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What I Learned While Dealing With PTSD and Fear

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Editor’s note: If you have experienced an assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Nearly three years ago, I was happily walking down the street past midnight when in front of me two individuals appeared. The alarm bells in my head had already started tinkling as a result of the fact that these two figures didn’t exactly look like Mahatma Gandhi’s twin cousins, but when they were finally ringing at full steam, it appeared to be too late to choose an appropriate measure. They cornered me and one of them grabbed me by my jacket. Having seen too many movies, I tried to tear myself loose from my aggressor while pretending to take off my bag in order to hand it over to him, but this attempt was to no avail. I briefly considered plotting another way to escape my predicament, but this courageous thought was soon erased from my mind as one of my assailants took a gun out of his pocket and put it on my head. Just in time, it dawned on me that this was not a James Bond film but a very real experience.

• What is PTSD?

In the following minutes, one of them searched my bag and clothes for any items of value, while the other one held the gun to my head and repeatedly said he would kill me. When they had finally collected everything they deemed valuable, they ordered me to walk away and not turn around.

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the event, I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with all of its known symptoms: I slept poorly, and when I did I spent a significant amount of my non-waking hours in nightmares related to the incident. In addition to that, panic attacks, a reluctance to leave my house (especially after sunset), hyper-vigilance, an exaggerated startle response and constant flashbacks of the event were now a recurring part of daily life. I was treated with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), forms of therapy that proved extremely useful. I finished therapy after nearly 10 months and while an event of this sort naturally leaves its mark on one’s life, I have been able to live a “normal” life ever since. With the third anniversary of the event nearing, I started to think about these ten months, and I’d like to share with you some of the lessons learned during my adventures in the land of fear.

1. Many small steps can lead to a big change.

In order to overcome my fear of walking the streets late at night, I would venture out on the streets at increasingly later times. For instance, I would leave my house at 9 p.m. one day, and the next day I would do it at 9:05 p.m. and I continued this modus operandi until I reached my desired goal. The advantage of this strategy is that it makes whatever step you’re taking look like a very small one, something that wouldn’t take a great effort to carry out. In due course, however, all these small steps will gradually lead to a change you couldn’t even imagine when starting out. This incremental progress is similar to how, as a child, you wouldn’t notice your own growing at any given point, but a year later you would suddenly become aware of the fact you were now some amount of inches closer to the sky. This approach is useful for almost any change you want to accomplish in your life.

2. Every moment is precious.

The present moment is all we really have. This statement has the rare characteristic of being both the tritest and the most profound remark to be made about human existence. Events of the sort I experienced make one more aware of the fragility of existence, and they imbue one with a respect for each waking moment. Sometimes, wisdom consists of nothing more than a deeper understanding of something one already knew. There is no doubt that we waste a lot of time while alive on things we know we’ll regret when we look back at them. Candidates for this category include time spent uselessly worrying and looking forward to ‘big’ events – a holiday, say – while forgetting to really enjoy the small pleasures of daily life. It seems to me that the endgame for a well-lived life is a commitment to living in the present moment, regardless of the quality of it.

3. Opening up about your deepest concerns is scary but invaluable.

Most of us are fighting some kind of battle in the never-ending war of our own lives. Pursuing, finding and protecting our happiness is the great game we are all playing, but we rarely win, and when we do we soon realize the season consists of an endless amount of games. No sunlit Instagram filter exists for the dark corners of the human mind. For understandable reasons, most people do not open up about this. The result of this silence is that many of us assume that, unlike themselves, everyone else is leading a life of bliss without any troubles — and this misconception aggravates their struggle.

Conversations about our deepest concerns also have the potential to deepen relationships. It is one thing to discuss an alleged offside goal during last weekend’s football match; to talk about your phenomenology at the moment you’re convinced you’re going to die is something else entirely. This deepening of your interaction with other human beings is guaranteed to improve your relationship with them — or, at the very least, your coming closer to one another.

4. Don’t waste time on petty worries.

When looking down the barrel of a loaded gun, the mind finally seems to be able to prioritize competing sources of worry within a fraction of a second. Should I listen to the new record of my favorite band first or prioritize a classic record that’s been on my waiting list for too long? Should I buy a new sweater in order to prevent the rest of humanity from thinking I have now become a nomad? Will the remaining amount of ice-cream in my fridge be sufficient as to silence the dairy-craving voice in my head? Worries of this kind are fast relegated to the dustbin of irrelevance when confronted with the attention-demanding task of not dying. These petty concerns now appeared to be what a first-grade math exercise must look like to a professor of algebra. A significant part of our moment-to-moment attention is bound up in largely irrelevant concerns of this sort. Notice this, and find a strategy to deal with this shocking fact.

5. Change your relationship with fear.

Most of us could easily name a number of things we’re afraid to do, and these fears seem to be a confirmation of our wisdom not to do them. The problem, however, is that many of the things we fear are precisely the things that would improve the quality of our lives. One way of tackling this problem is to change your relationship to fear. You can reframe it conceptually and see it as an indicator to discover something about your deepest desires. You can also learn to look forward to the pleasure you know will arise once you have faced your fears and thus, in some sense, learn to enjoy the struggle. This is not to say that a life without fear is a reasonable expectation. When approaching a girl I like, I still seem to instantaneously transform into a walking gelatin pudding — and a very red one at that. Love, it turns out, is even special in this regard. Nor is it to say all fears are irrational. But changing your relationship to fear is a good strategy to deal with it.

There are certain experiences one would do everything in the world to avoid, but once one has had the experience, it can provide insights one would not have had otherwise. The goal of this article has been to share some of these insights. I hope this will be helpful for any of you who are struggling with similar challenges.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Originally published: October 14, 2017
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