Over the past five years, I’ve learned a lot about mental health. Mostly because that’s when I finally realized what a huge issue it was in my life. I’d struggled with depression for years without even knowing it, and then after I finally figured it out, it took a few more years — plus a breakdown and a subsequent hospitalization — to actually get it under control. Since then I’ve also been diagnosed with PMDD (a form of severe PMS that is seriously emotionally debilitating), anxiety, and, most recently, PTSD, following my children’s traumatic birth and four-month-long NICU stay. These diagnoses have been important for me, because they’ve allowed me to start getting some meaningful help, backed by a group of doctors who totally take what I’m going through seriously. But knowing a lot doesn’t necessarily mean anything when you’re in the midst of struggling. And I could really use a little help when I’m struggling.
Recently, a counselor I’d begun seeing had mentioned that there are actually apps out there that can help with anxiety and PTSD symptoms. I had honestly never even considered that such a thing would exist, but hey, if it could help me through some of the crippling flashbacks and panic attacks, then I’m totally down to give them a try (like most people suffering from chronic mental illness, I’m basically down for trying anything that could help me feel better). The app she recommended, PTSD Coach, was developed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for military service members dealing with a range of PTSD symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, avoidance, and hyper-vigilance.
Now, I definitely wasn’t experiencing the kind of severe PTSD that a war veteran might develop — I still struggle with feeling like my extremely premature birth wasn’t “bad enough” to warrant being so traumatized — but my counselor assured me that a lot of the coping skills are helpful in all kinds of situations. And since my symptoms were definitely getting worse over time, not better, I figured I could probably use all the help I could get.
The PTSD Coach app is supposed to complement a professional treatment plan for PTSD, which, right now, I don’t actually have. I’m kind of just flying by the seat of my pants, hoping I don’t get triggered, which admittedly isn’t the best solution, but I was hopeful that maybe I could learn a thing or two from the app that could at least help me in the meantime.
I decided to use the app for a week and see if it made a difference, because if it helped me, maybe it could help other people, too.
I Should Definitely Be Steering Clear Of Sad Commercials On YouTube
Unfortunately, it didn’t take very long until I had a reason to fire up the app and get to work. And, embarrassingly, that reason was a viral Christmas commercial for British store John Lewis. Apparently John Lewis is the expert of ALL THE FEELS commercials, especially during the holidays, and I made the mistake of clicking on it (side note: Thank you for sharing it and ruining me emotionally, Dad!).
I’m totally one of those people who lovvvvves to watch heartwarming videos of cats or babies, or penguins, or anything that’s cute. But more than anything, it’s sweet, elderly men that totally get to me. I had pretty much the greatest, cutest, hilarious grandfather who ever existed, and when he died of cancer in 2005, I took it really, really hard. Thanks to years spent with a wonderful therapist, I’ve mostly made peace with the loss. Or at least, I thought I had, until I watched this damn commercial.
Honestly, I totally lost it after I watched this. Totally. Lost. It. That sad old man reminded me so much of my dead grandfather who I adored, and I became a total wreck — crying big, heavy sobs and hiding in bed under my duvet feeling all that stuff I hadn’t felt since I was 19 and having anxiety attacks after sitting next to elderly men on the bus (true story).
I opened PTSD Coach, and tried to ignore the fact that the app itself kind of looks like a Geocities website from 1998, and was instructed to try the RID tool. RID is a three-part exercise that consists of “Relax,” “Identify,” and “Decide.” First, the app tells you to take 30 seconds for deep breathing. This isn’t my first rodeo, so when I saw “deep breathing,” I was kind of disappointed — trust me, I know about deep breathing. But it also tells you to think the words “let go” as your breathing, with “let” happening on the inhale, and “go” on the exhale. This might sound silly, but saying “let go” was actually surprisingly helpful — maybe because it gave my brain something to focus on? Next, the app asks you to figure out (and actually type in) what triggered you and how your current situation is different from what happened to you during your traumatic experience.
I realized then that I’d fallen back into my old mental trap of thinking that somehow my grandfather was this scared, suffering person who needed my help, but the reality is that he hasn’t actually suffered since he died 10 years ago. And while I don’t particularly believe in an afterlife, it occurred to me at that moment that if, somehow, he could see me losing it completely over some dumb TV commercial, he would find it totally ridiculous and say something hilarious about the absurdity of it all. And then, suddenly, I found myself laughing. I mean, it was absurd.
