Get Your Brain Motivated to Recover From PTSD
The beginning of my PTSD recovery looked like this:
- Force me to go to therapy for one hour, once a week.
- I show up and expect the therapist to do all of the work.
- For the rest of the week, I pretend there’s nothing else to do and just try to limp through the days coping with symptoms of PTSD.
Why did I pretend there was nothing else to do? Because if you’ve ever, for a second, struggled with the effects of trauma or PTSD, you know what it feels like to be sleep-deprived, depressed, emotionally volatile, powerless, hopeless and sometimes, just downright utterly despondent. In that state of mind, I often believed there was no way to save me. I was crazy and would remain so forever.
PTSD Leaves the Brain Fearful, Fatigued and Unmotivated
The effects of trauma on mind, body and soul can cause enormous fatigue that saps any motivating energy source. Yet, overcoming trauma and PTSD means you absolutely must find a way to feel motivated, or: compelled to take the necessary actions to move forward. When you’re focusing all resources on coping, how do you find reserve energy to motivate you into healing actions? Engaging your brain’s unique mechanisms can help resolve the problem with little effort from you.
Why Is Motivation Hard To Create When You Live With PTSD?
Recently, I interviewed Megan Ross, the Trauma Therapy Coordinator at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center. She had an interesting take on why motivation can jump ship after trauma:
“Post-trauma survivors experience an awkward dichotomy: You don’t want to re-experience the trauma, so you don’t want to engage in trauma work. At the same time, if you have symptoms you are constantly re-experiencing the trauma. So, in the first scenario you lack motivation out of fear; in the second, due to the fatigue of symptoms.
The stress response that begins during trauma, and continues with PTSD symptoms, signifies the fact that your survival response has been engaged but then never appropriately disengaged. When you never find release for the trauma energy, or relaxation afterward, you will become very fatigued as you body and mind continue to climb up the survival ladder without ever experiencing what it means to come down.”
With fear and fatigue operating as your overriding experience, it’s not hard to imagine that marshaling a positive, resilient and proactive attitude is hard to do.
How Your Brain Makes Its Own Motivation in PTSD Recovery
According to Megan Ross, the science behind your brain’s ability to motivate generally looks like this:
Your brain likes and thrives on diversity. In fact, it operates more effectively and efficiently when it feels it has options and flexibility. In PTSD, when you focus solely on a repetitive perspective of the past, you actually restrict your brain and, hence, it’s processing abilities.
When you encourage your brain to shift perspectives, you encourage it to rewire, which is critical in healing. For example, when you notice joy in tiny moments (i.e. the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, or a path of sunlight on the wall), you allow your brain to engage in shifting away from the trauma story of the past to focus on something pleasant in the present moment. This enlivens motivation because it interrupts habitual firing of old trauma neural pathways and initiates new wiring of joyful experiences that build in greater flexibility for your brain’s functioning.
When your brain experiences something pleasurable, naturally it will be compelled to feel good again; neurological motivation becomes activated. When this happens, you can sit back and relax (relatively speaking!) while your brain seeks to recreate that pleasant feeling in other moments. The repetitive (what scientists call “massed”) practice of this kind of motivated action strengthens new neural pathways around joy, feeling good, mindfulness and being in the present moment—all things that enhance trauma and PTSD recovery and can reduce symptoms. The outcome of these changes can lead to increased strength to face fear and commit to the process of healing.
How to Motivate Your PTSD Stricken Brain to Recover
Megan’s scientific facts actually form a bridge between the science and psychology of feeling better. Your brain naturally turns on motivation when you allow it to diversify its experiences; your mind does the same thing when you give it diversity in its experiences too. Some ways to do that in the area of motivation include:
Experience – feeling good for even just 10-20 seconds has been scientifically proven to create new neural pathways. When you allow yourself to be open to experiences that feel good you give yourself permission to engage in your brain’s powerful neuronal connection processes while at the same time forming new memories that offer you insight into what’s truly possible for you to feel. Often, trauma trains you to think your emotional capability has been deadened. Truthfully, it’s waiting for a reason to re-engage.
