Three Principles Living

Judith A. Sedgeman, EdD

Hope for an end to PTSD

Hope for an end to PTSD

Over the Memorial Day weekend, much of our attention was directed to the plight of returning Veterans who suffer debilitating psychological wounds.  Many more servicemen have been lost to suicide than lost in combat. The system is overwhelmed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One general interviewed on CNN on Sunday said there was a “a critical, urgent need to find the root causes of this illness and the means to treat it successfully.”

For me, and hundreds of my colleagues around the world, the treatment of PTSD is not an insurmountable problem. Awakening others to the hope that there is a cost-effective, sustainable, easily delivered treatment has been a problem. People have adopted the prevailing view that PTSD is a nearly intractable problem that requires years of expensive, complex treatment and still may not be resolved.

PTSD afflicts some people who have been part of,  witnessed, or been the object of unspeakable horror and cannot come to peace with it or get it off their minds. The slightest reminder — a sharp sound, an innocent question, a dark hallway, a shadowy figure in the distance, a child’s cry, an image on television, any of thousands of ordinary things —  can trigger a cascade of terrifying memories. It begins to seem that the person is trapped in an unrelenting cycle of re-experiencing the horror again and again without warning, until they are paralyzed by fear of the next onslaught. They ricochet between traumatic memories that create psychological and behavioral chaos, and fear of the traumatic memories that creates anxiety and depression. They come to think of themselves as irremediably damaged because they cannot see how to break that pattern.

Most treatments that address PTSD operate on the assumption that there has been some psychological damage to the person that has to be repaired or reinterpreted. Our treatment makes an entirely different assumption, the assumption that at the core of every human being is innate health and resiliency that cannot be lost, cannot be damaged, cannot be altered by external events. That innate health and resiliency can be obscured, just as dark clouds can obscure the sun, and we can lose touch with it. But, like the sun, it is still there, no matter how long the clouds have darkened the sky and hidden it from us.

How do people reconnect with their resiliency and regain their bearings and their peace of mind? In our experience, it happens, simply, through insight that leads people to an understanding of what memory is and how it works, of what thinking is and how thoughts come and go from our minds, of how our consciousness of thoughts at any given moment infuses them with temporary reality that will dissolve as our thinking shifts.

Memory arises from re-thinking the past. The past is over. The only way the past can get into the present moment is through our own ability to re-imagine it. When we re-imagine horrible things, they frighten us, so we have a tendency, without understanding, to hold them in place in order to “fight” them or “interpret” them or “deal with” them, rather than allowing them to pass, and seeing them for what they are. What are they? They are nothing more or less than images from the past carried forward in time through our own ability to think them again. The natural thought process doesn’t “care” what we put into it: happy memories, sad memories, funny memories, horrifying memories. It just does its job. It is like electricity flowing through the wires. It will operate whatever we plug into it — a hair dryer, an electric chair, a light bulb… We form memory-images into present-moment thoughts, and they come into our present-moment experience and we become conscious of them so they appear, momentarily, real again. But thoughts have no more power than the power we give them, and no more life than the time we are thinking them. Understanding that gives us  freedom to allow thoughts to pass through our minds without falling prey to them. We are the thinkers of all our thoughts, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the horrifying and the uplifting. And we have the capacity to imagine them and to re-imagine them, to hang onto them and to let them go.

There is nothing we can do to keep life from triggering memories in our minds. Those of us who have met horror face-to-face and whose minds contain those memories will, inevitably, “see” them again in our mind’s eye. But we can be free of suffering from them if we understand them for what they are: thoughts carried forward through time that will come and go if we don’t take them seriously or become frightened by them. We can start to have the relationship to our memories that we have to television shows we come upon, and don’t like. We don’t give them time and attention but notice them and change the channel, turning our attention to something else that comes to the screen. Since thinking is a dynamic activity, new thoughts are always coming to mind — if we don’t hang onto the old ones and keep re-creating them.

In my experience, PTSD sufferers who realize that our experience is created by our own thinking brought to life by our consciousness, who see that we can think anything and take anything we think seriously or not, wake up to their own strength to leave the past alone. There is nothing we can do to change or “fix” the past. We can come back to the present, though, by recognizing the negative, upset feelings we get from past thoughts coming to mind as a warning sign to leave them alone and allow them to pass, quieting our minds.  The power is not in the horrifying images, but in our uplifting, spiritual ability to relate to them as images, and to see that the reality we are experiencing comes from our relationship to our thinking, not from the content of our thoughts or the circumstances that trigger them.

