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Why It’s Difficult to “Think Positive!” When You Have PTSD

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

If you have PTSD you may notice you have an overwhelmingly negative outlook on life. You may see motivational messages about thinking positively and want to give it a whirl. I know I see people who are infectiously positive and I think to myself, “Wow, I’d love to be like that!”

I think that learning to think positive thoughts and feel positive feelings is actually an important part of recovering from traumatic life experiences (and the grief and depression that often accompany them). In fact, “goodness” – learning to perceive goodness in the world and to feel “good” in the body and in life – is a central goal of trauma healing. This quest for goodness is essentially the same as wanting to learn how to perceive, think and feel “positive.”

I’ve been doing self-tracking over the last month (March 27 – April 21). I’ve been tracking 10 symptoms of PTSD every day. One of them is negativity.

Analyzing my negativity every day made me think a little more about it. What I realized is that the feeling of “negativity” when recovering from PTSD is very complicated. I’m pretty sure if you just sit down and begin thinking happy thoughts that will not work out very well.

The challenge is that when you have PTSD, negativity is constantly being generated – I mean being generated inside you every minute of every day – by many different things in your system. It’s being generated by things going on in your body’s biology, various functions of your brain, your cognition (patterns of thinking) and many others symptoms.

Here is an Illustration of the symptoms represented by Monsters. Notice how, whenever the person with PTSD thinks a beautiful positive thought, the monsters eat it? That is what it feels like!

PTSD Symptoms Monsters

(I discuss each Monster thoroughly further down in this post under “Symptoms that Generate Negativity”)

There are definitely some times and situations when training positive thinking is beneficial. However, in my experience, most of the time the positive thought crumbles under the weight of the illness (or if you prefer, the injury (post traumatic stress injury)).

The vast majority of time when I have tried to motivate myself to think positively it’s just been a quick Band-Aid that ignores the deeper problems. To think positively, you need to target whatever is going on to generate the negativity and work with it, shift it around bit by bit.

The process of truly becoming more positive will involve a lot of effort and take a long time. Remember – there are no quick fixes when healing PTSD!

Negativity Takes Up All The Space

The first thing I want to point out is that the negativity inside you is like people crammed in a subway car – if the car is completely full of negative, angry, pessimistic people, the positive people can’t get on. You have to let some of the negative people off so that the positive people can get on. There is no point in trying to push the positive people into the car when there is no room.

Understanding the Experience of Negativity

As I mentioned, I tracked my experience of negativity for 23 days. These are my notes for what I meant when I chose a certain number on a scale of 0-100:

100% Negativity is “absolute, deep negative outlook on everything, 100% cynical.”

95% means “severe depression, believe all of life should be different than it is, constant self-criticism and self-hate, want to die.”

85% means “Strong negative” Also, “My life is shit. I can see I am using “musts” a lot. He must… life must… and if not my life is horrible. Cognitive distortion “musterbation” is contributing today.”

75% – “Basic negative. Complete, all, deep with 25% neutral.”

65% – “Negativity jumps up when unconscious mind is triggered, just a few minutes ago it was 30 and then I got triggered.”

60% – “Lots of confusion associated with this variable today – what is my reality? Is it really as horrific as I see it? Or is it a little bit better than that? Questioning perceptions a bit more actively but still SEE a lot as terrible/horrible.” Also, “Coming down off a horrible night with bad dreams all night.”

55% – “Feeling negative due to triggers.”

50% – “Basic gloomy. Medium negative 100% of the time -or- 50% very negative and 50% neutral. Hopeless half the time.”

40% – “Confused, but feel darkness in pit of stomach, want to see the light (good side of things). Feel desire to improve.”

35% – “A bit gloomy but getting better.”

30% – “Confused, positive much of the time but don’t know why.” “positive, confused, hoping.”

25% – “Feeling mostly positive and open”

My average for the 23 days was 58% negative. That’s pretty negative. A little over “Basic gloomy” and not quite “Coming down off nightmares last night” negative.

