Trauma Part 2
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
PART 2: TRAUMA AND WHAT MIGHT BE HELPFUL TO DO ABOUT IT
So, here are a few tips. This is just a selection, not an all-inclusive list and I would strongly encourage you to do your own research and find your own, unique path towards healing. None of these things are likely to work right away, they require some practice, maybe with a trained specialist. Not all of these suggestions appeal to all people. Find out what works for you. Give it time and be kind, gentle and empathic towards yourself:
1) Safety first
It is a myth that we have to minutely re-tell our trauma to someone in order to heal. If it doesn’t feel right, it might even be re-traumatising. Listen to yourself, to your inner gut feeling. If you are getting a sense that this isn’t right for you, don’t do it.
When talking about trauma in talking therapy, a useful skill to learn before approaching trauma work of any kind is to know how to dip in and out of the traumatic story as it was experienced. I always do this with my clients. If it gets too much and you feel in danger of becoming overwhelmed or even triggered, you want to be able to put on the brakes and reconnect with the here and now. This also helps with feeling more in control and more self-empowered. This is your process; you decide what feels right and what doesn’t. I always respect this.
One way of forming a sense of safety and control is to create a “safe place” in the imagination. I can help with this. It needs to be somewhere completely without negative associations and, ideally, without other people as they can be ambiguous or complex regarding the emotions they represent. It is therefore best to imagine a fantasy place which oozes a sense of comfort, safety and wellbeing. Some people choose a beach at sunset, some create a fairy tale place with mythical creatures – whatever seems right for you. Take your time with this. Add as much sensory detail to this place as you can in your imagination, smells, sounds, the texture of soft, warm sand, etc. You might feel that things just suggest themselves; maybe an animal wants to come in as well. You do not need to tell anyone about this, not even your therapist. This is private and special to you. You can both work in silence and just communicate as much as feels right.
Then practice visiting this place when you are calm, until it becomes easily accessible when you recall it in a situation of mounting distress. You can go to your safe place any time during your narrative, stop there, refresh yourself, then decide if you want to continue with the trauma work or talk about something different, something lighter for the rest of the session.
Some people like to create “anchors” for this purpose and sometimes this term can mean different things, depending on the literature you read. One understanding of it is a small, portable object that does not come from “trauma time” but has happy associations in the here and now, like a pebble from a happy outing with family or friends. The only risk with this is that it might get lost or you might forget it at home and then you might feel insecure which is counterproductive because it can make the world look like a dangerous place again.
Your imagination and your safe place within it is always with you, you can never forget it at home!
2) Grounding techniques
Involve the senses in the here and now when in danger of getting triggered or feeling in danger of being swept away by the past or in danger of dissociating or working up towards a panic attack. Practice this when you are calm so it comes easily in case of a crisis. Again, not all of these skills appeal to all people; find what works for you:
· Name three blue (green, yellow, purple, birds, dogs, trees...) things you can see.
· Eat something that tastes strong/good. (Some people carry a lemon in their bag...)
· Smell something you like (perfume, essential oil, etc.)
· What can I hear? Listen to some calming music.
· Touch something soothing, cradle a hot cup of tea, stroke or wrap up in a soft blanket, a weighted blanket, have a hot bath, light a candle, etc.
· Give yourself a hug by crossing your arms, stroking your upper arms with the opposite hands.
· Put one hand on your chest, one on your belly. Focus on your breath. Do this gently and with self-compassion. If your mind is busy, just acknowledge this without judgment. “I notice my mind is busy....” When you can, go back to your breath.
· Tap acupressure points, hold your forehead, tap on collar bones, in the middle of your chest, etc.
· Hold on to something comforting, hug a soft toy, etc.
· Connect with your breath. Out longer than in, pause after every out breath. Or: “Door frame breathing”.
· Connect with the ground under your feet. Walk barefoot mindfully.
· Count backwards from 10
Create a positive feedback loop to your brain stem and do things you wouldn’t be able to do in a real emergency, i.e. if the sabre-tooth tiger would be nipping at your heels. This communicates to your system that “all is well, there is no danger” and the alarm bells will stop ringing.
· Talk softly and calmly
· Chew gum or eat/drink something to salivate (you wouldn’t be able to calmly eat/drink something while running away from danger)
· Breathe deeply (out longer than in – maybe in on the count of 3, out on the count of 4, then pause, then in on a count of 3, etc.)
· Have an open body posture, relax your hands, your shoulders, etc.
3) What are my triggers?
If I feel that my reaction to something in the here-and-now is somehow over the top or off the scale, chances are, the past is coming up and interfering with my responses - I have been triggered.
It is possible to be curious about my triggers; after all, they show me the original wound which I might not have been able to recall in direct memory. So, if you can, try to be curious about what triggers you and the story behind that. Be very kind and self-compassionate with yourself when you do this. Again, I or another trained therapist can help by providing a safe and confidential environment for this kind of exploration.