Connection – in group therapy or conversation with a close and trusted friend you can observe, be with and share your experience of a motivating moment. Doing this extends the feeling, reduces isolation, expands your experience, deepens the neural pathways it creates and connects you to a secure sense of your own humanness, which can profoundly activate courage, compassion and kindness.
Desire – a key motivator for any action you take is your desire for the outcome. The more you feel good the more you will want to feel good, the more you will naturally feel compelled to take even the tiniest action that will help you achieve that feeling again and again and again. The cycle takes on a life of its own, driven by what is most important to you.
When you become aware that your Motivation Factor could use a boost, start asking yourself how you can more often orient yourself to the present instead of the past. Naturally, your trauma brain will tend to look back. However, you can balance it out by tuning into the present moment, allowing yourself to notice the tiniest sliver of what feels good, and then giving your brain repeated similar experiences as a way to activate motivation. Then, hold on for the ride. Once your brain’s motivating pathways engage you’ll find yourself more and more capable of doing what you need to do in order to be free.
Rosenthal, M. (2013, December 25). Get Your Brain Motivated to Recover From PTSD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, July 3 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2013/12/how-your-brain-develops-motivation-in-ptsd-recovery
Author: Michele Rosenthal
This is almost perfect. My only question left unanswered is, how do you find motivation when you become disillusioned with the capabilities of your own brain? My vestibular migraines and cognitive functions became so bad that I had to quit my job. Since then I've changed my life enough to realize that I may not be totally broken, but I can't use my mind the same as I used to, and never will. How do you fit that into this situation?
Thanks for a really good and insightful article, Michele. I came upon it while googling 'lack of motivation in the present moment', since I frequently feel mentally tired and without motivation, perhaps due to thinking too much about feeling better and more enthusiastic! When I'm like that I feel that my sense of awareness diminishes considerably.
This is a very helpful description of the recovery process - at least it helps me to understand my own recovery. The best thing for me was learning to play tennis by myself against a wall. I just focussed on tiny movements and small distinctions and was very much reality-focussed. I could almost FEEL my brain rewiring. Eventually I combined that with social tennis and continue to do so. The feeling of pleasure in the best and for me the most intrinsically rewarding motivator.
I also like gardening and swimming. It's a long journey back and I have had a couple of relapses along the way but this article really helps me to understand the process. Thank you.
Hi! Thanks for this blog. I found it after googling "motivation" and "after PTSD." It's a very thoughtful and informative piece.
I'm going through a really odd experience right now- and I'm pretty sure it's mostly my fault but I can't generate the energy to fix it. Basically, when I was a teenager, someone in my family committed suicide- I was there, and I think I developed PTSD. I went from being an effective person when really good grades to an ineffective person with no ability to concentrate, the worst short term memory you can imagine, intrusive memories the event and really bizarre sleep patterns.
This lasted over ten years. Then, one day, it all sort of went away. I just hit a point of extreme depression- couldn't cope with life- had a full meltdown... Before that, I used to always (just barely) pull it together and put up the illusion of success- or switch to something else in life right before failure hit in whatever I was doing- But that year I just couldn't do it anymore. I lost all motivation for anything for maybe two years- until I talked with someone who was directly connected to that night. We sat down and hashed out what had happened... and the next day I woke up feeling different. It was as if I had been carrying around a backpack of crappy feelings- and they were gone.
Now, you would think that would lead to being happy. But it left me really confused. It was like having a huge tumor removed- you feel lighter... but your gait and your stance and your reflection- everything- is thrown off. What to do- right? I just started doing... stuff. I'm generally happy now. But I'm still just putzing through life.
Things are different: I don't have intrusive memories anymore (in fact, I think I don't even care about it. it was such a long time ago)- I don't feel like it happened yesterday (it feels like it happened years ago)- I can concentrate again, though I still don't remember things well in short term- I don't spend most of my mental energy dealing with this. In fact, I don't spend any mental energy dealing with this- I focus on other things. And I think I'm happy.
But... I can't muster any motivation. I don't have it in me. I keep trying to accomplish things- basic things- career related things... and I just don't. I used to be driven. I have no idea what's going on. I think I became lazy. I never used to be lazy- but I feel like it. I don't feel any sense of urgency about things that should be important. Is this in any way typical?