Why It’s Crucial To Understand The Causes of Negativity

Negativity is a bit like temperature. If you put a whole bunch of space heaters in your home and turn them on, the temperature will rise. You can go to the sink and splash some cold water on your face. You can really try hard to feel positive and think positive with that cold water on your face. You can even craft a nifty affirmation like, “My face is as cool as a mountain stream!” But once you stop splashing, in no time your face will be hot again. The real solution is to go to each space heater and turn it off. And if you don’t know how, you can phone someone who specializes in space heaters and ask for help.

space heaters

And another analogy (I like analogies)… Trying to force yourself to be positive is pretty much doomed to fail because you are a complex machine and now you have a complex mental illness. If you have a complex machine in your house like a computer and something is wrong with it that is also complex, standing there speaking affirmations to it won’t change it. Saying over and over, “My computer works! Just like a beautiful flower! Woo hoo! Rainbows!” won’t work. You have to get out the manual and figure out what is wrong.

Once you understand what is going on, there are numerous therapeutic exercises that “tweak” your system in tiny ways, opening you up to more positivity here, and then there, and then over there, like small glimpses of light that filter in when picking your way out of a dirt cave with a trowel.

Symptoms that Generate Negativity

OK, so I spent some time ferreting out what is causing all this 58% negativity for me and I found 11 Symptoms that Generate Negativity.

1. Trigger Monsters Lead to Perception of Reality as Negative

triggered monster

I will call these Inner Parts of Self “Triggered” and “Unconscious Triggered.”

When my “Triggered” Part is active it believes something horrible is going to happen.

Pure Instinct…

This reaction is not occurring on a cognitive level, as in a thought that is being spoken as an internal voice. I could also have an inner voice like this which would be considered the cognitive distortion of horribilizing. Horribilizing is an irrational belief. The biological level issue Triggered and cognitive level issue Horribilizing are two different things, although they can definitely increase each other in a feedback loop if going on simultaneously.

The particular experience represented by “Triggered” is purely on the level of the body’s instinctive reaction to some reminder of a past trauma. The “Unconscious Triggered” Part is even more subtle and mysterious, but it can be detected with enough mindful attention.

Listen To Triggered…

Solving triggers is a monumental task but the first step is just to listen to what those scared Parts are saying. Triggered could be saying, “I feel convinced I will be harmed when I hear that noise. I remember when I was being harmed and I heard that very noise. I have not moved on from that time so I must alert you to the imminent danger.”

Unconscious Triggered could be saying, “I feel so frightened. If you pay close attention, there is a connection between this moment and the past – can you sense what it is?” This one requires more time and more questioning. Sometimes the trauma is earlier for this Part – from childhood. So he could say, “It’s from a time, a moment that you don’t remember. You were given a message. The message is about being abandoned. Your inner child is convinced it is going to be abandoned when you are in this scenario (or hear that sound or see that image).”

danger monster
Triggered and Unconscious Triggered create Danger in the Environment

Triggered Makes Reality Seem Very Negative…

These two Parts cause a lot of fear. This contributes to making reality seem very scary. A scary reality can appear to be full of hopelessness, tragedy, horror, evil and pain. Thus, this perception of reality bumps up negativity.

If these two guys (Triggered and Unconscious Triggered) were happy and calm and no longer being activated, the perception of reality would at least have some space open up for the possibility of positivity. When these two are constantly freaking out, there is not any room for positivity.

Talk To Triggered…

So – listen to them every day. Sit with them and say, “I see you are afraid. You feel like you are going to be harmed. I know you want to help me, you want to alert me to danger so I will be safe. Thank you. Thank you so much for your service. You are welcome here and I love you. I know you will not stop alerting me to danger until I have gone back and processed the traumatic events from a new perspective and rearranged how they are in my brain. I have not yet gotten that far with my healing process, but I will keep that goal in mind and seek a safe and healthy way to do that. In the meantime, just know I’m working on figuring out how to take care of it and doing my best.”

