Living with PTSD: Tracking My HRV

I started tracking my HRV a few weeks ago, and it’s turned out to be a helpful tool. There isn’t really a target range that I could justifiably set for myself (especially since I’m not a medical professional), but I learned that the app I’m using has an average user number of 59 or so, and I was pretty sure that the research I’d listened to indicated mine would be lower.

It was.

For the first few weeks I was in the high 30s and low 40s most of the time. The app I use has a Morning Readiness reading that I do when I wake up, and it measures my HRV right after I finish sleep and there hasn’t been external stressors yet. I adopted and attitude of observing and learning, and watched my initial numbers steadily drop, and the readout pretty consistently tell me that I might need less stress, might need to do breathing exercises or otherwise manage my body’s sympathetic response. I noticed how I was feeling, noticed what the number was each day, and paid attention to whether I thought the two matched. Turns out, they often do.

This week my numbers have been in the 50s, which freaked out my app at first because that is suddenly much higher than normal. The readout cautioned me that I might be recovering and to maybe take it easy. I was! I’ve gotten consistently higher numbers this week, and have the energy and feel-good to match.

I don’t think tracking HRV is necessary, but I do think that having a way to check in with myself at a level that is available to me through technology is helpful, especially as I practice observing how I feel and responding by giving my body what it needs.

Waking Up Lonely

There are times that my introspection becomes overwhelming. I haven’t yet learned to moderate it – although I was so numbed out for years that there’s a lot built up.

I really miss having a lot of people over for meals. I used to entertain quite a bit, and had a large group of friends and acquaintances who were happy to appear at my command when I wanted to cook.

I love to feed people, and I love to cook. Which I no longer do.

My family has been through a lot in the past two years, and through part of that and prior to the start of a series of traumas I cooked for everyone. I liked it, and was good at it. Now that my mom isn’t working and has turned her energy to caring for my grandmother, she has pushed me out of the kitchen. It’s her domain, right down to washing the dishes.

My mom was not a good cook when I was a kid. I have zero good memories of her food, and a lot of bad ones. It’s different now, and she makes great food, but she also leaves no room for me to do what I love.

She gets really anxious about cooking for holidays. I mean weeks of freaking out and planning and more freaking out and lunch two hours late and panic about the turkey not thawing in time. Every. Holiday. So I started cooking holiday meals myself, because I like it, it’s not hard for me, I can do it to the nines in 5 hours, it’s perfectly cooked and timed, and mom doesn’t stress us all out. And I get to feed people, which I love.

But now that’s she’s back in charge of the kitchen, we’re back to the unnecessary anxiety of Thanksgiving. I say unnecessary, I don’t know what it is that bothers her so much, she’s not one to discuss feelings. I do think it’s unnecessary because she knows she can just let me handle it. But she doesn’t. I’ve been pretty much ignored, and this morning she was going on about making my brother her sous chef to get things prepped tonight so that she doesn’t have to do them tomorrow. She would also rather cook everything tonight and microwave it tomorrow.

No.

I feel pretty ignored by my mom, which is usual since I’m the only one with an (mental) illness that she has not stepped in to help, and she seems to have forgotten how smoothly things have gone the last five years when she just let me cook. And now she and my brother, who get really extra around each other, will be spreading their manic energy all over the kitchen, which was once my place of calm. And I’m going to…find something else to do, or else suck it up and join, because these are not two people who reflect much on their own issues and behavior.

Yeah, I know, get my own place, do something else (i.e. leave the country) for holidays, tell them how I feel, etc. But you also know that family isn’t that easy, and that doing the best thing for yourself often has consequences that you’d rather avoid. I would. So here we are.

Data Collection on Myself

I wear a Fitbit to track my sleep and heart rate. I pay a little attention to steps and exercise, but gone is my compulsive goal-meeting to satisfy the little vibrating band on my arm. I was thinking about giving it up for a bit in an effort to listen to my body rather than a wearable tech device, and I still might, but I just learned about Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and how it can serve as an indicator of symptoms for people who experience PTSD. Per the people at Harvard:

HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response… HRV is an interesting and noninvasive way to identify these ANS imbalances. If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If one is in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats is high. In other words, the healthier the ANS the faster you are able to switch gears, showing more resilience and flexibility. Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease. Read the full article here

This feels like such good news to me. It doesn’t change the importance of listening to my body, it gives me another way to listen! After a lot of research last night and this morning I ordered a heart rate monitor that can read HRV so that I can try this out. Not only can this help me understand what I’m experiencing, I can take action on that information. There are a variety of ways to improve HRV, even in the short term, for people who experience PTSD, including yoga, meditation, marathon running (not likely for me, but glad to know it’s an option!), focused breathing and other techniques that engaged the parasympathetic nervous system.

I’ve been listening to The Body Keeps The Score, and as technical as it sometimes is and as difficult as it can be to listen to, the information on managing PTSD symptoms has been really helpful to me, and I’m looking forward to trying out HRV monitoring for myself.

My Typical Friday Night Thought Process

By the time Friday night rolls around, my brain is doing something like this:

(checking weather forecast) ok so I didn’t get around to my side projects for work this week and I could work on the mapping project tomorrow, or I could work on that paper I want to write…exercise would be good, but it’ll be pretty warm so maybe I’ll go for a walk if I get up early enough because I don’t want to sweat a lot…but I could work all afternoon and that would be fine, and it’ll help me get caught up so I’ll be ready to deal with whatever happens next week, and I’ve been wanting to get some forward progress on that mapping and haven’t done it…I really need to get my shit together…maybe Monday I’ll try to be better about eating and exercise, I just need to get caught up on these projects……………………

By the time Friday night rolls around, my body is doing something like this:

Wow, I still have a lot of tension in my shoulders, and the spot on my shoulder that sometimes has stabbing pain is flaring up…I really want to rest and take a break…are you noticing what is happening? I need you to take a time out and start writing about your trauma experiences, because you’re still stuck on a few things and you just learned that writing can be an effective way to integrate trauma…you’re also carrying a lot of tension in your hips and your breathing is still shallow a lot of the time, so take some time to practice yoga…you just learned that approaching yoga differently than you’ve done it so far could be really beneficial to your nervous system, so take some time to try that out and see what happens…………..

