How to cope with change when you have PTSD

October 17, 2022

When you think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks, nightmares, and other hallmark symptoms might come to mind. One less talked-about effect of PTSD is a strong fear of change, even when it’s an expected and positive change like a new job, a graduation, or a vacation.

Of course, change can feel uncomfortable for anyone, but for people living with PTSD, that feeling can be so intense that it keeps you from stepping outside of your comfort zone. Here’s how to manage your condition so you can be present in your life no matter what happens.

How do I know if I have PTSD?

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. You might think of shell-shocked combat veterans when you hear “PTSD,” but any experience that triggers your body’s survival response can be traumatic. That includes not only one-time events like car accidents, but also prolonged situations like abusive relationships and unstable childhoods.

Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, but for those who do, the condition can get in the way of the most meaningful parts of life. Symptoms like anxiety, intrusive thoughts, mood swings, and insomnia can interfere with work, relationships, and so much more.

Why is change so hard for people with PTSD?

After you experience trauma, you might find it difficult to remember specific details about what happened. Your body, on the other hand, memorizes every aspect of its response (like making your heart race, or rushing you to the safety of solitude). That’s because its top priority is protecting your life, even when the threat it’s responding to is abstract, like a stressful situation.

If you develop PTSD, your body becomes overly reliant on that threat response, ringing the alarm bells for situations that aren’t obviously threatening. Eventually, you’ll come to interpret change as inherently dangerous and react to it with fight-or-flight (or freeze, or fawn) responses.

You might wonder if something is wrong with you if you feel scared or enraged at any unexpected change in your schedule or environment. The truth is that your brain is doing what it does best—keeping you safe. It’s just doing it a little too well, prioritizing comfort and predictability over experimentation, learning, and growth. Here’s how to break that pattern and open yourself up to new experiences.

How can I stay in the present when coping with PTSD?

Some people hope that if they simply wait until enough time has passed, they’ll forget about their trauma and stop feeling anxious, scared, angry, or isolated. Unfortunately, you can’t wait out PTSD. Instead, you’ll want to practice active coping, which entails accepting the impact your trauma has had on you and taking steps to improve your situation.

Here are a few forms active coping can take:

  • Learn how to ground yourself: Grounding techniques are practices that help you center yourself in the present moment. Tuning into your senses, taking deep breaths, and paying close attention to your surroundings can all be quick ways to ground yourself in your present reality and put a halt to anxious thoughts.
  • Reach out for support: Leaning on friends, family, or support groups can help you feel less alone and pick up tips for managing your symptoms. Not everyone has PTSD, but nearly everyone has had to struggle with a difficult adjustment.
  • Get regular exercise: Studies show that exercise can help relieve anxiety, depressive thoughts, and other PTSD symptoms. Keep in mind you don’t have to do a punishing workout to get those benefits—even a 20-minute walk outdoors can make an impact on how you feel.
  • Try journaling: Researchers have found that journaling about stressful or traumatic events can help change the way you feel about them. If you’re not much of a writer, you can try dictating your thoughts to a voice note app on your phone or computer.

What other options do I have for treating PTSD?

Coping with PTSD by yourself can be really challenging, and you don’t have to go it alone. Here’s what expert support for PTSD can look like.

Psychiatry

Medication can help discourage your body’s unhealthy responses, so you have an easier time controlling your symptoms. Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are most effective at treating PTSD. If you have nightmares, medication can also help with that.

Talking to a psychiatrist is the best way to find out which medication (if any) is right for you, and if you’d also benefit from therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

On its own or in addition to psychiatry, therapy can help you understand what your triggers are and why you react to them the way you do. Cognitive behavioral therapy is particularly useful for recognizing and changing unhelpful patterns in your thoughts and behaviors.

That’s because CBT focuses on identifying and adjusting unhealthy ways of thinking and responding to change, stress, and other triggers. Once you can spot the types of thoughts and actions that are causing problems for you, like believing that you can’t handle new situations and therefore avoiding them, you’re in a much better position to start seeing new solutions.

Keep in mind you don’t have to choose between active coping, therapy, and psychiatry—the best treatment for you might be a combination of the three. That’s why Talkiatry matches you with the right psychiatrist and therapist for you. Those experts then collaborate on your care to ensure you’re getting all the support you need.

When you’re living with PTSD, even a positive change can feel like a life-or-death threat, including getting the help you need. Just remember there’s no growth without change, and you deserve to grow to your fullest potential.

Talkiatry is a mental health practice, and our clinicians review everything we write. However, articles are never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may need mental health help, talk to a psychiatrist. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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