A lot can shift in just acknowledging 1) you hear and understand Triggered and Unconscious Triggered and 2) you appreciate them, and 3) you are actively seeking a way to shift the trauma encoding so that they can be relieved of their duties. These steps will help to open up a little to more positivity – it may be just a little, but it’s significant!

Healing Exercises for Triggered…

In terms of exercises or therapies that are effective in shifting the way the past event is held in memory, there are ways to do this but it’s pretty complicated so I will go into this topic in another post. Just briefly, what I used above to speak directly with two Parts is called Inner Empathy. The processes that seem to have promise so far for me in terms of rearranging the past experience are a combination of the Dots Exercise, Slow Exercise, Pranayama Breathing or any slow breathing technique, Somatic Experiencing , Inner Empathy/NVC, Time Rip Healing, Self Guided Meditation, and some aspects of the Sedona Method.

2. The Body Is In a Negative Place; Leads To Negative Experience of Body

bodily reactions monster

When the Body hears all this hullabaloo from Triggered and Unconscious Triggered about the sky falling, and death coming, and immanent harm and destruction, terrible abuse and painful attacks, it will go into a negative place. So the body might feel like utter crap.

The body can have sensations of dizziness, nausea, buzzing, shivering, tension, exhaustion, heaviness. Intense emotions have effects on the body. Dread can be in the pit of the stomach. Dismay can be weight on shoulders. Terror can be shaking, rigidity and shallow breathing. The brain may be lacking oxygen. There may be adrenal fatigue. The body may sense that it’s falling apart. It’s hard to think positive when your body is pretty sure it’s self-destructing.

The exercises felt sense, tracking, grounding, pendulation, yoga, various types of mindfulness meditation and many other exercises can help the body. Of course, helping Triggered and Unconscious Triggered settle down will ultimately help the body settle down as well.

3. Scattered and Shattered and Letting in Negativity

shattered and no filters monster

If you are not “inside” yourself anymore and instead shattered apart, you will feel everything outside you like it’s inside you. If it’s a person, internet article, movie, news broadcast, whatever – you are not separate from it.

I was playing a video game last night in which a dragon comes in and causes the floors of the game to jump up and down. All night last night in my dreams the floors were shaking up and down, and there was a giant threat present. Needless to say I had a horrendous night full of fear and frightening dreams and woke up subtly shaking all over and feeling almost like my body had been dematerialized or something. That’s a pretty extreme level of my mind really absorbing that information without any kind of filter in place. I think these things happen because I’m not INSIDE me, with good edges, watching things on the outside. I’m absorbing and reacting to every little thing in the environment because I’ve become diffuse and scattered out into the environment around me.

hypervigilance monster
Hypervigilance Monster is also called “Sentry,” “Wild Animal Eye” and “Fixated on the Negative Monster”

While theoretically this could have a positive impact if it’s something positive that is in the environment, it seems like it’s more likely to increase negativity than positivity. This is likely because of the way trauma wires the brain to seek negative things in the environment and fixate on them in order to figure out how to protect you from them. One way this fixation on the negative can be seen is with hypervigilance, a state in which part of our mind is on the alert for danger all the time like a sentry, guard or watch tower (I also call him “Wild Animal Eye”).

Overwhelmed by Negativity…

So these two issues – having no filters and fixating on negative things – create a state of being overwhelmed by negative stuff from the environment. This can create a lot of internal reactions that increase negativity. There will definitely be no room for positivity to get on the subway car with all this going on.

Exercises that have the effect of pulling you inside yourself, feeling your edges and container, opening to positive parts of the environment, calming the nervous system, grounding and breathing deeply can all help with this.

When really “inside” again, the outside things are just neutral things passing by, rather than utterly overwhelming movies to get pulled into and affected by dramatically.

