Positive reinforcement: a better way to motivate, especially when dealing with PTSD

PTSD aside, I’m a person.  People are motivated in different ways by different things, but an important thing to know is how to motivate people effectively and what’s going to be a huge, messy flop of an attempt that leaves emotional casualties in its wake that have to be cleaned up and fixed (which isn’t so easy sometimes).  Let’s boil it down to a simple formula that we can discuss: positive reinforcement works and punishment doesn’t.  I’ll give you an example from my own life.

I have Friend A and Friend B.  Both are trying to help me in their own way to improve my climbing abilities and motivate me to get into better physical shape.  Friend A writes out daily workout plans on sticky notes every day to give me as I come into the climbing gym, checks on me periodically to see how I’m doing, and says, “I’m proud of you,” every now and again during my session as I accomplish things on the workout list for the day.  This is positive reinforcement.  The result of this for me is spending two- and three-hour sessions climbing hard in the gym every day and gaining confidence, which creates a self-reinforcing cycle of behavior that improves my climbing ability and physical fitness for an entire week.  The next week, Friend B unexpectedly springs a contingency plan on me (you have to lose five pounds before I give you the photos from a major trip we just went on and the trip before that).  Friend B also says that if I want to keep up with Friend C and themselves, I have to get in shape.  The fact is that the contingency was laid down by Friend B and not myself (i.e. I didn’t say, “Hey, I want you to keep those photos that I’ve already waited anxiously for for a week until I lose five pounds,”), and it was sprung on me unexpectedly, seemingly for no reason (i.e. “What did I do wrong?”).  The idea that I was now the odd man out and not an equal in the group was also thrown in there – I was now excluded.  This is punishment.  My reaction was to give up, feel like I did something wrong, get depressed, and lose trust in Friend B.  I didn’t climb for a week because I was depressed and I felt like I didn’t belong.  Two friends, trying to accomplish the same thing in two different ways produced completely opposite results, as you can see.  For the record, Friend A and Friend B are both good people and have the best of intentions.  They just went about trying to motivate me in two very different ways.

Now, to Friend B’s credit, upon me notifying them of how I felt about what had happened, they rectified the situation as best they could immediately.  Enter PTSD.  There are some things that Friend B needs to know about motivating people in general, which are demonstrated above, but there are also some things that Friend B needs to know about PTSD and me.  Encouragement (positive reinforcement) works – it motivates me.  Ultimatums don’t – they shut me down.  Contingencies only work if they are a desired part of a pre-discussed plan that includes both parties and are agreed upon by both parties (not imposed on one by the other), neither of which is under duress or in shock.  As stated above, if I had come up with the contingency plan, it would’ve been a completely different situation, and good psychotherapists know how to make you think that you’ve come up with the idea yourself.  Punishments don’t work.  They only make people find ways to continue their behavior without getting caught instead of changing the behavior.  Friend B also needs to know that I have a very serious illness – PTSD – and that the neurotransmitters produced by such an event take a very long time (on the order of days and weeks) for my brain to clean up after they “explode all over the walls”, so to speak.  With my PTSD comes an overactive limbic system (negative emotions come easily and immediately in intense waves) and a crippled clean-up crew (neurotransmitters splattered all over hell take forever to clean up because my Zamboni barely works anymore).  This all affects me heavily in negative and prolonged ways.  It critically affects my ability to trust.  I don’t expect my friend to know all of this, but I’m putting it out there so that others can understand how PTSD affects me and many others who have this disorder.  Communication is important, and I’m doing my best to educate people so that we can all have smoother interactions and avoid some serious heartache and suffering.

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