I woke up this morning feeling a familiar tension in my neck, exhaustion from a general lack of restful sleep, and dread. It’s been that way for about a week now. After watching the debate last week of America’s two presidential candidates and watching COVID-19 diagnoses run rampant through our county’s leadership, my body has done what so many bodies do in the face of stress: tense up, get ready to fight, flight, freeze or fawn, and then remain in that state until there’s enough evidence around you that the risk of hurt has passed.
Except the risk isn’t lessening. It’s amping up in the current season, isn’t it? For many trauma survivors, this is a season where our bodies just can’t calm down. We’ve had past traumas that have taught us that we aren’t safe yet, so we keep ourselves alert and ready to survive the upcoming threat.
After that debate, you might be experiencing:
Tension throughout your body
Frustration and anger
Difficulty concentrating or focusing on work or school tasks
Easily annoyed with your partner, children, or colleagues
Focused on doom + gloom
Difficulty feeling close or comforted by others
Difficulty calming down
Hyperactive startle response (I jumped to the ceiling when someone walked up behind me yesterday in my own safe home).
Hypervigilance about what terrible thing might happen next in the world
Difficulty sleeping or feeling rested in the morning
Increased need for sleep (more naps, sleeping longer, missing your alarm)
Increased reliance on food, alcohol or other substances for comfort.
All of these are signs that your body is amping up its internal resources to help you survive something that you’ve internally categorized as threatening. Triggers do that. They imitate or look familiar enough to your trauma that they send your body into an involuntary response.
But you aren’t required to stay in that involuntary response. In fact, we can intervene and help our minds, bodies, and hearts calm down in this season of stress. Here some ideas of how to do just that.
Think “turn down” when trying to downregulate your body.
Your body is having an intense reaction right now. No need to shame yourself over it, but you can help yourself calm down. Think about your nervous system amping up to respond to the threat of trauma. To intervene, we want to turn it back down. This can be as simple as turning down the intensity of whatever you are interacting with in your everyday life.
Turn down the volume on TVs, radios or music.
Turn down the volume of your voice when speaking.
Turn down loud appliances.
Turn down the lights.
When your body is in fight, flight or freeze mode, your muscles are involuntarily constricting in order to get ready to survive the threat. Oftentimes, if you have a history of trauma or managing unpredictable environments in childhood, you have to intervene on your body’s behalf and help yourself release the constricted muscles. The best way to do this is to stretch. For those with a trauma history, this can be annoying because stretching is oftentimes the most uncomfortable experience. We actively avoid it when our body is not ready to release the tension that is preparing us for survival. If you actively avoid stretching or your internal voice prompts you to abandon your efforts to stretch, that is completely normal. But stretch anyways. Your physiology will try to keep you on the defensive, but your body really does need an intervention to help you calm down.
Pick three stretches and hold each for 5 minutes while breathing.
Set 4 alarms throughout the day to stretch your arms above your head, take a deep breath, shake out any tension and then continue with whatever you were doing.
Lay on the floor and stretch through the crown of your head and the heels of your feet. Try to pull your spine in opposite directions.
Your body is showing signs of tension (if you endorsed any of those symptoms above) and sending signals that your body can calm down is a helpful tool. I suggest diaphragmatic breathing.
Then find time to breathe once in the morning and then before you go to bed. You can stop and breathe anytime. That is the benefit of breathwork. It is always at your disposal.
Identifying the abusive behavior and then seek safety.
Something (or many things) have triggered you. For me, it was the gaslighting. Once you’ve identified the behaviors, words, or interactions that triggered you, your job is to reassure yourself as best as you can that you will keep yourself safe and try to distance yourself from the triggers. Notice that we aren’t addressing our trauma right now (that’s done in therapy!). We are simply noticing the feelings, taking them seriously, and finding safety. This might mean practicing some of the following:
Practice mantras like:
I am safe.
I am feeling my feelings.
I will survive this feeling.
These feelings happen sometimes and I am paying attention.
Thank you, body, for letting me know. I’ll handle it from here. You can rest now.
Manage your safety by:
Talking to a safe person about your experiences.
Taking a break from exposure to triggers (turn off the TV and read a book instead).
Making an appointment with your therapist!
Reaching out to your support group and finding reassurance that you are not alone in these feelings.
We’ve got another difficult month ahead of us. One of the most meaningful things you can do for yourself this season is to make a self-care plan. This is to help downregulate your automatic responses, honor the ways your body is telling you that you are stressed, and help you with all that pesky adulting (pay your bills, show up to your doctor’s appointment, make a plan to vote, etc).
If you need more educational resources on trauma, its impact on our bodies, and the ways we can better manage our healing, we have an online collective called Traumastery and you can join at any time. It’s a cost effective way to get 12 months of trauma education, meditations, monthly webinars and much more. We’d love to have you join us.
If you need more individual support, we have a team of trauma therapists at Gideon Psych that are ready to step in and help. You can schedule a free 15-minute consultation here.
Hang in there, team. We will get through this together.