Also, when learning to focus on positive parts of reality, the brain shifts and opens to brand new things it never could perceive before. Therefore, developing your container and training the brain to perceive positive aspects of reality are important in learning to think and perceive positively.

4. Grief – While Grieving There is Naturally a Focus on What is Missing

grief monster

Grief and depression are common cohabiters with PTSD.

Grief is common because trauma so frequently includes losses. If you do have grieving to do, it can be important to think of yourself as having PTSD and Grief, (or C-PTSD and Grief, or Trauma Related Challenges and Grief) because they are both important to pay attention to. And if you suffer from depression, thinking “I am overcoming PTSD, Grief and Depression” would be accurate (this is my case).

The Sad Grief Monster…

I think of grief like a very sad monster that is accompanying me everywhere. Sometimes he gets sadder than other times. It’s my job just to love him no matter where he’s at – not sad, very sad or somewhere in-between. I’m not extremely goal oriented about him; I just seek not to repress him if possible. I actually think that by just acknowledging this Part – the Grieving Part shall we call him – I may at first invite him to feel more sadness but over time it will help him to express all the emotions fully and ultimately lead to more space for positivity.

There are many healing tools for grief. Inner Empathy is a brilliant tool to help out in this area. Worden’s 4 tasks of grieving cover the main “tasks” very well and can guide you through the process.

5. Depression

depression monster

I have mid-level depression. For me, depression shows up mostly as apathy and self-harshness. (For others depression shows up in a much more biological way.)

Apathy is a weird thing. Where does it come from? When I was very tiny I cared about everything. The cat’s tail was so important to grab. The flowers were so important to eat. The stones were so important to look at and touch. The world was full of importance! Not anymore. I’m not as clear about apathy as I am the other things.

Is it hard to think positively when having a high level of apathy? Yes, definitely. I think it could be related to cognitive distortions and learned helplessness. Learned helplessness I believe has been found to have a relationship with depression. Learned helplessness would produce apathy because if you believe you are helpless, why care? Nothing can be done anyway so what’s the point in caring?

One strange thing about apathy that I’ve noticed is that with PTSD, I care in an overwhelming and extreme way about danger and my life being threatened. My reptilian brain cares a lot and is in no way apathetic if it senses danger! But in general, as a person, I am apathetic because I feel helpless. It’s a disorienting experience of coexisting opposites.

The other way depression shows up for me is self-harshness and self-criticism. Self-harshness is from the cognitive distortion “musterbation,” using statements like “I must, they must, the world must, you must” etc. This can be worked with using Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. When I was a SMART Recovery leader in San Francisco, my mid-level depression reduced by 50% using REBT regularly and teaching others to do the same. If I had stayed beyond just one year, I think it would have stayed reduced but after I left it went back up to 100%.

Note that depression also has a physiological, chemical component that for some can only be adjusted using medication.

6. Cognitive Distortions

(not in Illustration)

I was just talking about the cognitive distortion of “musterbation” and how it contributes to depression. There are a bunch cognitive distortions that can just bumble about in one’s mind, not necessarily related to PTSD or depression but just a mental habit related to things that are happening in one’s life. They could have been learned from parents, society, teachers, TV… check out the book Feeling Good by David D. Burns for a great list and discussion.

In my experience, working with cognitive distortions always improves my mood. It’s always worth it. This is one area where it is possible to teach your mind, using your willpower, new and improved ways of thinking that lead to positive feelings.

7. No Presents for You! – The Inability to Find the Present Blocks Positivity

(not in Illustration but a monster relative of Triggered)

I’m thinking that there is a relationship between being in the present and feeling positive. With PTSD, there is no present time. When I do an exercise like “Felt Sense in Nature” (I will write about this later), or any exercise designed to connect my perceptions – my 5 senses – to the present, I feel strange at first. Then I feel a subtle hint of positivity. Then it goes away again. What was that? I reach out and touch the present moment again – the lines of sun striping the Post-it notes, the still warm air in-between the desk and the windowsill… the present… and it’s like my brain and body find some relief in that for a moment. That relief feels positive. That exercise made a little space in the subway car – a few negative people got off the train and there’s this spot there full of possibilities.