I remember a Vietnam Veteran in a group some years ago who had an insight into why he was suffering so much, years after coming home from the war. “Oh, my God,” he said. “I just realized the war has been over for more than 20 years, except in my own head!”

People do not want to suffer. People want to be at peace, and untroubled by their thoughts, regardless of the content of those thoughts. Understanding how thought works shows us the way to peace of mind, and to a healthy relationship with our thoughts that can accommodate any passing thought without fear or distress.

That understanding is natural to us. It arises from the quiet of our own souls, when we are pointed away from the variable content of our thoughts to the constant power to think, the gift that allows us to free our minds and live at peace.

  • Valerie

    I am so happy you are sharing your thoughts this way. I look forward to each email that lets me know you have added to your blog. I am finding this very helpful. You exude the peace you are helping others find.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm
  • vince

    I like it in theory, but in practice, my experience is not that people with PTSD are able to NOT be bothered significantly by the intrusive images and memories. Most all of them have other unpleasant memories, but there is something much more real and powerful about the memories that return from the trauma. They know these experiences come from thoughts replaying the trauma, but that has not proven to be protective for them. So, I like this and it is perhaps useful for people with relatively minor intrusive thinking, but I have not seen it work with real PTSD sufferers.

    I would really appreciate your thoughts and experience about this. Thanks for your writing.

    July 26, 2011 at 5:04 pm
    • The three principles are not about the CONTENT of any thoughts, but about understanding the way all thoughts are created. When people truly start to see where thoughts come from, start to realize the formless energy from which we create al thought, no thought, regardless of intensity, is any more powerful than any other thought.

      July 26, 2011 at 5:50 pm
  • jae

    Hi there,

    I have experienced PTSD for years infact my whole life when I THINK about it.
    My journey has been long and a roller coaster of very unpleasant experiences.
    In that statement alone I have set myself up to understand that my life has been very hard and unpleasant, I dont dismiss how I felt and the struggles I have had, but I dismissed the times that were happy and I did well and enjoyed things, I watched a programme on T.V the other night on people living in absolute poverty there home is literately on top of the rubbish dumps, people were going to the toilet anywhere and the water they washed there cloths in was also the place that sewerage emptied into. I saw children laughing and playing families enjoying there space and I say space because a space is all they had, there is 1 million people here in every square mile.
    The whole way I have written about there experience is on my own view and the way I think about it.
    I said “they live in absolute poverty” when asked by the reporter weather this is right how they live the families said “of course it is this is how we know life and I wouldnt leave it”
    I had a flash back the other day in a workshop I was doing, feelings of intense fear cripplled me, I heard voices, I wanted to run, Thoughts of wanting to die, it shocked the socks off me.
    What I did is seek support imediately, I said everything in my head out loud and then told myself that it is 2011 and what was happeneing wasnt real at this moment, and a bunch of other stuff.
    It took me two hours to ground myself.
    That experience a few years ago would of spiraled me into a place of mental ill health
    now it puts me in a place of reflection (It was triggered by learning experiences I had 35 yrs ago and my initial thought was I cant do it) and then I move on, still feeling a bit shell shocked
    and Thinking about my experience but THINKING diferently.
    I hope this is a help Vince 🙂

    August 20, 2011 at 5:50 pm
  • Fiona Jacob

    Judith I love this piece, such clarity, wisdom and profundity, Thank you. And I know that the three principles works in this situation, i use this with my clients who have suffered PTSD. It is amazing how the light comes on when the client ‘gets’, the thinking / memory connection and how resilience can come to surface and healing experienced. Thanks Judith, much appreciated.

    April 21, 2013 at 1:03 pm
  • Oots

    Has anyone with (or treating someone with) complex ptsd exerienced the three principles alleviating emotional flashbacks?

    May 26, 2018 at 9:23 am
  • Monique

    Dr petit seems to talk about trauma ( one time event) I’m working on my own issues of complex trauma ( repeated developmental trauma) and finding my symptoms lessen but not dissolve. ( yet) I think we should be open to the understanding without minimizing that developmental trauma from early childhood may have layers.

    June 30, 2018 at 3:07 pm

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