focusing through trauma
May 1, 2011 2:06 PM   Subscribe

I had something traumatic happen a little over a week ago. I need my brain back. When do I start to worry and what do I do?

I saw a friend killed in front of me (bike vs. car incident) a week ago. I'm as okay as I can be, all considered, but I REALLY need to get my focus back now so I can finish the semester in my PhD program as normal.

I am supposed to have a test this week and I think I'm going to have to postpone it, as much as I really don't want to. I am obviously behind on other stuff and I am having a really tough time getting my focus back. I had this problem in a mild way before, and I had to turn off the internet sometimes to have long blocks of productive time. Now my brain doesn't want to cooperate, internet or not. I just feel dumb and not all there, which is probably normal. Yes, I've seen counselors and talked to friends and all that- I really just want to get back to work. I'm not trying to not grieve or anything, but I enjoy doing science and it's frustrating not being with it enough to write code or read complicated journal articles.
I'm not having PTSD-style intrusive thoughts about the accident, just feeling foggy and tired. I'm sleeping as long as I can but I've been waking up a little too early.

If I just have to let myself be dumb for a while, okay. When do I start worrying that it's been too long, and how long did it take you to get your focus back after something traumatic?

Any attention hacks that will help me get back in the saddle might be useful here. I'm thinking of stuff like setting a timer and taking enforced breaks, etc. Did anything work for you personally? Do I need to go back and get more pro help for this specifically, or wait it out?
posted by slow graffiti to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, the New Year's Eve thread from 2008 really worked for me in helping to let go of regrets. I still use the ritual that I cobbled together from these answers, even though I'm not a new-agey kind of person. I would take a few hours to organize my space and person, while jotting down any of the thoughts you want to let go on little pieces of paper, especially the images that bother you the most from witnessing the event. Then take a long bath or shower, maybe drink a toast to your buddy, light some kind of memorial candle, and burn the pieces of paper using the candle. Then, when the bad images threaten to reappear, just keep repeating to yourself "I let that go". A version of this really did help me.
posted by raisingsand at 2:25 PM on May 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Make sure you're eating well, getting all your vitamins. Gets as much sleep as you can--it helps you re-set.
posted by Riverine at 2:40 PM on May 1, 2011

I'm so sorry you're going through this. It is traumatic to have seen your friend killed. Are you at all able to take a break? The context of this may seem somewhat trivial in comparison to what you've experienced, but the answer from EmpressCallipygos in this thread comes to mind from what you've written. The part where she says "You need to let that sadness metabolize" really resonates with me. I think you have a good reason for a temporary leave.
posted by waterandrock at 3:20 PM on May 1, 2011

You might be experiencing something like survivor guilt. If you are a person who is somewhat inclined to sabotage your own success, as I am, I concur with raisingsand: design a gentle ritual of acceptance, calling up all your resistance to winning, formalize your grieving and explicitly forgive yourself for being unharmed although your friend was killed.

Resolve to treat your talents with respect and to honor your friend by realizing your own future. Humbly admit that you are not powerful enough to prevent bad things happening and then affirm your willingness to accept the opportunity you are given to continue, even though success and life itself is so pitifully fragile.

Make the practical arrangements that give you the best shot at continuing. Go climb a small mountain and shower in a waterfall, literally or figuratively, and return to pick up your life, gently and respectfully.
posted by Anitanola at 3:23 PM on May 1, 2011

PTSD is not just about flashbacks and reliving the trauma. If you check out the categories of symptoms here you'll see that many of the things you're currently experiencing are included. See a counselor, please.

Also, seconding waterandrock; is your program aware that you're going through this? It's understandable that you want to get on as usual and finish the semester but this seems like the kind of situation a university would be willing to provide accommodations for.
posted by camyram at 3:25 PM on May 1, 2011

Response by poster: My advisor knows, and is understanding, but that doesn't mean that conference submission deadlines change or the rest of academia is going to wait up for me. I'm going to have to take my finals and get back to my data analysis in earnest sooner or later. I'd rather it be sooner.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:35 PM on May 1, 2011

That's tough, but you're right it would be another tragedy for this to turn your life upside down. When I eventually had to get back to my school after an upsetting experience, I made sure to allow myself free time each day, and I took lots of walks: one in the morning before getting to work, one after working and needing a break, and one to end the day with.
posted by waterandrock at 4:09 PM on May 1, 2011

And setting small goals for each day, chunked off from the large task, was also essential.
posted by waterandrock at 4:14 PM on May 1, 2011

I've found it helpful to ramp back my self-expectations to a level that I could still handle. What is the minimum you need to do?
posted by salvia at 5:19 PM on May 1, 2011

I'm sorry you are going through this. From a purely "getting it done" standpoint, what works best for me is to start the day with a couple pages of journalling in a quiet place. Then when I get to work, I usually know what I need to do. Then I make myself do the very first thing, even chunking it down to the level of "click on the FTP program to open it". Maybe there are five more minutes of surfing after that and then I do the very next minuscule thing. After a bit, I find myself in a rhythm and start to get immersed and end up having a productive work period. Good luck and go easy on yourself.
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:07 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's not really that easy to just 'snap out of it' when something traumatic happens. My dad dropped dead in front of me when I was 14 and alone with him, so I've been there.