8. Functional Brain Impairments Prevent Positivity

brain impairments monster

When I got PTSD I lost my past – I lost a good portion of my memories of life before the traumatic events for a significant period of time. I lost a sense of my identity related to my past. And I lost my future.

The loss of the past and identity doesn’t really seem to drive up negativity too much. It’s mostly just a blank place. In fact it could be seen as a good thing if you want to completely reinvent yourself, or if you want to dissolve old angers and defenses – the dissolving has already been done for you.

Even if there is that side benefit of potential total reinvention, the sense of loss, disorientation and confusion can contribute to negativity. And actually, reinvention may not happen due to all the impairments and symptoms so probably should not be considered much of a benefit ultimately. Also I’m discovering that what I thought was a wiping of the slate clean was just burying everything under PTSD “until a later date” when it will just vomit itself back up anyway (for me that date appears to be now, 8 years later).

Reinvention is so much better if done in a gentle and deliberate way rather than as an off-chance result of severe trauma.

So, I’m really not sure how much negativity results from blankness and cluelessness about past and identity, but the part about having no future really is quite negative. After the traumas, I found that I was completely unable to picture a positive future, or dream of any positive future accomplishments, events or experiences. It’s like the future is blackness. It feels like embarking in a small boat at night not knowing if the ocean will ever end or if there will ever be a dawn. I think they call this a “truncated” sense of the future.

The sense of a bleak future does seem to increase negativity a lot for me. I have no trust in anything. I can’t really imagine a good future. I don’t relate much to “goodness” in general anymore, and that includes goodness in the future.

bleak future monster
Bleak Future Monster is a sub-species of Brain Impairment Monster

I recently wrote in my Journal,

“I saw, today, how my own ideas for my future are drastically different than they were before the traumas. Before, it was like a vast field of possibilities. While trauma does literally take away possibilities, my mind itself doesn’t see the ones that are left anymore either. It sees a kind of black vastness of nothing. I’m without a good future? Why? Why should I be denied a good future? … What about my dreams? Why did trauma take THAT away from me? And – what do I have to do to get it back?

“And to all those motivational quotes that say Just Believe, I can’t. It’s more complex than that. I can’t believe in something my brain has become incapable of understanding, picturing, thinking, relating to, organizing.

The important thing to note here is that I am saying there are times that my brain literally can’t think positively. I’m saying that my brain is sometimes not organized enough to form a cohesive picture of positive things. Goodness is not only a stranger to me – it’s also a stranger to my brain’s functioning. I am saying that I need to re-grow skills – mental skills – before I can be positive. Until then, my brain is simply too disorganized to accomplish this.

I think it’s important to be aware that PTSD can cause functional impairments in the brain. My brain has recovered to a degree now, due to my efforts (I am, after all, composing sentences and using words right now). However, in the years after the traumas, sometimes in my dreams my brain could not even think in actual words. It was so utterly traumatized it was producing pure gibberish (this happened probably 5 times but was always a vivid illustration of how overwhelming trauma can scramble the brain).

Another, more frequent occurrence is during dreams I will just wail. Just make noise, like “Aaaaa. aaa.” The pain is so overwhelming it kind of obliterates everything and all I can do is make one sound over and over. In those instances of just making sound, words are being created by my brain (it is not complete gibberish) but as an expression I can only make sounds.This happens regularly. I don’t have a record but I would estimate once per month on average.

I also experienced a lot of “flashing” in which I just saw strobe light effects going off in my brain all night due to the overwhelming nature of all the traumas frying all the circuitry. The traumas were so extreme they flatlined mental functioning for a while. This happened more frequently during the years right after the major traumatic events – 2007-2010.