@Eva -- VERY typical! (I love your metaphor of the tumor, btw. It's very appropriate.) Trauma becomes embedded in neural pathways and beliefs systems, so while you can cognitively come to understand something that allows you to feel lighter your brain and body still need to go through a process of retraining and rewiring with the new information. Often, they lag behind the mind's epiphanies. (Check out the "How Trauma Affects Your Brain" free webinar series here: http://www.ChangeYouChoose.com/webinar-archives)
Motivation is easier to engage when you are emotionally tied to the outcome of what you're seeking. What do you want for yourself, and why? Get clear on these things, plus how your life will change. Then, focus on them deeply and often. The more connected you become to a sense of desire the more motivated you will be to take the necessary actions for achieving it.
Hint: Start with small things first to get used to this process of reconnection before applying it to big things like career-related options.
What a powerful notion....to be motivated by pleasure other than push oneself to treatment as a desperate recourse to end suffering. Thank you for reminding us all that we are "allowed" to think about and experience pleasure.
@Bonnie -- I'm so glad this idea resonated with you! Not only are we "allowed" to think about and experience pleasure, we MUST so that the brain works as optimally as possible! Let's you and I spread the word about this so that others receive the message that healing can (and should) have moments that feel good. :)
What a powerful notion....to be motivated by pleasure other than push oneself to treatment as a desperate recourse to the suffering. Thank you for reminding us all that we are "allowed" to think about and experience pleasure.
Thank you for this informative and practical article! It couldn't be more timely for me. I've suffered from PTSD most of my life (many years of early childhood sexual abuse then the subsequent suicide of my brother just at the peak of my recovery which seemed to demolish all strides made to that point.) I've really struggled with motivation over the years. Ironically, the most motivation I ever had was to recover from my past trauma. I've been in therapy for many years and my therapist always told me I "worked" more than any of her other clients. I was so passionate and so dedicated to my healing. The only thing I can remember TRULY WANTING my whole life was recovery. I did all my therapy "homework" plus more...TONS of journal work, poetry, dance, TONS of self help books, workbooks, exercises, techniques, EMDR, Brain-spotting, etc. While I realize I've come SO FAR in recovery, I still constantly beat myself up for lack of motivation in other areas of my life. I always feel like I'm lazier than I should be and like everyone else is "busy" doing so many "busy things" while I still fight exhaustion, fatigue and depression. Since I did put so much time, effort and heart into my recovery but still struggle I feel defeated and as though I'm incapable of the recovery I've always worked for. I'm always desperately searching and praying for some way to get motivated and this is what I'd like most for the new year. These scientific neurological explanations and techniques fascinate me and give more things to try. I was never able to want anything because my life was only about survival for so many years. As an adult I've been stuck and paralyzed because I can't seem to manufacture desire for anything (other than wanting my deceased loved ones back). If I could truly want something, I think that would generate motivation. My tendency is still to always look back which just kills any hope of motivation. I will take the tips and suggestions from your article and try to shift my neuro pathways by giving them variety. Thank you for continuing to help others even though you've reached blessed recovery.
@Kyra -- I admire your passion for healing. While there's a time to funnel your energy solely into that goal, there's also the need for balance. For all the time you've spent healing, how much time have you spent living? By that I mean, re-engaging with joyful, fun, feel-good experiences that remind you what it's like to be happy to be alive? Often we forget to work both sides of healing: recovery actions and also, living just for the sake of enjoying 20 seconds, or even more. I wonder how your recovery might progress even further if you allowed yourself to be motivated by pleasure rather than pain.
Thank you for sharing all of this valuable information.
I haved suffered now 32 years of combat-related PTSD. I have a question that am hoping you might answer.
Am unable to work. For 3.5 years now I have had a headache, 24/7. Have had all the possible physical examinations and tests possible, which
indicated that I had no physical problem. The doctors agree that it must be stress-related. My question to you is this: could my headache be a response to my PTSD?
@Mike -- In a word, YES! Your mind is capable of producing 50% more stress than your body can handle. When you body reaches its limit it will let you know in the form of physical symptoms. So, it's entirely possible (since the medical tests reveal nothing) that your headaches are PTSD/stress related.
