Most people have some form of trauma in their lives. It doesn’t mean we all have PTSD, but humans are built for resilience in part because trauma, pain and suffering are part of the experience of being human.
Trauma is often defined as situations where our healthy coping mechanisms are overwhelmed and we are left feeling powerless and helpless. It can be emotional or physical and both can be equally damaging. The classic DSM classification of trauma is a situation where someone personally experienced or witnessed a potentially life threatening experience, severe violence or sexual violence and responded to it with horror.
It is accepted however that trauma can be something major, like a loss of a limb in a car accident, or a rape, however it can also be chronic neglect, or verbal abuse, causing attachment trauma. The latter can also lead to helplessness and our coping mechanisms being overwhelmed.
Some theories talk about the trauma as being when the natural fight or flight responses are not possible and we just freeze instead. Then the physical or emotional trauma gets stuck in our bodies because we have no way to process them.
This fits with some of the most recent studies around the treatment of trauma, where affected individuals are cued to recall the event(s) and then invited to play a first person shooter game (this has been found to be especially effective in war Veterans), act out the desired physical response (not on actual people), focus on physical cues (Somatic Experiencing therapy) or imagine it vividly (Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy). All of these approaches help process and integrate the traumatic experience so we can move forward. There are many other very helpful therapeutic approaches for trauma, but these are not the focus of this blog.
DARK ROOM ANALOGY
One of the most common experiences after a trauma is to feel compelled to take the trauma and lock it away in a dark room.
We often get stuck in that dark room with it. We end up isolated, scared, and understandably jumpy. We try to avoid anything that reminds us of how scary it is in there and our world gets even smaller.
Because it is dark, we can’t quite see what is around us, or where we are exactly, so we are not sure how to feel safe.
Moreover, whenever a new detail happens to come to light, like perhaps seeing a spider in the corner, or a detail of a memory, maybe even one that would otherwise be self-evident (like the sensation of blood on our skin after an assault, even though we already knew we had bled), it can become hugely destabilizing and upsetting.
Any reminder of what we have hidden away in our dark room can make us feel unsafe for days, weeks, months or years. This happens in part because when our threat system is activated, we are primed to LOOK for more threats and dangers, so we often end up with more false positives which keep our fight or flight system turned on. When the threat system is on, we also ANTICIPATE more danger and INTERPRET neutral or ambiguous cues, like facial expressions, as threats or rejections more often as well. All of these also serve to keep that threat system turned on, leading to a vicious cycle. This is where mindfulness, self soothing techniques (hand on your chest, directly on your skin, while taking to yourself in a validating and calm tone), anchoring, or grounding (focusing on your present experience of all 5 of your senses to bring your attention to the present, instead of the past or the future which we are experiencing in that moment as dangerous) can be helpful. Although it has not been studied, I find clinically power posing is also helpful. These techniques help us settle our bodies enough to begin healing.
Sometimes, we get to the point that we can leave the room, but we still guard it, standing just outside the door. So it still stops us from being able to live our lives. Even when we get to that point, we feel the need to periodically check to make sure our trauma is still in the dark room, and we go back in. At this stage, intimacy with others is especially affected, because even though we may seem pretty functional in our day to day lives, we can’t let anyone get too close to us because they may see the dark room and we can’t have that, so we keep people at a safe distance. We let people get close, but not too close. We don’t allow ourselves to be seen.
Periodically, we get triggered whenever anything that connects to the trauma shows up and it either makes us go back into that room or back to guarding it. We may be triggered by conscious memories or associations, but we may also be triggered by unconscious connections, like sensations, smells, seemingly unconnected experiences (for example, we may not recall certain details of the trauma, yet we get triggered when we see something similar while watching a show).
So how do we deal with the trauma that is locked away in our dark room?
- Build our strength- do things that make us feel stronger.
- Eating well, sleeping well, exercising, connecting with others
- Engaging in self care and using the strategies that work for us to help us get unhooked from unhelpful thoughts and feelings, like blame, doubt etc.
- It is also VERY important to optimize our sense of safety in our environment as well, after all, no one processing anything while a car is rolling. We only begin to process emotions once we are safely standing away from the car, realizing we could have died. If there are a lot of stressors in your life and you lack a feeling of safety in your home or with your tribe, it will be a lot harder to process any traumas. It often takes longer and involves a lot of crisis management as we juggle to put out many fires at once.
2. Create a safe environment within ourselves so we have room to safely look at the trauma.
- Start by taking blame out of the equation, what happened doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault, we can start by just looking at what happened without blame. If this is not a helpful step for you, skip it.
- Then we VALIDATE and NORMALIZE for ourselves. We always do the best we know how to do at any given time, given our life experiences and circumstances. It is ok to be mad or sad about it, it is not ok to beat ourselves up for not knowing then, what we know now.
- Use the 3 C’s: Be CURIOUS about our own experiences, make time and space to reflect on this, be COMPASSIONATE with ourselves in response to whatever comes up (even if the choices we made did not turn out well or were not in line with our values), and have the COURAGE and willingness to stay with whatever comes up for us, even when it is not what we want our truth to be. Remember that feelings are like waves, they will peak and then pass naturally if we are able to stay with them. Sounds simple but it is not at all easy to stay with difficult feelings, so remember it is important to be compassionate with ourselves when we struggle to stay with them, and to listen to our bodies. Take breaks, self care, use anchoring, mindfulness and grounding.
3. Ask our healthy tribe to encourage us and support us as we prepare to go into our dark room when we are feeling strong enough.
- If we don’t have healthy tribe, it is important to connect with a therapist to help us with this step. We are a social species, we can’t heal trauma in isolation.
- It takes huge courage to go towards something that terrified us. We need support to help us stay on track and committed to doing what will ultimately be best for us.
4. When we feel ready, start exploring our dark room.
- We want to get to know our trauma and all of the details that seem to need to emerge for us, so it is not so scary…so it stops hijacking our lives when something related comes up.
- If we make and take the time to explore what is in our dark room by switching on the lights and leaving the door open, we get to be free. We get to move forward.
- Realistically, it is important to note, however, that there may always be details or situations that come up that trigger us, but the more we are open to processing and integrating our experience into our lives, the more it reduces the frequency of these occurrences, makes them less intense and they don’t last as long.
- It is helpful to also recall that we have a natural barometer that will stop us from processing anything we are not ready for. It will either stay blocked or we won’t be able to connect to the associated feelings or experiences.
- You can rest assured that even if what is coming up for you is terrible and feels overwhelming, you are ready to deal with it, otherwise it wouldn’t be coming up at all. We can trust our experiences and that our strong and healthy self will reveal what we need to know, when we need to know it.
- Anyone who has tried to force themselves to fill in gaps knows if we aren’t ready, it just doesn’t come.
5. Be prepared for MIXED FEELINGS
- Because positive and negative emotions track together, almost like they share the same space (See video re Feelings on our home page), as we increase taking care of ourselves and living as if we matter, we can expect that feelings of not good enough, doubt, shame and guilt about all sorts of things, going back to childhood even, will start to come up.
- Practice responding to these using the 3 C’s also. It is a natural part of the process. We need to deal with the things that have happened that make us feel unworthy of being strong and healthy as we are on our journey to becoming strong and healthy.
Here are some variants of Self Soothing which can be very helpful for people who are struggling to be grounded.