Charliiy Berry journal: dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder

Rider journals 2021: Charliiy Berry #06

Charliiy Berry was one of nine riders who kept a journal for The British Continental in 2021. Charliiy is a full-time physiotherapist and is part of the Rocacorba Collective. In her final journal entry, Charliiy shares her experiences of dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder…

Last season I found that sometimes during a race I become frozen; not cold, but mentally frozen. Unable to move forward through the bunch, unable to think about race decisions with clarity, my mind was paralysed.

With this in mind, I gave myself a new focus this winter: getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

It’s like my brain is highly sensitive, it’s a faulty fire alarm. EVERYTHING is fire

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is when your body is stuck in its defence mechanism. I’m sure you will have heard the phrase ‘fight or flight’. Well, when you suffer from PTSD, you have abnormal levels of stress hormones like adrenaline which trigger a flight or fight reaction in the body.

Concerned about this, I went to my GP. A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with PTSD and put on a waiting list. I later started the first line of treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I have completed multiple different types of therapies before but with PTSD you can need a slightly different approach. 

Photo: Oliver Grenaa Visuals

I had kind of known for a while that I might be suffering from it; it was one of the first things my doctor told me to look out for after Jay’s death. Add to that a fairly big crash and being strapped to a bed on a spinal board and it’s not hard to see why. Near the start of the 2021 season, I sought help and that’s when I was diagnosed with PTSD.

It affects me every day, sometimes also in races. It’s like my brain is highly sensitive, it’s a faulty fire alarm. EVERYTHING is fire. Kind of like a really bad game of ‘the floor is lava’. Brains are just trying to keep us safe, but having seen and experienced things that not many do, thankfully, it is less naive now to the dangers of the world. It’s quite tiring having an alarm going off constantly. 

I’ve proved to myself multiple times over the last year that I can race and race well when my head lets me 

Some have said that maybe I should give up cycling because of my head and maybe it’s too much coming back after Ireland –  fair comment. But the way I see it is, my brain thinks everything is a tiger. It perceives very normal things to be dangerous. So if I stop doing all the things that scare me or trigger me, I’m not really going to get that far or be doing that much. I know that I can do it, I’ve proved to myself multiple times over the last year that I can race and race well when my head lets me. 

Curlew was a great example of how this can be overcome. Mid-race I was happy to be ‘just getting round’. With one particular section of ‘rough’ road, my head was trying to tell me ‘DANGER’, back off and be cautious. But when we then entered the final short loop I was fired up and ready to race for the win. No one was taking my place on my lead out, I fought for my position. 

Photo: Oliver Grenaa Visuals

So, how to overcome PTSD? I can’t speak for everyone but I have found CBT really helpful. I like how practical it is compared to talking therapies;  I’m not one for sitting down to talk to another person about my feelings and emotions, I often feel quite disconnected from them. I’m also really interested in trying ‘eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing’ (EDMR) therapy, a fairly new, nontraditional type of psychotherapy. There is good evidence that it facilitates people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. 

So, I’ve spent the winter challenging that PTSD fire alarm, mentally and physically. There is still a long way to go. But hopefully, with the right treatment, and some time and patience, things will settle. 

Featured photo: Oliver Grenaa Visuals

Find out more

Charliiy Berry journal #5: weight matters

Charliiy Berry journal #4: imposter syndrome

Charliiy Berry journal #3: the long-awaited return to racing

Charliiy Berry journal #2: let’s talk about Jay

Charliiy Berry journal #1: how to get through injury

Rider journals 2021: introducing Charliiy Berry

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