Perhaps you have experienced some of these situations:
- You had a scary medical or dental procedure, and you've never really recovered.
- No matter how hard you work at your job, it will never be enough. You don't feel like yourself anymore.
- You've been rear-ended and never been quite the same since.
- You've had a painful relationship breakup and you can't move on. Your mind plays the scene over and over like a broken record.
- You were shy and bullied as a child, and have felt anxious since.
From these experiences, how can you tell it's just the stress of challenging life events or trauma?
Here's the Critical DifferenceIn stress, you can do something about the situation. However, in a traumatic experience, you can feel helpless to change the outcome, because it was unexpected, uncontrollable, and inescapable. Stress turns into trauma especially when you feel the double bind of shame or guilt.
Fight, Flight, or FreezeIn trauma, your nervous system responds in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze.
Unlike your wild animal cousins, your sophisticated brains override the organic intelligence of the body and remain in these traumatized states:
- Fight. Restless, clenching, protection gestures, irritation, anger, twitching, cold sweats, jaws clamped
- Flight. Hyper vigilance, sleep problems, restlessness, feeling trapped, sense of urgency, easily startled, chronic pain
- Freeze. Numb, withdrawn, confused, in shock, memory problems, tired, disconnected, depressed
As these uncompleted trauma patterns accumulate, it's hard to remain present and resilient. In its wisdom, the nervous system may draw you to people and events that reenact the dilemma to help complete these "stuck" patterns.
Talking About It May Not HelpCommon sense would suggest that you should talk about these painful experiences. However, talking about trauma can actually make your feelings of helplessness more intense and reinforce our dilemma.
How to Heal TraumaThe good news: Trauma symptoms are caused by your reaction to the event, not by the event itself. By changing your reaction, you help the nervous system discharge these patterns. To break the negativity bias of the brain and start to release trauma, do something different. Experience healthy pleasures.
These take your brain out of "fight or flight" mode. It's like pushing the "reset" button on your furnace:
- Let your eyes look for beauty. Notice what your eyes want to see. Look around and relish what you see.
- Utilize Touch. Safe and enjoyable touch with pets, massage, dancing, holding hands, and hugs release oxytocin.
- Come to your senses. Observe your body sensations with curiosity, watch and wait to see what happens next as the wisdom of your body is engaged.
- Breathe deeply. Notice how your pet or child breathes, and remember how to breathe down to the pelvic bones.
- Express gratitude. Saying "thank you" is a prayer that says "yes" to life and breaks the negativity bias.
- Use SoulCollage?. Working with images, unleashes a tide of well being in the body.
- Practice Buddha Smile. Let your lips curve up in to a tiny smile, and notice the wave of relaxation that slides down your body.
- Try Somatic Experiencing. Work with a therapist who can help you learn how to let your nervous system return to its natural rhythm of activation and relaxation.