I have been a Registered Nurse (RN) for 12 years and many of those years I took care of sick, critically injured, and dying children. There are some serious situations I have been involved in that have left me with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I currently am in charge of coordinating care for the pediatric patients for the hospice I work for because I am unable physically to be the RN giving the care due to my symptoms. I experience symptoms of tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and chest pain related to anxiety any time I have dealings with young or pediatric patients. At least once a day I have memories of cases I had been involved in when I worked in pediatric trauma care. I find myself reliving the moments over and over in my mind. The anxiety and rehashing old cases was so bad a few years ago that I had to stop working directly with patients of all ages because I felt very anxious and burnt out as a result. These events that I seem to be reliving happened over ten years ago. How can I remove the trauma related feelings from these memories and just have them as past experiences that don’t lead to anxiety?
People experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) frequently report feeling overwhelmed as they relive the horrible memories and very painful feelings over and over again. Often times they resort to unhealthy ways of numbing their symptoms, such as taking drugs or alcohol. So, it is very good that you have made a healthy choice to move into an administrative role, and to reach out for help, instead of resorting to less healthy options. The first step in healing is to gain clarity by understanding what is actually going on in your mind. How it is functioning to create these daily haunting memories, and why it is doing so? Once you know this, then you can take the steps to manage the symptoms so you are not a helpless victim of them.
From a Jiva Vedic Psychology lens, we look at the root cause of the problem. The root cause is not the traumatic experiences you had. It is how you processed those experiences. It is not that you experienced children dying on a regular basis. This is an external event that effects people to different degrees. For example, not all hospice nurses will be afflicted with PTSD as a result of working with dying children. So what is the difference from nurse to nurse? Why does one nurse suffer from PTSD and another not? The root cause of the problem has to do with our buddhi, or intelligence. By intelligence, we do not mean “book smart,” kind of intelligence. We define intelligence as our digestive ability for emotions. If we are unable to emotionally digest an event, then this event lies unprocessed in our unconscious mind – haunting us incessantly until we digest it. This is the root cause of our problem – undigested memories lying in our chitta (unconscious mind). These memories that happened in the past, called samskaras, are incredibly powerful because it is them that drive our daily thoughts, feelings and behaviors! In fact, when we respond to something today, in the present moment, we are actually mostly not responding just to what is happening. It may be 10% our response to that actual event in the present moment, but the other 90% of our response is being fueled by our samskara. Some old memory, that because it never got digested, keeps jumping up into our mind, screaming for our attention.
To be more specific to your situation – when you see a child on hospice your intelligence (buddhi) will automatically do a search in your unconscious mind (chitta), to find any similar memory. It is looking for a match from what you are seeing currently to what you have experienced previously. Because you have worked in hospice with so many children for so many years, of course, you have a direct match in the form of a very big memory file in your unconscious mind of all the children on hospice that you have worked with. So your intelligence easily and quickly locates this file and brings it up from your unconscious mind into your conscious mind. This all happens in less than one second. When the file comes up, all of your undigested emotions related to people whom have died, whom you weren’t able to save, or help, or say good-bye to, completely flood you with feelings. Your memory files also have images in them, so you might sometimes see images flashing in your mind as well. Sound, smell, touch – all of your sensory perceptions relating to that memory also come rushing into your mind. You might be hearing over and over in your head a child’s last words, or see their face, or you may remember the touch of their small cold hand. To compound matters, it is also possible that you had some memories from the past, memories of sadness or death of a loved one or near relative and they got triggered when you were acting as nurse. Thus the grief-related emotions that were already lying there in your unconscious mind got fortified by each child that you lost. So, when you are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, not only are you being flooded with the painful feelings of the pediatric patients you lost, but also with the loved ones you lost. Understanding the mind in this way, it is no wonder that you feel anxiety and chest pain from this very overwhelming flood of emotions and memories.
The key to working with PTSD is to digest your painful memories –memories that may have been too painful to deal with when they occurred, but that are calling out for your attention now. It is not a quick process to heal, nor can just one small exercise like the one below, be sufficient. But, it is a starting point. We would recommend that you try the exercise to get started, and continue by working with a therapist to digest your memories so they can be released with the help of a professional, and so that you can be at peace.
- Set aside some time to work on your memories. Make a date with yourself so you know clearly what time you are starting this painful emotional work, and what time you will end. Many people find it to be too painful to process memories of someone dying. So this approach where you make a clear start and stop time will give you a sense of control around a situation which often feels emotionally totally out of control.
- Create a sacred space for your healing work. Light a candle. Wrap yourself in a soft blanket. Connect to Sri Krishna. Chant the Mahamantra. Feel His divine presence accompanying you. Thank Krishna for giving you this opportunity to work on yourself.
- Write about one of the memories that keeps on haunting you. Select one of the memories that is very heavy emotionally. The more specific you can be when writing about the memory, the better. Write all the details of the memory. Once you have completed writing the memory, go back and circle how many feeling words you wrote. Examples of feeling words are: depressed, sad, angry, scared, guilty, helpless.
- Write in more detail about your feelings. What is it like to feel those feelings? If you did not write any feeling words, go back and add the feeling words to your story. And then write in more detail about your feelings. Feelings often get repressed, so the more attention you can give to the feelings, the better. They have been pushed down for a long time. So, to bring them out, to feel them is very hard to do because who wants to actively go to the place that is hurting? It is like going to the dentist and asking him to pull your tooth with no pain killer … but embracing your painful emotions is where the relief will come. We often say, “You have to feel it, to heal it.” So let yourself cry, or scream, or whatever you need to do to recognize, validate, and truly feel that feeling that has been pent up inside of you for so long.
- Now, use your buddhi (intelligence) to tell yourself what you have understood that is going on with your mind. It may be helpful to write it out on a piece of paper and keep it with you, so you can read it to yourself each time you start experiencing the symptoms. Be kind and supportive to yourself. You can write something like this, “Sweetheart, take a deep breath and know that what you are remembering now is just a memory. It is not happening now. The memory is packed full of emotions that you did not digest from the past, but you are working on processing them and you are healing. You are feeling anxiety about the temporary body of a child, not about it’s eternal soul. So just come back to the present moment, and be with what is here. Krishna is here with you right now. Be with Him. The past is the past – it is no more. And I choose not to let it haunt me any longer.”
- Many people suffering from PTSD find using essential oils to be helpful as a quick way to reduce anxiety on the spot. So, you can also try to get some lavender or rose essential oil. Put a few drops in your palms and then cup your palms and put them over your nose. Shut your eyes, and take 3 deep breaths. Breathe in the essential oil. Practice mindfulness by chanting the Mahamantra silently in your mind. Ground yourself into the present moment, where no anxiety exists. Anxiety is only coming from past memories. Repeat the deep breathing and chanting as many times as you need to until your anxiety symptoms subside.