How Spirituality Helped Me Manage Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

How Spirituality Helped Me Manage Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As a mental health professional who also has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after spending over 22 years in the fire service, I have tried many "alternative" methods to treat my own anxiety, depression, and PTSD: acupunture, meditation, herbal remedies, hot yoga and massage — to name a few. I still use some of these methods, along with daily exercise, healthy diet, positive social support, and a low dose of an antidepressant, to manage my PTSD. Here, I'm going to relate my experience with the two methods I have found particularly helpful: bibliotherapy and spiritual healing.

I became aware that I needed better stress management after a trip to the emergency room for chest pain at the age of 32. At that time, I was a paramedic at a busy fire station. I was very fit and knew a lot about keeping the heart healthy. I went on daily calls to many people who had cardiac problems. I definitely followed the rules for good heart health, so I was horrified to realize that I was stressing my own heart! I started to realize that taking care of my physical body was not going to be enough: I needed to take care of my mind and my spirit. Daily, I was dealing with the stress of the firefighting job, and also with grief and death. Firefighters are notoriously negative thinkers: We are trained to anticipate the worst. I could no longer ignore all the questions I had about life and death, and the way I was thinking about all of it. So I took the blood pressure medicine that I was prescribed, and I started reading about ways to improve my negative thinking.

In college, I had majored in psychology and minored in humanities, so I had studied a lot about the brain, the mind, and various religious beliefs. I knew that the mind and our thinking, choices, and behaviors were a product of the brain. So, if the brain isn't thinking healthily, then behavior will not be healthy. I read about what the brain needed to really be in shape, and made the necessary adjustments: I added in more sleep, omega fatty acids, and gentler exercise, like yoga. Then I went to work on my thinking. What did I believe about my life? What is my purpose? What happens when we die? As an agnostic, I struggled with this. I read more about Buddhism: Pema Chodron was a favorite. I also read about Native American and Aboriginal beliefs. I learned more about how to change my thoughts and create new habits with my thinking. I used guided imagery to help with that, as meditation was difficult for me.

Everytime I caught myself thinking negatively, I would reframe the thought and focus on what was going right, as opposed to what was going wrong. I focused on the belief that death was not a "bad" thing. How could it be? We all do it eventually. I realized I get to choose what I believe happens at that point, and if I chose to believe something good, I felt better. So I visualized my life being full of what I wanted, and a beautiful peaceful place to rest with loved ones when we die. It didn't matter whether I knew this was true or not. I felt better once I started believing this! I learned to practice an "attitude of gratitude" and to trust the process of life, even if I didn't like what was happening. After all, my trips to the ER had lead me to a spiritual awakening. I was very grateful that I did this work, because soon I had to deal with my own mother and father's passing. The spiritual beliefs and education I now had made those experiences much easier to manage.

Today I am retired and work from my home as a therapist and educator about mental health. Education about mental health and spirituality has become so easy to access thanks to the Internet, so bibliotherapy is a favorite tool of mine. A good therapist can be a guide for your spiritual search, and help you with education about your mental health and how to take care of your brain. Each individual will have different questions, thoughts, and beliefs that may be causing distress, so I'm a fan of researching for your own spiritual answers. They are out there! The trick is to find one that works for you.

Happy searching!

Michelle J. Maliniak
M.C., N.C.C., L.P.C.
Michelle J. Maliniak, LPC, Therapy, PLC

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