Trauma often robs us of the feeling that we are in charge of our lives. It can make us question the world and feel out of control in relation to our mind, body and emotions. Nobody can remove the trauma from our past but we can learn how to deal with and manage the imprint that it has left on our lives. The first challenge in our recovery is to reestablish ownership of our mind and body, of our self. What this means is our ability to know what we know and to feel what we feel without becoming overwhelmed, ashamed, enraged, or broken down. In this article, we will discuss important information about what is happening to us during these intense moments that do not line up with our current reality so that we can make sense out of what feels confusing and possibly senseless. We will also discuss the first step towards taking back control over our lives, becoming calm and focused and learning to maintain that calmness in response to disturbing thoughts, images, sounds, and physical sensations that remind us of our past.
Trauma is more than the story of what happened to us in the past. Trauma is also the emotions and physical sensations that were engraved in us during traumatic moments that we experience as disruptive physical reactions in the present. To understand more about trauma and how it impacts us take a look at our articles on trauma such as What is Trauma? and Complex Trauma: What is it? In order to regain control over our trauma symptoms, it is encouraged to revisit our traumas and confront what happened to us with a mental health professional. By learning how to feel safe within ourselves again, it allows us to retell our story in a way that doesn’t retraumatize us. To start the process, we first must find ways to cope with intense feelings, such as being overwhelmed by the sensations and emotions associated with our past.
This brings up another fundamental issue when trying to maintain a calm state, restoring the proper balance between our emotional and rational brains so that we can feel in charge of how we respond and how we live our lives. When we are triggered, we can enter a state of hyperarousal (i.e. reactive and disorganized, unwanted thoughts or images can intrude our minds, we can panic or fly into a rage) or hyoparousal (i.e. we shut down, feel numb, become sluggish, trouble getting out of bed) and we are pushed out of our normal state of being. Our emotional brain reacts to our body’s alarm system, or limbic system, which is what triggers our “flight or fight '' response to what it deems as dangerous situations. When we experience trauma our alarm system may become faulty resulting in it reacting to things that we have associated with our trauma, even if unconsciously, as dangerous. If we want to change our post traumatic reactions, then we must repair this faulty alarm system so that our emotional brain can go back to quietly doing its ordinary job. This means, in order to change how we feel, we must become aware of our inner experiences and learn to befriend what is going on inside ourselves so that we can retrain our alarm systems.
An essential tool to recovery and retraining our limbic system is learning how to breathe calmly and remaining in a state of relative physical relaxation while accessing painful or horrifying memories. When we consciously take a few slow, deep breaths; it decreases our arousal and helps our limbic system to return to normal functioning. This principle has been utilized for thousands of years and can be evident in ancient china and India and in most religious or spiritual practices. The more that we are able to focus on our breathing, noticing the air moving in and out of our lungs, the more benefit we will experience and our ability to control our arousal, both emotionally and physically, increase. If we think about the role that oxygen plays in energizing our bodies, we can imagine as we breathe in the oxygen nourishing our body, our cells, our tissue, our muscles until we feel our bodies relax with each breath. For more in depth instructions and details on different breathing exercises please check out our other articles that focus on different techniques such as Color Breathing, 4-7-8 Breathing, and Releasing Anxiety through the Body.
Once we can master going into a calm state, then we can focus on maintaining this calmness when we are experiencing the seemingly unbearable sensations of our traumatic responses. Avoiding these unpleasant sensations only serve to make us more vulnerable to being overcome by them. By practicing self-awareness we can start to notice what triggers us by simply identifying our nervousness, anxieties, or negative feelings as they arise. Simply noticing these things can help us to change our perspective and provide different options other than our automatic reactions. Mindfulness helps us to identify how transient or temporary, our feelings and perceptions can be. By recognizing the ebbs and flow of our emotions and paying focused attention on our bodily sensations, we can increase our control over them.
People who have been traumatized often can feel afraid of feeling. We may be nervous of being hijacked by intense emotions or feel like we may lose control. Our emotional brain keeps generating these types of sensations that leave us feeling scared and helpless even though the trauma is a thing of the past. In order to change this reaction, first, open yourself up to your inner experiences through self-awareness and mindfulness. This is simply being aware of how you react to things and being mindful about what feelings are being brought up for you. Next, notice how physical sensations change and shift depending on many factors such as moving your body position, adjusting your breathing, or shifting your thinking. Then label them, such as “when I feel anxious, I feel a restricting tightness in my chest.” Now, see how that sensation changes as you take a deep breath or tap some were on your body. Practicing mindfulness helps us to calm down so that you are less likely to enter a fight or flight state. If you are unable to tolerate the feelings that you are experiencing in the present then opening up about the past may only serve to retraumatize you and increase your suffering in the moment. We can handle a great deal of distress if we remember that sensations are always shifting. Mindfulness has been shown to have positive effects on both mental and physical health including stress-related symptoms, depression, blood pressure, and immune system response.
Reestablishing ownership of our mind and body can be challenging but is possible. By identifying how we are triggered and becoming aware of what is happening in our minds and bodies, we increase our ability to control our reactions and, in essence, begin to correct the faulty alarm system that our trauma has impacted and made us feel like it has gone awry. Through different calming exercises, such as breathing exercises, we grow our ability to deactivate ourselves, both mentally and physically, which allows us to intentionally go into a state of calmness. This skill is vital in bringing us back to our normal state and having more control over our own reactions and, thus, decreasing activation of our “fight or flight” response. When we feel like we have more control over ourselves and our reactions, it allows us to feel more secure and have the ability to process our past in a safer manner.
This article does not replace seeking professional help and if you are struggling to overcome your past trauma we urge you to schedule a session with a therapist you feel comfortable with. No one deserves to stay painfully in the shadows of their past and it takes a brave person to walk into the therapy office to confront this pain. Choose to take back control of your life today.