5 Simple Ways to Cultivate Joy When You Have PTSD

By Kristance Harlow 09/07/16

Anxiety and lethargy applied for permanent residence in my body, and I thought I had to fight to have their applications thrown out. Turns out I didn’t have to fight, I had to give up and stop trying to control everything.

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Living with post traumatic stress disorder and her bluesy sister, depression, has drastically changed how I handle everyday life. PTSD changed me from a determined and self-sufficient tigress with a moody disposition, to a wimpy and terrified house mouse. There are days I can hardly rouse myself from the couch, let alone take life by the horns to fight for my keep. I have beat myself up about my inability to follow through. In the pre-diagnosed days of my PTSD, I turned to alcohol to ease the panic and dull the pain. Anxiety and lethargy applied for permanent residence in my body, and I thought I had to fight to have their applications thrown out. Turns out I didn’t have to fight, I had to give up and stop trying to control everything, including my drinking. My saving grace has been learning to cultivate gratitude, even in smallest measure. No matter how down and out you are, there are ways to access serenity during the darkest days of trauma.

1. Step outside and sit in nature, let some sunshine on your skin.

Once in a while, I can get myself to step out onto the balcony in the morning. Standing barefoot on the cool tiles, eyes closed, the sun warms my skin. If I do this short ritual, my day is always better than when I don’t do it—even if I only step out in my pajamas for a minute, it makes a difference.

There has long been anecdotal evidence that time outside is a mood booster. In the 19th century, it was common for a doctor to tell a patient with melancholy to take an extended trip to a remote locale. Now there is scientific research to back up what we knew all along. A 2016 Harvard study looked into the connection between outdoor green spaces and mortality rates. Over eight years, they followed 100,000 female-identified nurses. Turns out, the women who lived in the areas with the greenest spaces had a 12 percent lower rate of mortality than their concrete jungle-living colleagues. They took into account clinical depression diagnoses and any prescription medication for depression. A whopping 30 percent of the benefit gleaned from nature at home was directly correlated with mental health and lower rates of depression.

The sun on your skin is essential to physical and mental well-being. The World Health Organization encourages people to get out in the sun, because too little sunlight is more dangerous than too much. When the sun’s powerful UVB radiation comes in contact with your skin, it kicks vitamin D production into gear. Vitamin D is in every tissue of the human body, and is the only vitamin that does double duty as a hormone. Vitamin D deficiency is strongly correlated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other mood disorders, particularly depression.

2. Give yourself a break. Don’t make it your goal to be happy.

Goals are good in life, as long as they aren’t confused with expectations and are written in pencil rather than set in stone. Many recovery programs talk a lot about getting rid of unreasonable expectations, and science backs that up. Research coming out of the University of Denver found that people who made it their goal to achieve happiness were actually less happy than those who didn’t place such a high premium on being happy. It seems counterintuitive, but when someone is making it their aim to be happy, they are setting an unrealistic goal. Expecting a particular outcome is setting yourself up for disappointment.

When I was drinking, I only knew how to live life in extremes. If I felt happy, I tried to hold on to that feeling for as long as possible. I used alcohol to push myself to extremes and amplify my strongest emotions. I would also drink when I was not happy because I had failed at trying to be happy. In my black and white perspective, sorrow now meant sorrow forever. Happiness is not an end point or a permanent state of being, it is an emotion that will come and go.

3. Remember small victories, like patting yourself on the back for feeling okay and making it through an activity without feeling anxious.

In the fog of a depressive storm, I am overcome with the kind of fatigue normally attributed to all-night study sessions or marathon training. My entire body is exhausted and moves in slow motion, everything takes an enormous amount of effort to complete. In a recent foray into depression, it took me all day to fold one load of clean laundry. Instead of hating myself for “only” completing one small task as if I didn’t do enough, I was gentle with myself and allowed what I did to be enough.

Finding the energy to complete essential daily tasks can be a struggle when depression hits.  When it comes to taking recovery-based actions, it isn’t just difficult, sometimes it is impossible. Setting little goals, realistic goals, will improve your sense of self-worth. Those goals need to be based on you, not anyone else. For one person, having the goal of running daily might be realistic, but it’s just as good to have the goal to change into clean pajamas before you crawl back into bed.

4. Cuddle with a pet or a person, touch is an amazing healer.

There is a reason touch is so important—it is the first sense we experience as infants. The science explains that oxytocin, nicknamed the "love hormone," is released when we engage in consensual physical closeness. Holding hands, hugging, and sexual intimacy all facilitate social bonding while reducing how much cortisol, the stress hormone, we have racing through our bodies.

It isn’t always easy to get that need for intimacy filled. In the midst of an anxiety attack, I often jump away in panic from anyone attempting to get close, and depression can lock me in a closet of isolation. Lucky for people like me, cuddling a pet is beneficial to mental well-being. Petting a dog or cat soothes a fearful mind and ups levels of serotonin and dopamine.

Sander Koole, a psychological scientist at VU University Amsterdam, has found that hugging a teddy bear may reduce fear of death for people with low self-esteem. Yes, hugging a stuffed animal can bring people out of obsessive self-doubt and seems to be an effective buffer against existential fears.

5. Decide to be honest.

Honesty is the path to recovery—admitting to yourself that you don’t want to feel this way anymore is the first and hardest step towards healing. The most difficult realization I have ever had was admitting that I didn’t want to be miserable. I couldn’t make any progress towards recovery until I admitted that my life was unmanageable. By being honest with myself that my life was in disarray, I was able to take a step away from the wreckage.

The rest of my life, I will probably need to be self-aware of my mental health and take active steps in treatment, and that is okay. I can be honest and not approach recovery like there is an “end,” because this is a journey. It was not easy to admit that my life was breaking apart like a sandcastle in high tide. Trying to control the waves will only bring pain and disappointment. Like the sandcastle, I cannot control the forces that knock me over. There is no band-aid fix, and I feel so relieved because it’s not about me having lackluster willpower—this is simply not so simple.

Kristance Harlow is a writer who is passionate about ending the stigma of mental illness and addiction. She hangs out on the internet and sometimes updates her blog Digging to Roam or celebrates awkward humor on her YouTube channel.

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Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.

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