In the mid-1980’s, I participated in a clinical trial conducted by the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia; the goal was to see if the treatment used with Vietnam Veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be effective for women who were survivors of sexual assault.
I was recently reminded of this clinical trial when I was cleaning out my file cabinet and found four dog-eared index cards.
Each three-by-five card had a heading, written in someone else’s cursive.
- Preparing for a stressor
- Confronting and handling a stressor
- Coping with feelings of being overwhelmed
- Reinforcing self-statements
Beneath each heading, in my own writing, are prompts and personal messages.
I don’t remember much about the program—how many weeks or months it lasted, if sessions were once or twice a week—but I do remember driving to North Philadelphia and meeting one-to-one with a therapist.
Reading these messages that I had written to my younger self, I realized that I have internalized many of the practices I was taught in this program.
The treatment focused on modifying behaviors, and one exercise I have practiced over the years is interrupting negative thoughts. The idea is to notice when my thoughts are spiraling downward and I am starting to feel overwhelmed; then I shout STOP.
It does not matter if I shout out loud or in just in my mind, the shouting interrupts the negative thought process and gives me a chance to change direction and regain control. For me, this has been an effective thought-changing process that has helped steer me away from negativity.
On the first card, under the heading Preparing for a stressor, I wrote three questions:
- What is it I have to do?
- What am I afraid of?
- What is the likelihood of anything bad happening?
Beneath those questions, I instructed myself to “get beyond my feelings to do the work that has to be done.” And then I affirmed myself: “I’ve made a lot of progress; I’ve come this far; I can keep going.”
Some of the notes to myself on the other cards include:
“Other people can do this; so can I.”
“Focus on plan of action.”
“There are people involved whom I can trust.”
“It will be over soon.”
“The anxiety (fear) will slow me down but I will not be incapacitated by it.”
The fourth card is a list of affirmations, including:
“Nothing succeeds like success.”
“Good job—pat yourself on the back.”
I don’t know the outcome of that clinical trial, but for me, the treatment was helpful, and over the years, I can see how I have built on what I learned. For example, after accomplishing a task that is particularly stressful, I now say, “Bask in the glow of success” which, to me, is a step beyond patting myself on the back.
I know that my faith was primarily what got me through that trauma, and the clinical trial at Women’s Hospital was a gift. I am grateful.