If I experience something akin to a panic attack when I unexpectedly find myself in front of a locked door, although there is another way out and I have my mobile phone on me to call for help, chances are, I have experienced something similar in the past when I wasn’t able to help myself. I can now try and be curious about this incident; is it likely that I was locked into a room or into another space as a child? If it doesn’t make sense, that’s ok, too. I still have just learned about the way my brain has come up with a comparison that something about the current situation “has a similar flavour to what happened then, so it must be the same, dreadful situation all over again. ALARM!” The amygdala is sending our system into the stress response, stress hormones are being released, etc.
It is not the actual situation that is making us feel bad, it is the way our body is reacting to it.
I can be triggered into different states; anger (fight), running away (flight), the collapse of my system - I become passive and detached (freeze/flop) or a heightened somatic sensation like a very unpleasant feeling in my chest, a weight on my chest, brain fog, increased rates of heart beat & breathing, increased perspiration, nausea, etc. Usually, a person’s system has one “favourite go-to stress response”, for example the need to isolate themselves.
Once I have identified one or two or more triggers, I have options. Choices can help me feel more self-empowered and less at the mercy of my awful sensations unleashed by the automatic stress response.
What do I want to do about it? Do I want to avoid these situations for a while so that my nervous system can calm down and the amygdala has a chance to re-set to “No Alert”? Do I want to learn coping skills like “breathing out longer than in” and telling myself “this is not that same (person, dog, etc.) from the past, this is a different (person, dog, etc.) in the present” and allow myself short exposure to the trigger? Do I want to enlist the help of trusted people who I can be vulnerable with and tell them what triggers me so that maybe they can help me in some way? Do I want to talk to someone who might have been affected by a trigger response of mine in the past? Do I want to talk to a counsellor to address my initial “baggage” so that I might be less susceptible to triggers?
Be kind to yourself, reacting to a trigger shows the initial trauma wound.
There are various different ways of doing Mindfulness and all of them are grounding, wonderfully gentle and allowing. They also encourage the “neutral observer” who, once cultivated, can step in to help us detach from negative automatic thought cycles (rumination) and to prevent being swept away by the tide of our automatic stress response.
One really helpful phrase during this gentle and non-judgmental self-observation is “I notice”. Once I am able to say “I notice I am starting to feel agitated” (or whatever else it is I am noticing about myself), this in itself is often soothing and reassuring, I am more in control.
Mindfulness also fosters self-acceptance and self-compassion. It can be very helpful in countering the urge to continuously compare myself unfavourably to others.
Mindfulness is also good for building connections between the brain’s alarm system and the frontal lobes so that I get more time and with that more choice before I am in danger of hurtling down the automatic path of my stress response.
In the age of technological advance, there are now also things like a Mindfulness APP called “Headspace”.
All this helps to re-set the amygdala and strengthen connections between the brain’s alarm centre and the frontal lobes.
5) Yoga, Tai Chi, Dance, Meditation, etc.
Traumatic imprints can also be stored in the body, not just as memories in the brain. This is especially true for pre-verbal trauma.
If you are interested in learning more about this, Benjamin Fry’s book “The invisible Lion” explains very well the effect a stress response cycle which wasn’t allowed to come to a positive conclusion in the past can lead to stuck energy in our body.
It can be really grounding and healing to re-connect with the body in a positive way. Trauma often needs to be addressed by more than talking to include the whole system. Splash through the puddles in the wood in your willies! Go for a walk. Enjoy the fresh air. Go for a swim. Go for a run. Connect with nature. In short, anything that can help to return the autonomous nervous system to a regulated state.
6) Different therapeutic approaches carried out by trained specialists, such as:
· EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming). (For single event trauma)
· PBSP (Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor)
· Inner Child Work
· IFS (Internal Family Systems Model)
· EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)
· Somatic Experiencing
· Energy work. Trained specialists can find energy blockages in the body and release them, etc.
7) Externalise your trauma.
Draw a picture that represents your trauma, write a story about it, give it a colour or shape in your imagination and talk about that mental image to your counsellor. Find a metaphor for how you feel about it or how you feel when you are being triggered. You can then work with the externalised content and shift and change it until it feels at least manageable/bearable and then internalise it again as your new viewpoint of what happened to you. “Yes, this happened to me, it was awful, but I am more than what happened to me then - and now I am safe.” All this helps integrate trauma memories into the time line of your life, rather than being triggered and feeling as awful as when the original event happened over and over again.
8) Cultivate feelings of Gratitude.
Our systems cannot be angry, stressed, fearful and panicky at the same time as experiencing gratitude and genuine appreciation. For example, smell a rose and really look at its beautiful petals – tell yourself how wonderful this is, what a gift. This also helps with feeling safer in the world.
9) If you feel that way inclined, discover your spirituality, reconnect with your Faith, join a group, volunteer, etc.
10) Try out (or re-connect with) something creative:
Singing, music, dance, colouring in for adults, drawing, crafts, gardening, etc. Whatever floats your boat.
Your inner child will be thrilled!
Have a healthy diet, eat regular meals and sleep long enough. Turn off all screens at least one hour before bed time. Rest. Sometimes we can just be, enjoy the moment, and enjoy not thinking about the next thing to be ticked off the “to-do-list”. Talk to your GP if you are taking medications long-term, check if the dosage is still the right one for you, have a blood test if you are feeling tired or worn out too often, consult your GP on health matters. GPs can also advise regarding matters concerning mental health.