In one form or another, most if not all of us have experienced something in our lives we can label as a traumatic experience.
Trauma in its purest form is when our body and mind develop a negative emotional response to a perceived or active threat. We all have a fight, flight, or freeze response to anything we view as being a threat to us and it engages our bodies survival instinct system. Our bodies have a natural built in response based in our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. These responses when in a negative form engage our active sympathetic nervous system. This engenders more of a downward spiral in our emotions and can elicit responses, such as fear, anger, sadness, hypersensitivity, displeasure. This can create distortions in logic, concentration, and impulsiveness. It can also create physical responses that can create anxiety and even symptoms of disassociation depending on the trauma experienced.
Our sympathetic nervous system feeds from the mind to our body that we feel in danger even if an event has already passed or the event has never occurred in the first place. Our bodies go into a sort of autopilot mode. Before we realize it, we can find ourselves being disconnected or so far outside of our natural more centered selves. Scientifically speaking, our bodies need a certain level of stress to survive. Without an optimal level of stress, our bodies could not exist in real time or function in a proper manner. The issue becomes when we find our bodies being overrun or overtaxed by the stress response. When our bodies kick into a hyperdrive of sorts it dramatically increases blood flow to the heart, increasing heart rate that can cause irregular heart rate due to being overwhelmed from stress. The sympathetic dysfunction we feel from our autonomic nervous system creates a chain of events within us that can lead us down a bad path if we are not aware or possess the knowledge on how to emotionally self–regulate our bodies and minds.
The goal is to get us from being in a state of hyperactivity which causes increased heart rate, raises in blood pressure, and many other things to getting to a state of parasympathetic dominance. In order to do so here are a few things we can consider doing below:
1) Mindfulness/relaxation techniques – Our bodies are wonderful and complex machines with their own processes. Sometimes we all can go through a difficult time or even experience something traumatic. Trauma can range from your stubbing your toe on the edge of a bed, to having experienced physical or sexual trauma. It can be in a range from lower scale trauma to higher scale trauma but is nonetheless trauma. Engaging in some sort of mind/body relaxation can often help even if momentary for us to combat off negative feelings and thoughts. Exercise can be a great tool to combat trauma. Going to take a 15 – 30 minute walk every or every other day can help reduce stressors and help you reconnect with yourself.
2) Achieving muscle/body centeredness – According to Dr. Eric Gentry, Ph.D., LMHC from the Arizona Trauma Institute, if a body is in a state of muscle/body relaxation then no trauma can exist. He goes into many details as to how to adapt these changes in client’s day to day lives. One technique I learned more in studying his training program on clinical trauma is to get the body into a more tense, physical state. Sympathetic = Hot = Acceleration as Parasympathetic = Cold = Deceleration. A simple exercise of slowing and learning to control your breathing can help relieve the mind of stressors or perceived threat. Noticing where there is tension stored in our body is key to what we are experiencing. Tensing or clinching our different muscle groups for 5 – 10 seconds at a time and releasing can help the body achieve a more relaxed state.
3) Being aware of if we are experiencing an active or perceived threat – Oftentimes, after experiencing a certain trauma, it can create the sense of constant worry, anxiousness or the feeling of being unsafe. Many times, when we are engaged in sympathetic dominance, we are incapable of thinking logically, virtuously or being able to achieve rational thinking and responses. This can keep us in a state of being emotionally flooded and cause us to view nearly everything or even nearly everybody as trouble. Taking the time to engage our thinking more carefully and observing our own internal psychology can be crucial in understanding we are usually not in constant danger.
4) Seeking out therapy to address traumatic response – Therapy can genuinely help with addressing all types of traumatic responses. Oftentimes, trauma can heighten when one does not feel safe within themselves and therefore become prisoners in their own bodies. A therapist can provide a safe, unbiased, non – judgmental space for you to be able to express and process your thoughts, feelings, and emotions thoroughly. A therapist can help you in cognitive restructuring, psychoeducation as to how the trauma is affecting you and can develop a clear treatment plan to help you effectively utilize techniques from mindfulness, narrative/timeline therapy, engaging the parasympathetic system, and reframing, reconstructing your perception of the trauma. It can also help you to understand you are not your trauma and you are not defined by your trauma.