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Don’t let PTSD stop you — you can still achieve your dreams!

Life is pretty overwhelming at the moment isn’t it? COVID is being thought of as a distant memory, we are bombarded with distressing images from Ukraine and the Google searches for ‘how long does radiation from a nuclear bomb last?’ and ‘hazmat suit’ are currently up 750%. If you’re feeling a bit emotional and overly sensitive at the moment it’s hardly surprising. And that’s just the stuff that is going on in the world — what is going on is your own life? Work stress? Family illness? Money worries?

I’ve gone back to Uni this year (part-time distance learning) to study for a masters in the psychology of mental health and wellbeing. I am doing this in addition to my usual workload. And it’s taking me some time to work out how to fit the extra time pressures into my week. It hasn’t been easy but I am trying to keep focused on the end result. I’ve also been physically unwell recently and that has added even more time pressure as I try to catch up with my coursework and study. This is a long-winded way of me saying — it’s been a bit harder to fit everything in than I anticipated!

But, did you know that students with mental health conditions (who live in England) are eligible for Disabled Students Allowance? This isn’t an allowance where you get money in your bank account — DSA gives you access to equipment to take some of the pressure off studying.

For me that has been a laptop with more RAM and a larger screen, software that reads articles to me (who knew that was a thing?!) so I don’t have to sit in front of a laptop reading for hours on end, text to speech software, mind-map software, and a mentor for when things get a bit much. All that for filling in a form, sending off some medical evidence, and having an assessment with a very friendly assessor on Zoom!

I’ll be honest — at first I did question whether I should be able to take advantage of this benefit. After all, there is nothing physically wrong with me. I went through school, sixth form and university without any extra support (this was pre-PTSD or any other mental health conditions). But then I thought about how much of a difference removing barriers to learning can make, especially when someone is going through a difficult or stressful time. I am prone to shutting down when I feel overwhelmed — I can’t face things, I retreat into myself, I don’t want to talk to anyone because I feel like I’m overreacting and everyone else is able to cope with the same pressures I am under so why can’t I?

For me this is probably best explained using the window of tolerance.

The window of tolerance is a concept created by Dr Daniel J. Siegel in his book The Developing Mind (1999) to describe the ‘optimal arousal zone’ of human beings. In other words, it’s your capacity to manage your emotions even when under stress. Above the window of tolerance is a state of hyper-arousal — where your body is pushed into fight or flight mode, and below the window of tolerance is a state of hypo-arousal — where you feel numb and shut off from the outside world.

The Window of Tolerance (source: PTSD UK)

Unfortunately, the size of your window of tolerance can shrink when you suffer trauma or difficult life experiences. You may feel much less able to cope than you would have done five or ten years ago. So us PTSD sufferers may have a much smaller window of tolerance, and we need some extra help to get back into our comfort zone (optimal arousal zone) when we’ve been triggered by something and gone beyond our limits.

When I feel overwhelmed I go into a state of hypo-arousal. I have low energy, I can’t gather my thoughts, I have an incredible ability to sit very still when usually I’m a fidget, I don’t want to speak to anyone or do anything. There are situations where I go the other way — and go into a state of hyper-arousal because I have been triggered by something. That tends to be when one specific thing has brought back a feeling that triggers my fight or flight reaction rather than the general overwhelm we can experience from everyday life.

Accessing the equipment and support from DSA helps me get back into my window of tolerance when I need to. I can speak with a mentor about feeling overwhelmed, my lack of motivation and get help organising my workload. The software provided allows me to try a new way of doing things in times when I can’t sit at a laptop for hours on end. Taking advantage of DSA isn’t about getting something extra or a handout as a bonus prize for having a mental health condition. It’s about giving me a helping hand when I need it so I can achieve my dreams and goals.

I read some helpful tips from PTSD UK on how to get back into your window of tolerance when experiencing hypo-arousal which I will share here:

  • Activate your senses (tap into your five senses) perhaps with a ‘warm bath, massage, aromatic candles or scents, music or natural sounds or tasty food’

  • “Shaking off the freeze” ‘Begin by slowly jumping off the ground, and shaking the arms out when feet land back on the ground. Take full breaths, mindfully inhaling when you jump, and exhaling fully when your feet land back on the ground. You can also say something to yourself like, “I’m safe. I’m letting go.”

  • Grounding exercises — you can find many ‘tried and tested’ grounding techniques from people with PTSD & C-PTSD here.

  • If you feel numb ‘Gently squeeze your forearms with opposite hands. Also increase awareness by noticing the environment through the five senses. What do you see, hear, smell? If you can, try touching or tasting something mindfully.’

  • If you have a ‘collapsed’ feeling in the body ‘Try pushing firmly against the wall with your arms fully extended, your head up, and using your energy to ground down through the feet. Notice the feeling of sturdiness in your body as you push.’

  • If you feel disconnected or are experiencing depersonalisation ‘Start by slowing the pace of whatever you are doing. Then firmly but gently squeeze the forearms, calves, thighs — whatever feels enlivening to you.

  • If you feel frozen or panicked ‘Sit comfortably in a chair or sofa, and wrap yourself in a comforter or blanket. Begin to focus on taking full, slow breaths, continually bringing your thoughts back to the present moment. Create a mantra for such moments, such as “I can be present and watch the waves of energy go by without getting caught in the story.”’

Check out their website for further information and tips on how to increase your window of tolerance.

Having PTSD or any other mental health condition shouldn’t stop you from developing yourself and achieving your dreams.

If you want to go back to school — do it!

If you want to go for that promotion — do it!

If you want to write a bestseller — do it!

Get the support in place to allow you to do it even when times get a little tough. Seek guidance from people who have done it before and ask for support from friends and family. Be open to the help on offer. The help is there for a reason.

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