It's really important to let yourself feel and go with what your body is saying. Give yourself permission to stop for a bit. Drop back on the work that you expect yourself to do - what is essential, what can you reschedule, what can you drop, etc. If your mind needs to wander, let it wander. Go with it. After a period of time, when you start feeling a little better, THEN try to gather yourself, but again, if it gets overwhelming, then break again.

I found that the feeling comes and goes. I was OK but in a haze for quite a few months before the fog gradually lifted - but in periods of stress the feelings would come back again. Don't worry about what's normal for everyone, though, worry about what feels right for you. There is no universal answer.

I'm so sorry that you're going through this.
posted by jonathanstrange at 6:11 PM on May 1, 2011

The semi-obvious answer is meditation. I'd recommend starting with guided meditation like 'Open Focus' (google it). Do it every day, ideally twice a day (it's 20 minutes). Couple it with clarifying exercise types like bicycling, nature-walks, swimming: something that combines unfocusing with focusing on your body for medium (20-30 minute) stretches. In fact, do stretches-- get up early in the morning and develop a routine where you have a very light meal after meditation and stretching/exercise (if you've been curious about yoga, this is a good time to start). Change your diet some-- focus on clarifying/purifying nutrition, such as no refined sugars, cut down on carbohydrates, eliminate any alcohol or caffeine, and get lots of sleep and protein. Try drinking lots of green tea and juice or fruit for sugar.

Open Focus specifically should start to train you to see your own thoughts more clearly; the very purpose is lifting fog. You have to allow thoughts to occur without being distracted by their presence. Accept them and encompass them. Martial arts would help too, but that would take too long. Open Focus worked for me in a week, and I saw results after several days (severe emotional distraction but not trauma-- still, it should help, maybe a little slower).
posted by reenka at 7:30 PM on May 1, 2011

I saw a friend get seriously injured a few years ago, and that was traumatic enough, so I can't imagine what it's like for you. I found I couldn't focus or work for about two weeks afterwards. I kept trying to work anyway (also on a PhD), but I would work for 20 minutes or so, and then find I wasn't concentrating any more and was replaying the event again in my head. I wouldn't be surprised if this kept you from concentrating for weeks or even a month or so. My grandmother's death, which I wasn't present for, and was relatively expected, kept me unfocused for about a month afterwards. You are dealing with both the aftermath of being a witness to something traumatic, AND with grief, all at once. If you get to three or four months in, and you are still feeling like you can't concentrate, that's when I would start worrying and getting more psychological help.

Meanwhile I think there were some good suggestions for temporary coping strategies in the comments above. Good luck.
posted by lollusc at 8:05 PM on May 1, 2011

All good advice above. Try playing repetitive absorbing video games but relatively simple games like Tetris or Diner Dash. It's the quickest way I know to sort of suck in your brain from grief and trauma and let you reset for a while. This helped me as a way to cope in the aftermath of trauma, so I could function - ten minutes of a game would give me an hour or two of being able to function.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:05 AM on May 2, 2011

Best answer: I am so sorry for your loss and for your trauma.

Please try to keep in mind that PTSD is physiological -- it's not something that you can just "will" yourself out of. But things like meditation and moderate exercise really do work. You should probably also avoid alcohol, and, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, limit your caffeine intake as well.

What has helped me pull out of my own fugue back into being able to do science is talking about it with other people -- not the trauma, the science! Getting in a room with a white board and my collaborator, or meeting with my lab mates and discussing my projects and my results. Alone in my head, the fugue trigger had free rein to interrupt my thought process and distract me from my work -- this doesn't always express itself as "reliving the trauma", but as a kind of foggy disconnectedness -- but when I'm interacting with other people, with a little energy I can stay on topic. Sometimes I have to ask people to repeat themselves, but I find it easier to stay "present" in a conversation than when I'm staring down the computer. I can then take some of that energy and focus and apply it back to my private work, for a while. (Note: I am normally a serious introvert, in the Meyers-Briggs sense.)
posted by endless_forms at 7:50 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I finished the semester, for better or worse, and just talking out an abstract with my advisor in a more hands-on way than usual (as opposed to working mostly alone, sending a draft for his approval and polishing) was a huge help and something I might not otherwise have done, so thanks!
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posted by slow graffiti at 3:24 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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