This was my story as well with bone, liver, intestine and stomach medical issues that couldn't be diagnosed or treated. The good news is that with psychological/emotional recovery the body usually experiences miraculous shifts. They thought I had possible liver cancer -- until after my PTSD recovery at which point my liver made a "stunning recovery."
My best suggestion would be to work on healing the PTSD. I'm sure you know there are many effective treatments. For some ideas, take a look here: http://www.healmyptsd.com/treatment
To hear firsthand about recovery and how it can happen check out the archives of my radio show which contain interview with trauma experts, survivors, scientists and practitioners all sharing personal date and information about how to feel better: http://www.changeyouchoose.com/archives
This is a great article to share with people who are struggling with PTSD--thank you!
@Kathy -- I'm so glad you like the piece! Motivation was one of my biggest problems in PTSD recovery so it was fun to learn this information and find ways to make it easier. Here's to how you use it for your best advantage in 2014!
Nobody expects the therapist to do all the work. That is just degrading to say. If they are in therapy they are obviously their for a reason. You can't force someone to go, they do it on their own. Some therapists just have no idea what they are doing and victim blame. That doesn't mean the victim isn't trying. The author needs to leave their negative opinions of victims out of the article. That instantly offended me and made me stop reading.
@ Brittany -- Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. As someone who sat in therapy for many years hoping my therapist would do the work, I can assure you there are people who do that. I held back my recovery for a very long time because while I was in the therapist's office I was, as you say, "obviously there for a reason", but that reason had very little to do with my willingness to face what needed to be faced or do the work that was required to heal. I was there because I was sick, not because I was committed to healing. Unfortunately, I hear from many survivors who initially approach therapy the same way, which is what I was referring to in this piece.
I'm so glad to hear that you are so proactive, focused and directed in your therapeutic work, that's fantastic and can help you heal even more quickly. It took me 9 long years to reach complete PTSD-free status. Once I started to actually do the work it sure was worth it!
I see value in both opinions! Too many elevate the stature of the medical professionals.
They of course are not all knowing and therefore not Gods! We must be our own advocates, yes! But, we must strive to find the best fit for us!
I had a horrible experience with my first PTSD therapist! He even got an appointment wrong, ok! Then argued with me in the lobby with the door open to the occupied treatment room!
After I produced my appointment card with the current date and time, he quickly blamed it on his computer. He gave me a card and returned to the current client and shut the door!
I went outside in the cold, surprised and grateful I was not crying (my reaction to everything)!
What this self serving, so called therapist, did not know was that I was unable to pay for a cab and my one girlfriend could not give me a ride, I walked those 15 blocks back to my apartment with horrible R.A. knees reeling in disbelief and increasing anger, that allowed me to ignore the pain and intense cold!
I also gained self-esteem and confidence I had lost a long time ago! So I guess you could say I dug up my self worth that day.
I have steadily been getting better with my current and fabulous therapist, N.P. Oh yeah, I phoned up the jerk (I am being honest here) and said his services were no longer needed or desired!
After a stumbling attempt of a poor "sorry for the mess up" I said bye and hung up!
This is first time I have thought of this experience, yea me!!!
No matter where you are in your medical or mental health issues, you must NOT just accept what you are hearing! Talk dammit! Participate, ask questions and take charge! Never let a professional or pharm. be in control! You are!
Look ma, no tears today!
I wish it was/had been different. But I really struggled moving out of the rut.
I went to therapy of my own accord. I wanted my therapist to give me a magic map, or a guarantee that it all would go as advertised. But he wouldn't. And for me in victim mode, it would have been easy to sooth me and then I'd be ripe to cycle again. When your experience starts in a disfunctional home you feel normal there; so to move you to empowerment will take serious personal growth and that for required time.
I read the article very differently. I heard this was Michele's experience. That's how he moved through it. I appreciate the insight
And the honest response ❤️
Your comment was posted over 4 years ago, but I just came across this very helpful and well written article today, and happened to scroll down to see what you had written. In the beginning of the article, the bit that speaks of expecting a therapist to do all of the work, was actually referring to that persons personal experiences which would prevent them from getting the help they needed for PTSD. It wasn’t accusing victims of expecting the therapist to do all of the work, or accusing a victim of anything in general. I just thought I would point that out in case you’d like to read the full article because I happened to find it extremely helpful and hope that you will to.