Trauma is the word we use for our response to any deeply distressing event that we have trouble coping with. In the short term, traumatic events can cause shock and denial, but over time, they can lead to feelings such as overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, fear or panic. In addition to these impacts on our mood, trauma can sometimes cause certain physical symptoms like panic attacks, poor sleep, or general body aches. Some examples of traumatic events include getting in a car crash, suffering verbal or physical abuse and experiencing discrimination like sexism or racism. Trauma has a huge impact on our minds and bodies, which can interfere with our daily lives for years after the event has happened. Gaining a better understanding of the ways our bodies respond to trauma will help us understand the tools we can use to cope.
It's important to understand how our brain responds to a traumatic event. When a traumatic event occurs, a part of our brain called the "amygdala" sets off alarm bells to warn us that we are in danger. When the alarm sounds, our brain releases a stress hormone within our body that helps us to prepare for reacting to the danger. Common reactions include fighting the attacker, running away, or freezing in shock. These are often referred to as the fight, flight or freeze responses and are controlled by part of our nervous system. When humans first existed on the earth, these responses are what helped us stay alive. If a predator, such as a bear, approached, our bodies would be ready to either fight, run away, or remain still. But how does this relate to us today?
You may have experienced one of these responses if you've ever had a teacher randomly call on you in class to answer a question that you didn't know the answer to. If you suddenly got anxious and felt your heart beat faster, this was your body reacting to a perceived threat (the questioning teacher), preparing you to respond. Maybe you froze in that situation, or maybe you wanted to run out of the classroom. In this instance, if the perceived threat were to go away, your body would likely return back to its previous relaxed state of being. So if, for example, the school bell rang before you got the chance to answer, you would probably feel a sense of relief, leave class, and continue on with your day as usual. The stress hormone would no longer be racing around your body and you would no longer be in fight, flight, or freeze mode. However, when a traumatic event occurs, whether once or continuously over time, our alarm bells go off and stress hormones flood our system and they don't return back to healthy levels, even when the event is no longer happening.
This is why the effects of trauma can be long lasting. They impact the way we navigate the world and our relationships. When our alarm bells are constantly ringing we may feel unsafe in our surroundings, which can lead to hypervigilance, or becoming overly aware of our surroundings. We might also have trouble trusting people who come into our lives or experience flashbacks if we are triggered by something in our environment. The high levels of stress hormones in our bodies over time can cause physical health issues such as heart disease, stomach aches, headaches, and chronic sleep issues. You can use the following tools to let your brain know that you are safe so that the alarm bells stop ringing. This will get you out of fight, flight, or freeze mode and into moments of peace.
Deep breathing: Deep breathing is a powerful tool to help us relax our nervous system (remember, the nervous system is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze response). When our nervous system relaxes, it sends a message to our brain letting us know that we are safe, and that the alarm bells can stop ringing. If this is your first time practicing deep breathing, you may want to lie down with your hands on your stomach so you can focus on the movement of your breath in and out. Try breathing in through your nose for 3 seconds, holding for 1 second, and exhaling through your nose or mouth for 5 seconds and holding again for 1 second before starting again. You can play around with the amount of seconds you take to inhale and exhale, but make sure your exhale is always longer than your inhale. Take at least 10 breaths using this pattern - the more the better. You can also text "breathing exercise" to Take2Minutes and you will be sent a link to a breathing exercise!
Mindfulness exercises: After experiencing a traumatic event, our brain sets off alarm bells, even after the event has passed. This means that we are preparing for a fight, flight, or freeze response even when we are in a safe environment. We can help our brain to know that we are safe by engaging in mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness pulls us out of the past and forces us to focus on the present. One exercise that you can do is the following: notice 5 things that you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Activities like coloring, playing an instrument, or playing a sport can also help bring your mind back to the present because they require your brain to concentrate on the activity at hand.
Therapy: If you have the means to access and afford a therapist, then I highly recommend looking for someone who is trauma informed and who has been trained in trauma informed care. Not every therapist has specific training to help people who are experiencing trauma. There are certain therapeutic approaches that trauma informed therapists will use to help in the healing process. Sites like Psychology Today allow you to filter your search for someone who is trauma focused. These therapists will keep your physical and emotional safety at the forefront of everything they do.
The impacts of trauma take a serious toll on our minds and bodies. By implementing some of these practices you can begin to retrain your brain out of fight, flight or freeze mode and back into a safe and calm state of being!