My weekends need some practice.

Wreckiversary Year 5

I am struggling this week. Losing Josh in the middle of the week that my body remembers as the most traumatic week of my life is just hard. I didn’t prepare for it because my therapist thinks that creating that expectation will make the week inevitably negative, but not preparing for it has just left me unprepared for what I’m experiencing. I worked well past midnight last night and have been busting my ass for the last few weeks. I’m busy with work, yes, but I am also using it to cope, per usual. I didn’t plan to take a day for myself to be still and reflective and work on reprogramming, I was going to travel out of town on an unnecessary work trip just to accommodate someone I have already over accommodated. This was not a good approach for my situation, and now with a funeral tomorrow and my owns needs and experiences not met or addressed, I am struggling to hold it together.

This shit is hard.

It’s likely that by Monday (or even before) I’ll be ok and the moment will have passed and I will have some freedom for a while. That does not help me today. Today my body hurts, I feel compressed and pinned, I want to isolate and disappear and be swallowed up and I am so consumed by stress (not anxiety, strangely) that I cannot let my foot off…

And in writing those last 6 words and reading them on the screen I realized what I am doing. I pushed down on the brake of my car so hard and for so long as I smashed down a highway that my heel was bruised. I tried so hard to stop the crash that could not be stopped that I have stayed that way, foot on the brake, for five years. I am that way now. My body feels like it did while I was bracing myself to die. It hurts.

I don’t know why today. Today isn’t the anniversary, but it’s the date that I’ve had in my head. The 14th will be the 5th anniversary by date, it was on a Monday. Today is the 11th, a Thursday, and it’s in the middle. I had a traumatic breakup (the back story covers four years so just understand that it was a severely traumatic moment) on October 8 or 9 (I can’t even remember things were so blurred at the time) so the 11th is in the middle of the two events that resulted in my PTSD diagnosis. It was too much for me to handle. I had no support. I had no way to talk about it. I just had to keep going. And my body remembers.

But now I know. I don’t quite know what to do about it, but if the first step is to recognize what’s happening and notice how it feels, there are surely more steps to take following that will lead away from what I’m experiencing now so that I don’t have to do it again. I would really like to let my foot off the brake.

100 Days of Healing – Day 100

I’ve spent the last two days busting my ass to get a report done. Not because I have to, not because I don’t have a choice, but because I showed up, let myself be seen, was authentic to who I am, said yes and worked my ass off for the opportunity. When I emailed the draft for review, I didn’t eat a second slice of pizza just because I finished or because I was stressed or because I felt like it. I didn’t eat anything. I wasn’t hungry. I acknowledged how I was feeling, let it go and took a shower. I’m proud of myself. I WORKED. I didn’t balance, I didn’t “do self-care”, I did give myself a break or grace, I pushed myself, focused, stayed on task, was proud of what I accomplished, handled my shit while not always being totally present and did exactly what I wanted to do – and finished early.

Contrast that with 100 days ago:

I have recently become aware of how often I disassociate – I am presently lacking memory of a lot of time. I hurt everywhere. My weight is at its highest ever at 216 lbs. Getting out of bed is unappealing. Vigorous exercise is less appealing. Healing trauma is appealing, but it’s hard and makes me tired. I kind of just want to quit, in a general sense.

I’ve been sleeping this week. I’ve been trying to let my body rest as much as possible. That has meant I am also dreaming vivid dreams every night. I’ve noticed that the last two nights my dreams have shifted from a seemingly random and meandering narrative and wandering around places then waking feeling disturbed to dreaming that I am taking control of and addressing situations I don’t like. Last night, for example, I was eating dinner outside under a large awning and someone was flying a drone right over our heads and up under the awning. It was disturbing and unpleasant, so I reached up and pulled it out of the air, knowing that I could do that with no injury to myself if I caught the part that rests on the ground during takeoff and landing. I shook it to break it out of radio control and tossed it on the ground, to everyone else’s shock.

I like to think it’s a sign that I’m ready to take charge of my life again.

I don’t like myself right now – I don’t like who I’ve become post-trauma. I realized this yesterday evening. Disregard the weight gain – I’m not comfortable in my own skin because I don’t like my skin. I don’t like my limitations, and I am not willing to make peace with something I don’t like. Changing myself will be hard, but this whole effort to heal (and therefore be a person I enjoy being) is hard anyway. I understand that self-judging and criticizing isn’t helpful to me right now, and I don’t think I’m doing that, I think I can just admit that I don’t honestly like ME and want to be someone I do like.

So here’s to the start of 100 Days of seeing where I can go with an intentional effort to heal, with a big curiosity about what I can learn and who I can be.

That’s how far I went. And it was good. Here’s to the next 100.

100 Days of Healing – Day 36

I’m still sleeping a lot. I don’t remember sleeping this much since weekends in college when I would pull a couple of all-nighters during the week. But the body knows what it needs, right?

All of my clients needed something today, whether it was a project discussion or advice on proceedings or review of subcontractor submittals or, in one case, just a chat. Normally that would overwhelm me and stress me out, but today I’ve taken it one thing at a time and gotten done what I need to, what I was asked to and what the job required. It’s a huge step forward from where I was a month ago, when just getting an email would send me through the roof. #grateful