Trauma triggers, they come quickly and often unexpectedly. One second you are present and enjoying the moment, and the next you are agitated, anxious, and feel a surge of emotions running wildly through your body. A trauma trigger could be catapulted by something someone says, a noise that you hear, a song on the radio, a dream, a day of the year that stirs memories, or even a sudden flash in your mind that instantly flares up an internal tailspin. The heart races, tears well, sometimes anger engulfs, body movements are agitated and the sympathetic nervous kicks in and takes over - telling you to either fight, freeze, or flee (sometimes all of the above).
I was prompted to write this article because recently I was highly triggered by learning that the person that assaulted me decades ago was being released from prison. Upon learning this, the trauma tornado struck. I wanted to run, hide and cry (all of which I did in some capacity). First, I ran down a mountain, then I cried, then I spent a day alone at home feeling frozen with my feelings. That day, I was reading one of my go-to trauma healing books and came across a paragraph in the book The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk that stood out. In it, he wrote, "Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on in the inside." In other words, in the times of feeling triggered by trauma, we need to meet ourselves with compassion and then take empowered steps to realign with our deepest truest selves.
Out of my personal experience and having now done decades of trauma healing work, I decided to come up with a "Trauma Healing Recipe", one that combines practice and science, so that as triggers arise, there is a framework to turn to (that works). I share the 3 R's with you, because trauma is unfortunately Universal. It is something we all endure, from having life experiences. We love, we lose, we fight, we fear. We make mistakes, we hurt, we try and we fall. And...we also heal.
It is important to note that the trauma trigger methods I am writing about are for triggers that are caused by a past event. If you are currently experiencing a reaction to trauma that is presently occurring, please use this website as a contact resource.
Step 1. RECOGNIZE. An important first step in healing a trauma trigger is to recognize that what you are feeling is a normal reaction to past trauma. While triggers feel different for everyone, they are often described as overwhelming, depleting, exhausting, frustrating, disassociating, "out of body", and disheartening. But what is really going on beneath the surface is that your sympathetic nervous system, your fight, flight, and flee mechanism is activated and it is trying to tell you to do whatever you need to survive and to thrive. So, how do you take somatic control back? You start by naming it. What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What are the sensations you are experiencing? By putting a name to what you are experiencing, it is no longer a mystery, you are drawing this awareness out of your amygdala, the emotional center of your brain, and into your frontal lobe. From there, you are able to make conscious and empowered decisions on how you want to process and release what you are feeling.
Step 2. RELEASE. Coming up with your personal release plan is vital to releasing trauma when you are triggered. By moving the feelings through you, you are able to process them, let them go, and move forward. To release and reset your emotions, first, try equalizing and slowing your inhales and exhales with vagal breathing. This practice activates your vagus nerve which stimulates your parasympathetic (calm) nervous system, a natural signal to your body that you are safe. For this breath, inhale slowly to the count of 5, pause at the top, exhale for 5, and pause again at the bottom. Try this for a few minutes or until you feel yourself centered and more regulated. From there, move into more release practices. If you enjoy writing, or are open to it, carry a notebook with you and write down what you are feeling - without judgment. Just free-flow write and get it all out on the paper. Movement is also so helpful for healing. If you can, get outside and move your body to allow your endorphins, the brains natural pain reliever, to do the healing work for you. Crying is also so good and if you have someone to talk to that you trust call them or meet with them and share what you are experiencing. Write down your own personal release plan with the release methods that work for you. That way, you will automatically know what practices to turn to when you are triggered, easing the stress on your mind and body that much sooner.
3. REFRAME. How you talk to yourself (in your mind or out loud) during a trigger and on a daily basis plays a significant role on how you feel about yourself as well as how you get through moments that are difficult to process. One way to directly shift any negative self talk is through affirmation statements that emphasize what you value. In an in-depth article written by The Washington Post, Christopher Casio states, "Affirmations seem to engage regions of the brain associated with positive valuation and self-processing." When you reframe your mindset through an affirmation, start with an "I AM" statement that is positive and true to you, and includes what you personally value. For example, when I was triggered and ready to reframe, I said to myself, "I AM sad and overwhelmed and exhausted because the man that assaulted me was released from prison and it brought up fear and anger. I released it by moving my body, crying, slowing down, calling my friend, and resting. I AM now being present and going to enjoy this day with my daughters while holding compassion for myself." Through this statement, I acknowledged how I felt, met myself with kindness and forgiveness for how I handled it, and then reminded myself of what I value most - present time with my daughters. For your affirmation, remember to acknowledge what you are feeling with self-kindness, meet yourself with compassion for how you are releasing it, and realign with the present moment by focusing on a core personal value.
If you have questions about triggers and trauma healing, please contact me at [email protected]
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