There was no part of me whatsoever that had to be devastated about my grandfather’s well-being like I was 10 years ago, because it’s all over now (and it has been for a long time). I felt pretty drained afterwards, but I was pretty impressed — just a few minutes with that little app gave me the same kind of clarity I’d usually need a therapist to help me achieve. Not bad, PTSD Coach!
Not Quite As Good As Xanax
This experiment happened to fall right at the point in my cycle when my PMDD kicks into high gear, so I was definitely on edge, and feeling mega anxious about absolutely nothing (thanks, hormones!). I’d noticed that anxiety was one of the categories on the PTSD app, and even though my anxiety wasn’t actually PTSD-related, I thought I’d give it a go anyway.
Unlike with my first day, the options I was given were pretty lackluster. The first suggestion was to try and distract myself by going on Facebook and connecting with people. Um, no thanks. A good idea in theory maybe, but I’m pretty sure Facebook only further fuels my anxiety. I searched for a new tool, and the app suggested I do “something pleasant” like go for a picnic. Uh. I have two toddlers and it is freezing outside. There is no scenario in which having a picnic would be pleasant. Sigh.
I was on the verge of giving up on the anxiety section, when I searched again and got “progressive relaxation”, an exercise where you focus on each part of your body one-by-one, tensing it up and then relaxing it. I wasn’t too thrilled about another breathing exercise (mostly because I’ve become cynical from all of the times people suggest deep breathing as some kind of mental illness panacea), but I tried it anyway and it actually was really relaxing! The narrator’s voice was calm, and a video played to highlight exactly what part of your body you should be relaxing as you go along. By the end, my entire body felt relaxed in that deep-meditation kind of way my mind is usually far too restless to actually achieve. I could definitely see it being helpful on nights when I can’t sleep, too.
But in all fairness, I don’t think any amount of deep breathing was going to be enough to combat my anxiety that day. Even though I felt physically relaxed, it didn't take long at all before my mind started picking up again, and my chest began to feel tight. And those are the days I am seriously glad medication exists.
Christmas In The NICU
By far the worst part of my NICU trauma is the flashbacks. The tiniest, stupidest things remind me of what it was like when our twins were in incubators fighting for their lives, and suddenly it’s like I’m right there again, living out some of the most terrifying, heartbreaking days of my entire life. As a result, I’ve started avoiding anything that could be a possible trigger — I don’t read any articles anymore about preemies, I unfollow anything or anyone on Facebook I know will be posting a lot of preemie-related content, and I’ll even stop watching TV shows if they have NICU storylines (looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy!).
I’d been doing reasonably well, until someone I know posted an article about spending Christmas in the NICU. My twins were born in December, so we spent Christmas Day the same way we spent every other day: at the hospital with the babies, sitting by their incubators, hoping they’d be stable enough to take out and hold. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to read that article, but for some reason I did it anyway. And then suddenly, I was stuck. I felt hot, and my stomach was turning, and all I could think about was how weird it was to drive to the hospital that day, knowing it was Christmas, except here I was, delivering frozen breast milk to my babies who might not even live. Suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I scanned through the tools again and found it kind of frustrating — I don’t really need an uplifting quote right now, PTSD Coach! — so instead I thought I’d go back to my tried-and-true RID exercise. I did the breathing exercise to help calm down, and tried extra hard to work on grounding myself. I tried to remember that we weren’t in the NICU anymore, that we were home, and we’ve been home for a long time. That my kids are alive and healthy and they aren’t the little fragile babies they used to be. Now they’re running around and laughing and playing and saying all kinds of amazing things. There is no emergency. Everything is fine now.
Doing the exercise didn’t work as well as it had with the memories of my grandfather, but that’s probably because the NICU was a much bigger trauma, and also, I’ve already done a lot of work in therapy to deal with that first big loss. I haven’t been able to do much at all to get help with the emotional fallout from the twins’ birth — but hopefully that won’t be the case forever.
So Can An App Really Help Ease PTSD Symptoms?
Having stuck with the app for a week, the answer seems to be yes and no. I mean, I think it’s helpful to not have too high of expectations going into it anyway — it is just an app after all, and trauma is serious business. But is it better than trying to deal with bad memories or anxiety on your own? Yeah, I think so.
Of course, PTSD Coach is not even sort of supposed to be a replacement for professional treatment, but professional treatment can be difficult to access for a lot of people. So being able to have a (free!) tool in your back pocket that can help guide you through a breathing exercise, or help you work through some of your thoughts and feelings seems pretty valuable to me.
Images Courtesy of Alana Romain (8), YouTube