doing so can effectively alter a negative emotion into a positive one.

To do this, think of a memory that brings up a feeling of warmth or safety. What image comes to mind? What can you see, smell, taste, hear, or feel? When you think about this positive memory, what do you believe about yourself? How does this memory make you feel? Where do you experience that positive feeling in your body? Bring up all of those details and allow yourself to experience the positive experiences related to this memory.

Other things to do when triggered:

  • Sniff an aroma. Do you have a favorite aroma? Eucalyptus, rosemary, lavender, maybe one of your favorite herbs? Take a sniff. Notice any shift in your affect? Aromas are an easy and immediate way to shift negative affect. A pleasant aroma activates the limbic system, stimulating a deep-seated positive emotional response.
  • Chew a candy. Have you ever noticed that your mouth gets dry when you get distressed? This has to do with the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the natural stress response. Sucking a candy is an effective way to generate saliva, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This can also be done by chewing gum, drinking water, or just by generating saliva.
  • Notice two objects in the room. Have you ever noticed that when you get triggered, you respond disproportionately to the situation? When we get triggered, we are mentally and emotionally responding in a way that is more related to our past than our present. When you notice this start to happen, look around the room and bring your attention to two physical objects in the space. Just notice these two objects. Shifting your attention to the space will bring your awareness back to your present orientation. This is a hallmark of mindfulness.
  • Carry an anchoring object. Do you have a person who represents a quality of nurturance, protectiveness, or wisdom? Do you have an object or symbol that represents something meaningful? A picture, a rosary, a favorite quote, or a piece of jewelry? These things are resources and strengths to utilize when overcoming PTSD. Carrying or holding an anchoring object can help bring the positive emotions related to these resources into your current emotional state.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Lerner, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lorraine

    Lorraine

    June 6th, 2016 at 9:33 AM

    I wish that I could find some help for me as my husband struggles with PTSD and yet I always feel like I take the brunt of the anger and frustration that he feels.

  • Jaime

    Jaime

    June 11th, 2016 at 1:14 AM

    That sounds awful Lorraine. This article was really directed to the person with PTSD and of course those of us who deal with them benefit from understanding. I hope you are able to put yourself in the No.1 position when it comes to importance. If you are always feeling awful, you are no good to anyone. Also, keep in mind that children can develop PTSD form living with someone who has PTSD. Perhaps it would be good for you to find a specialist (I am not one) who could help guide YOU to wellness. I feel for you! But you are the only one who can help you!

  • Jane S

    Jane S

    June 6th, 2016 at 3:23 PM

    You are so right that there can be something that is very comforting about a familiar scent or even sound.

  • celleigh

    celleigh

    June 7th, 2016 at 9:39 AM

    My dentist tells me not to chew so much gum but I do think that it helps me when I am in particularly stressful situations. It keeps me from at least grinding my teeth.

  • theodora

    theodora

    June 9th, 2016 at 1:54 PM

    the locket that I wear reminds me of my mom and that is my go to piece when I need to be grounded

  • Matt

    Matt

    June 13th, 2016 at 3:41 PM

    That is a very nice suggestion to have an arsenal of good thoughts handy so that when something triggers the bad then you have some of your wonderful past memories to linger over and reflect upon.
    It does worry me though that there will be those for whom the good memories are difficult to conjure, so that when they experience the negative there is not enough of the good available to them to out weigh it.
    Any thoughts on what someone who experiences life this way should then do?

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