Written by Gwen Blumberg Islam, LSW, Clinician for High Focus Centers in Paramus
Often after experiencing trauma, the body can start to feel disconnected or even like the enemy, and reconnecting to it can be a scary thing to consider. There was likely a time when being in your body was a painful place to be, and it might have seemed safer, and even necessary, to disconnect from it.
There’s a good chance your body might still experience pain or discomfort as a result of past trauma, and it’s only natural to have an initial urge to avoid that. However, because trauma has occurred in the body, it also plays a critical role in healing in a variety of ways. To help you through the healing process, we’d like to share 6 ways that your body can be an ally during trauma recovery.
1. Understand Your Body’s Response to Traumatic Experiences
The more you know about why your body and brain respond the way they do to traumatic experiences and reminders, the better your ability to navigate them. It is important for you and your supporters to recognize that your fear response is no more of a conscious choice than it is to jump when startled
As humans, our brains are composed of different parts that serve different functions. When our brain identifies a threat, such as a reminder of past trauma, the older, more primitive part of our brain that acts like an alarm system initiates the fear response of fight, flight or freeze. When we are experiencing that fear response, the thinking part of our brain is no longer able to function the way it does when we are calm. That’s why our thoughts may get scattered or our minds may go blank, it may be more difficult to find the words to talk and feel almost impossible to think logically about what we should do.
Depending on our type of fear response, we may end up lashing out at others, avoiding, or shutting down. While these responses can be incredibly painful, it doesn’t mean that you are “broken” or “bad”- it is actually the brain doing exactly what it has evolved to do over thousands of years to keep us safe in what it perceives as life-threatening situations.
When a person has experienced trauma, the alarm system in the brain can become hypersensitive to perceived threats, and lead to these responses happening much more frequently even when there is no inherent danger anymore. When we can recognize this response is happening, we can more effectively manage our resulting thoughts, feelings, and actions.
2. Ground Yourself with Your 5 Senses
Traumatic memories can pull you into the past, while anxiety and hypervigilance project fear into the future. If you connect with your body in the present moment, you can get some distance from the thoughts that do not serve you. After all, the present is the only place where any of us can create change.
You can ground yourself by looking around your surroundings for objects tied to your five senses. Try to find:
- 5 different things you can see in the room
- 4 things you can physically touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell,
- 1 thing you can taste.
Did you notice anything you didn’t before? If you are going to a stressful event or talking about your trauma, try holding a grounding object (a worry stone, beaded bracelet, or fidget toy) or use a strong, pleasing scent such as a diffuser or essential oils. Focusing on the physical sensations while you talk can help you stay clear and grounded.
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3. Create Body Awareness
Getting in touch with your body sensations can help you gain a better understanding of your triggers, catch your responses sooner so you can use calming techniques, and give you a better sense of what tools will be most effective.
Take a minute to scan your body. Take an inventory of any particular sensations that you’re feeling:
- Are you holding any tension in your jaw, shoulders, or stomach?
- Does this tension grow when you are in stressful situations?
- Do you experience frequent stomach problems or migraines?
These can all be important messages your body is communicating about how you are responding to your environment. These sensations can be really uncomfortable and even debilitating at times, but when you can learn to listen to rather than judge these responses, you’ll be in a much better position to soothe your body and your mind.
4. Unfreeze When Experiencing Flashbacks or Dissociation
The thinking part of the brain gets overrun in moments of extreme distress, so it isn’t something you can think your way out of. Because of that, it is much more effective to use techniques that involve your body rather than your mind to help regain control when triggered.
Focusing on intense sensations (like holding an ice cube) can help when you are frozen, overwhelmed, or disconnected. You can also try stomping or clapping and focusing on the sensation in your hands and feet. After you stop clapping or stomping, continue to focus on just the physical feeling for as long as the tingling sensation continues.
5. Connect with a Safe Person or Pet
While this may not be an option for everyone, safe physical contact like hugging or holding hands with a person you trust can be a very effective way to regulate emotions. If it feels safe to do so, looking at the face of a beloved person or pet can also help your body calm and soothe at a deeper level than words alone would.
6. Take Care of Your Body to Increase Resilience
Taking care of your body is critically important when trying to manage strong emotions. If you are tired, hungry, or in pain, it becomes much harder for the thinking part of your brain to accurately assess threats. This in turn leaves you more vulnerable to strong emotional reactions.
It is common after experiencing trauma to develop behaviors to try and cope that can have negative impacts on long term wellness, like disordered eating, substance use, or engaging in other high-risk behaviors.
Increasing physical wellness through addressing these concerns is a foundational piece of recovery. Yoga, dance, and exercise have been found to help not only with mood and overall health but can also be especially helpful in trauma recovery because they increase your ability to move in and out of states of stimulation and relaxation.
If you are not sure where to start, that’s okay! Start slow and remember that safety always comes first. Any healthy shift you make is a step toward healing. That may mean just taking the time to learn a little bit more about the biological impact of trauma, or maybe it’s getting sober, addressing some physical health concerns, or trying a new grounding skill.
Whatever you do, please remember that you do not need to go through this process alone, it’s not your fault, and you are not broken. You did not choose what happened to you or the way your body responds to traumatic experiences. You can choose to get help and it is here when you’re ready.
Start Your Recovery from Trauma
Traumatic events can happen to anyone. Every individual who experiences trauma will respond differently to the event or series events. As a result, every individual requires a unique treatment plan that is tailored to fit their recovery needs.
At High Focus Centers, our team of mental health experts offer support and recovery through personalized trauma treatment programs that utilize a variety of evidence-based therapeutic techniques. Contact us today to start your recovery from trauma.