While my brain is much better now, in some ways I’m still somewhat “still and blank,” like a blue screen, even today 8 years later. Ultimately I need to acknowledge to myself that this is a brain that has spent a lot of time in utter, complete chaos until the computer froze for a while, and is still prone to problems even after being rebooted.

During the times my brain experiences chaos, how can I “think positively”? The brain can’t even think period. If the brain cannot organize or process information, cannot access vocabulary, cannot remember anything, cannot think in clear sentences, etc. believe me, an affirmation will not help the situation. The affirmation or the positive thought represents a level of organization beyond what that specific brain, at that specific moment, is capable of.

All this stuff needs to be fixed first and – there is no quick fix. There is no positive thought that will make everything magically OK. It takes a long time and a lot of work to rebuild the brain’s ability to organize information. Actually now that I think of it, most of the other items in this list probably also have some type of functional impairments associated with them in terms of neural pathways in the brain, memory, and other brain related issues that make positivity a huge challenge. So the brain training work really is quite important. Once the brain has been repaired I can imagine there will be a lot of positive thoughts as a result. Likely the brain will feel a lot better when it recovers these natural capacities over time by going to therapy and doing healing exercises.

anger monster

9. Anger, Resentment, Bitterness

I still have a lot of unprocessed, buried anger at the perpetrators. I think this anger bleeds over onto other people sometimes. Probably more than I’d like to admit.

All that trapped anger can create negativity about life in general. It can manifest as resentment, irritation, bad humor, grumpiness.

The trapped anger, and the pain underneath it, need to be expressed through the body – from gut and reptilian brain into arm and leg muscles to be translated into fighting actions like pushing, kicking, and vocal/throat muscles – translated into vocalizations. Unfortunately there are numerous blocks keeping it from coming out – blocks created as reactions to the traumatic events and the behavior of the perpetrator (s).

10. An Issue Unique to You (In My Case It’s Bad Body Image after Injuries)

unique to you monster

This one will be different for everyone. Each person will have variables that increase negativity for them that are specific to the nature of their traumatic experiences.

For me personally there is one more prominent area that increases negativity that is unique to my traumatic experiences: Bad Body Image.

After the traumas my body was very badly injured and I gained weight going from size 12 to size 20. I was extremely ill for a number of years so this makes sense and it was not my fault. But I’m not very good at combating the social pressures related to body image for women. My image of my body as horrible, injured, altered and ugly accounts for a lot of those negative people in that subway car of my mind. I think that if I had some casts on my limbs, I could say – these extra things on my body are here because I was injured. But sudden weight gain has a huge stigma for women and, due to social conditioning, most people don’t view it the way they view a cast on a limb even if it’s serving the same purpose essentially. There is a lot of grief for losing my body (body image/appearance/health/identity) so suddenly as well, and a lot of it is unprocessed so still raw. Also the negative body image makes me believe I have a bleak and worthless future.

11. Stresses of Daily Life

Not everything is about a diagnosed mental illness of some kind. Life can be stressful. That stress can contribute to a percent of the negativity, whether or not you have PTSD, Depression, Grief etc. I must say that it definitely makes it harder to effectively handle those stresses if dealing with something mucking up the cogs of the mind though.

I  tried to sense which of these “Monsters” are creating the most negativity…

Listed from the most impactful to the least:

  1. Triggered Monster, Unconscious Triggered Monster and Danger in the Environment Monster = 15% (contributes to 15% of my negativity)
  2. Bodily Reactions Monster = 15%
  3. Shattered (aka No Filters) Monster and Hypervigilance (aka Sentry aka Fixated on The Negative) Monster = 15%
  4. Bad Body Image Monster (An Issue Unique To You Monster – in my case is bad body image) = 15%
  5. Functional Brain Impairments – 15% (used to be greater) also inside of this monster —
    1. Loss of Past Monster 2% of that
    2. Loss of Self Monster 1% of that
    3. Bleak Future Monster – 10% of that
  6. Grief Monster = 5%
  7. Depression Monster = 5%
  8. Cognitive Distortions Monster= 5%
  9. Anger Monster = 5%
  10. Daily Stresses Monster – 5%
  11. Stuck in Past Monster – Inability to Find the Present Blocks Positivity – this is actually part of Triggered Monster, being triggered / reminded of the past constantly

