I know there is no magic wand to fix severe, complex, chronic PTSD. What I have found to help me thrive I call strategies for PTSD. One of my strategies I use to manage my distress is what I now call “Movement.” I use to call it exercise but I was obsessed with that because it was the only way I could combat the weight I was gaining on the medications that I truly need to help manage the basics of daily living. I have struggled with my body image my whole life, beginning with being called “pork chop” as a child even though I was an average weight.
I began therapy in November, 2004. At that time I was working full time and doing a regular exercise program not because I thought it was good for my body but I was afraid that I would put on more weight as I aged. In 2006, I no longer could work. I did not have the physical or mental health to continue my career so I took a medical leave of absence. Things continued to deteriorate from there. I really had difficulty eating and sleeping. Just walking from room to room in the condo I was living in took more energy than I had. So, in 2008, I decided I could not live like this anymore. I then checked myself into a 6 week program at Sierra Tucson in Arizona for a dual program in chronic pain and trauma. One of the first things the staff did was set up an exercise program for me. It didn’t work because I had such chronic fatigue, chronic pain and labored breathing, which I now know are part of the symptoms of PTSD. So I began a gentle walking program for 10 minutes. Some days I had to just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
After I came home, I continued with my walking increasing by 5 minutes a week. Eventually someone told me that 10000 steps was a moderate amount of exercise. This was my goal to drive myself towards because if exercise was a strong tool to alleviate my distress and manage my weight gain from medications then I was all for it. I did get up to 10,000 steps or about 80 minutes of walking. However, once finished I would collapse and be unable to accomplish anything else that day. So by 12 in the afternoon I was ready for a nap and I really didn’t rebound after that nap. I was overwhelmed by my chronic fatigue. It took me a while to realize that I needed to make some changes.
The first change I did was taking out the word “exercise” and change it to “movement.” Then I tuned into my body to discover how much movement it needed throughout the day to work at its peak performance given I live with PTSD, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Tuning into my body was a challenge because for most of my life I was really alienated from my body and most of the time dissociated from it. So figuring out what movement program was best for me actually took a great deal of time.
Right now I still do 80 minutes of movement a day but I break it up into 4 sections throughout my day. I begin my morning with a 10 minute dance session. It is one of the first things I do when I wake up. It includes such mantras as “today is a new day”, “how will I handle my stress today”, and “I am ready and prepared to greet my day and live to my fullest potential.” I see improvement over the last month as far as how free I have become in moving my body.
After breakfast, I do a 30 minute walk on my treadmill usually while reading a book or watching TV. I also focus on sending my energy down into my feet to ground me in my body. Every so often I try to push myself more on the treadmill but my chronic pain will kick in. Now, I am comfortable that I can walk at a pace of 3.3. It took years of trial and errors to get to this point of really knowing my body and treating it reverently. Some days I need to do just a real gentle walk and other days I know I need to let my body rest.
I will then have another 30 minute session somewhere before 1pm. After 1, my chronic fatigue starts to rear its head and I have a complete physical and mental shut down. By 2 o’clock I am so sick from my fatigue that I need to have a nap and again it is hard for me to rebound even after a nap.
I end my movement session with a 10 minute Yoga and stretching session. I have tried to do Yoga programs all over but my lifetime of constricting my body makes it painful to do the poses. I did have success when I went to the Trauma Center for Trauma Sensitive Yoga in Brookline, MA. Now, I use what I learned there as part of my Yoga and stretching routine.
I have come to understand that movement is clearly a path for me to decrease my distress and it brings me great joy and success. I struggle on the days that my body is not able to do these movement routines. Also, I have accepted that chronic fatigue and chronic pain are permanent conditions in my life that I need to negotiate. After all, when I think back I had them my whole life. At this point I have made accommodations in my life to deal with these realities. I strive to be at peace with them on a daily basis.