Have you ever had the experience in which you’re out with a friend and you’re having the best time? You’re both laughing at the outfit of the person next to you and reminiscing about that time you thought an outfit very similar was super-hot. Next thing you know you’re talking about the ex-boyfriend and how badly things went between the two of you. You share that story (again) where he yelled at you and you slammed the door in his face. Before long you realize you’re feeling pretty crappy. You notice that your shoulders have slumped, that your breathing has gotten shallow and the muscles in your face are sagging (not a good look). How the heck did that happen? How did it go from a good time with a friend, laughing and having light conversation to wanting to crawl in a hole and suck your thumb for the next 10 years?
Painful things that happen to us can get stored in the brain as trauma and what that means is that the brain goes into and stays in survival mode. Even things like a breakup or a bad fight with our partner can be stored in the same area of the brain where surviving a hurricane gets stored. When we start to talk about them, the survival region of the brain gets activated and the rest of the body can begin to experience the same emotions and sensations we had on the day of the original event.
Our brains want to naturally make their way to healing and we mistakenly think we can create some healing by talking about or reliving the moment he called us the B word. We replay those memories in an effort to get healing. However, we can’t get the healing we desire by replaying or reliving the event. Going back to the moment of the event only retraumatizes us. We heal when we can recognize that this thing we feel so powerfully now is not actually happening now – that it happened in the past.
In my trauma training I learned the statement “keep one foot in the past and one foot in the present” when working through trauma. The pain of these memories can be so overwhelming that our brains get hijacked and we struggle in discerning whether the event is historical or happening in the moment. Losing the grip of trauma requires a “one foot in the past and one foot in the present” mindset to keep the brain from going in to survival mode. Imagine trying to take a walk in the park when there are police sirens blaring and emergency personnel scurrying by. All you can do is give your attention to what is immediate and looming large in your face. Walking stops and maybe you even freeze.
- Be Aware Of Your Body Language
Remember how we talked about the body changes that happened to the woman in the scenario above? Her shoulders slumped, her breathing changed. Our bodies are powerful communicators. If we pay attention to the signals our body is giving us, we can abort trauma mission and get ourselves back to the fun of socializing. Take time throughout your day before you’re triggered to notice what your body posture is and pay attention to the natural rhythm of your breath. If you know what your normal is and spend a few moments a day noticing that, you’ll be more sensitive to changes in your normal. In that way, you can quickly notice the subtle changes when your body is signaling DANGER!
- Keep Yourself Grounded
It’s natural for us to share and reshare the stories and the details of our lives. That is how we connect closely with others so I wouldn’t suggest we all together give up sharing. I would suggest that you find a way to ground yourself in the present. Grounding simply means drawing attention to one of your senses. As you retell the breakup story notice all the red items in the room, sniff a bottle of your favorite essential oil or take your shoe off and rub your foot on the carpet. My personal favorite is to eat some creamy chocolate ice cream. Any of these activities will help the body and brain recognize what is different about now from the time of the event.
- Keep It Contained
Our brains are really responsive to containers and to limits. Establishing a predetermined amount of time that you will discuss painful events can help keep the reactions contained. Having a gauge on your emotions will keep things from getting overwhelming. For example, I might say to myself that if I begin to cry I will take 3 deep breaths, assess where I’m at in my brain and body (and especially my heart) and determine if I want to continue. I may also give my friend permission to help me contain my response so I let her know that if she notices my pitch changing or the loss of eye contact, she can call time out on the topic.
- Take Care of Myself
A mind, body and spirit that are well cared for are less susceptible to the experience of reliving. The investments we make in ourselves on a daily basis guard us from some of the side effects of trauma. Taking time out to fortify our bodies with healthy whole foods, exercising in a way that is right for our bodies and giving attention to our spiritual needs is the armor we need to be able to manage the unfolding of traumatic responses in the brain.
If we want to let go of the past, we have to straddle the present and the past quite masterfully. The benefits of applying these strategies is that we can become the driver of our own bus. Putting in the effort to take care and not relive gives us the strength and energy we need to move forward.
Lydia Kickliter, LPC
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