Self-Tracking Data Reveals Negativity Correlates Most Highly to Grief, Shut Down(Numb), Apathy and Trigger Reactivity

OK so the very last thing I want to do is take a look at all the data I gathered from my 23 days of self-tracking and find out – which other symptoms were within 10 points above and 10 points below negativity on the 100 point scale? In other words, which symptoms followed closely along with negativity over the course of the experiment?

Symptoms most correlated to negativity…

  1. sorrow 11x (of 23)
  2. shut down 10x
  3. apathy 9x
  4. trigger reactivity 9x

Grief is #1 Correlation

So Grief is actually the most correlated…”Sorrow” measures grief as well as other kinds of melancholy about things, such as feeling sad about the past events. I said I thought grief was generating 5% but based on my data actually could be much higher than that. And because I was shut down and couldn’t actually feel the sorrow much of the time, that means there actually is much more there than I probably know about, and maybe it’s contributing to negative feelings more than I realize as well.

Shut Down and Apathy – which I think of as Depression – is #2 Correlation

Shut Down and Apathy are related closely to Depression. Shut Down measures how numb and repressed regarding emotions I am. Apathy measures how little I care about things, also the sense of helplessness and resignation. So really depression is potentially the second highest cause of negativity. Shut down does also relate closely to PTSD. I would have to go back and read my notes to determine whether the shut down symptom was originating more from depression or more from PTSD. I also think that sometimes “sorrow” is part of depression so there’s a bit of an overlap (these things are complex!).

Triggers is #3 Correlation

Trigger reactivity is how extreme my reaction to triggers is. So I was right when I rated that one high; it is high but it’s the third highest not the highest.

It Turns Out Real Data is The Most Reliable…

When I was just trying to kind of estimate what I think is going on I had Triggered, Bodily Reactions, Shattered, Brain Impairments and Bad Body Image as the top contributors. But when I looked at the data, I found that Grief, Shut Down and Apathy (which I think could be part of Depression) and Triggers are the top three. To be fair, I was not measuring Brain Impairments and Bad Body Image as part of my self-tracking experiment. Even so, this discrepancy illustrates why, when it comes to questionnaires, it’s important to document things as they are happening rather than ask someone to try to guestimate or remember what they think is happening with them. Of course, to obtain any actually scientific results this would need to be a real scientific study involving a control group, multiple people from various populations and done with precision etc.

Addendum: Affirmations and Rational Thinking Can Work If Used With Awareness of PTSD

How To Use Affirmations

I’ve been poo-pooing affirmations in this article because they can be powerless in the face of PTSD symptoms, especially if you don’t understand all the symptoms, but affirmations can be effective healing tools if used in the following ways:

  1. Affirmations can be used to support any other healing exercise. An affirmation can be repeated while doing any trauma healing exercise to enhance and deepen the exercise. For example, when relaxing, one can think, “I am as relaxed as a bowl of jello.” It can help the body relax further. Or when doing pendulation, “I have a well of peace I can access at any time.” They don’t replace the exercise; they just reinforce the healing mechanism already in use. While doing breathing exercises: “My breath allows me to experience even the most subtle parts of my traumas and integrate them.”
  2. Affirmations can work to shift habits of the mind and help exit cognitive distortions. For example, things like,”There are only ‘preferences’ in my life” (rather than “shoulds” or “musts” which cause so much angst), “My future is independent from my past,” and everything else from things like SMART Recovery/REBT and the book Feeling Good by David Burns.
  3.  Affirmations are good for successfully reaching goals.
  4. I don’t know for sure, but affirmations in general may work after a certain level of mental organization is reached in recovering from PTSD.

At one point I actually created a large collection of affirmations to be used for healing PTSD. So far, I have not used them. I think this is just because my mind is not organized enough to actually be capable of integrating them and I just use “emergency” measures all the time still, like somatic experiencing. Probably one day I will be able to be mentally organized enough to actually use them and benefit from them. Also they need to be repeated many times every day and my time is not quite organized enough for that yet.

Tips for Using Affirmations:

When using affirmations they always have to be present tense (no future) and positive (no “nots”) to work, and you should say them enough times to truly believe them.

Affirmations need to be repeated hundreds of times a day to have a chance, because the negative thought may be repeated100x per day and the affirmation needs to be repeated more times than the thought it’s replacing.

It’s good to do affirmations alongside other processes and therapies that help reinforce the tangible experience of the new thought. If there is a real, tangible experience of the affirmation it makes it a lot more believable.

Also be aware of the mind wanting to use affirmations to avoid uncomfortable emotions. If you decide to use affirmations, just notice if you are clinging to a positive thought in order to ignore or stay in denial of negative feelings going on inside. Sometimes, the affirmation may be helping you repress fearful, sad and angry emotions rather than listening to them. Repression of emotions could backfire because those negative parts of yourself will feel unseen and then they will feel more negative about being unseen and unheard by you, and seek to be expressed in a destructive manner.

Having said that, it’s important to note that it’s totally OK to repress emotions and sometimes very intelligent to do so. For example, sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to repress emotions to get through a work day, or even to get through a period of stressful months (or years). But chronic repression my backfire in outbursts of anger or pain. Talking to a therapist is the first step in learning to listen to the negative emotions. Little by little you will gain skills to identify and listen to them yourself.

Ultimately, if you use affirmations as a kind of add-on to effective treatment for PTSD symptoms they should work fine.

Rational Thinking Generates Positivity

Also, as I mentioned under #6 – Cognitive Distortions – learning rational thinking skills by using cognitive therapies such as REBT is also one area in which directly training new ways of  thinking IS effective in producing more positivity.  Note that Cognitive Distortions is just 1 out of 11 (or more) things that could be contributing to negativity though, so it probably won’t cure ALL negativity and is not a replacement for effective treatment for the real symptoms of PTSD. It’s good to do it though; it’s really powerful and is sure a great tool for the self-healing toolkit!

Thank you for reading and I wish you (and all your Monsters) the very best on your healing journey!


Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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6 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this article. It really is useful and it’s going to change the way I process my own negative thoughts. One suggestion? I know you talk about inner empathy, but I wonder if, when you speak about these things today you could just always encourage people to TREAT themselves extra gently when they notice they are being negative but don’t have the time (or energy or resources) in that moment to process stuff like you’ve described.

    A reminder to let themselves know that this negativity is not WHO they are but a product of all the things going on in their body/brain/nervous system and that gentleness will also help them be calm, which could turn around the negativity a tiny bit even in the moment.

    1. That’s an excellent reminder. I actually think daily affirmations can work to help with this. For example, one could have a memo on their phone with reminders like, “The negative emotions in me come from how I was treated and harmed. Remember to be gentle with yourself when difficult emotions come up. I feel bad but that doesn’t mean I am bad it means I was treated badly. Despite what I was told, I’m actually OK exactly how I am. It makes sense that I would be feeling painful emotions after being hurt.” I have created a long list of daily affirmations at this point. Affirmations used to not work because I tried out ones that were “too good” and our system naturally doesn’t trust anything that is very far removed from itself. So “My life is great” is a terrible affirmation. It’s the equivalent of the abuser pretending they did nothing wrong and trying to convince you that everything is fine. But to suggest to be gentle with all the pain inside, that is in alignment with the inner reality and therefore it’s an affirmation that will work (at least for me).

  2. Best article I have ever read in regards. Never thought anyone could understand all the different parts of this injury.

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