Trauma! What is it and How to Manage it.
Updated: Jan 11
Trauma is a word that is being thrown around more and more. But have you ever wondered what it exactly is? Well, through the lens of somatic experiencing, trauma is a response to an event that happens in the nervous system. In contrary to popular beliefs, trauma is not caused by the even itself. For example, two people might experience a car crash, but only one of the two might find the event traumatizing. What happens with the nervous system is that when faced with a particular circumstance, it assess whether there is a threat or not and will prepare the body to fight, flee, freeze or fawn. This is something that occurs in our everyday life and that is essential to our survival. Our body is constantly looking and assessing whether it is safe or threatened, even when we are not aware. For example, if you hear a startling noise, you will initially look to see where it comes from. Instinctively, your body will assess whether a real threat is present and your nervous system will instinctively charge up some energy in your body to either mobilize or freeze the body. You might even naturally simultaneously grab on to the wall near you. If there is no threat the energy will discharge itself and you will return to a state of calm.
Basically, the nervous system sends electrical impulses throughout the day that gently fluctuate to keep our energy levels in a manageable range. However, when faced with an overwhelming situation, that nervous system charge might be so intense that it floods the system. Because traumatic event are often events that occur fast, the body does not always have the time to complete the movement to run or to freeze. Then, the survival energy gets stuck in the body and presents itself in the form of symptoms. The nervous system energy that used to gently fluctuate gets stuck on either high or low. When it gets stuck on high, this might look like hyperactivity, panic, rage, hypervigilance or mania. When it gets stuck on low, people might experience depression, disconnection, deadness and exhaustion. Interestingly, trauma does not always only occur in an isolated event. In fact, it can occur over repeated events, such as in the case of childhood abuse. Trauma might also occur when there is not enough support after or during the event to support the energy to be released from the body.
While trauma can be quite disruptive and often requires therapy, some tools might be helpful to manage triggers. Some people find that some work better than others, so it might be good to experiment with different ones to see which works best for you. Often, when a trigger occurs, it will make people feel like the event is still happening today, even if it occurred 20 years ago. Triggers might also come out of the blue and its source may not always be obvious. However, they are usually reminders of the event that was traumatic and can bring feelings that were experienced at the time. For example, someone might get depressed every year at the same month where a traumatic event had occurred. Therefore, a lot of management tools are based on helping people come back to the present time, to remind the body that the threat is no longer active.
One of the somatic tools that can be used is the felt sense. This might consist of feeling the sensation of your feet flat on the ground, by noticing sensations such as the hardness of the floor, its cool or warmth feeling, whether one foot is holding more weight than the other, etc. You can even visualize that the ground raises a few inches above your foot, just like it would if you were walking in the sand. Then visualize and feel how the ground holding you still and steady. This can be used at anytime, even when standing with your eyes open and can take only a few seconds. This is especially useful while feeling triggered while in the presence of other people. Some people prefer using their breath as an anchor to come back in the present. Again, this consists of shifting the focus on the sensation of breathing to help bring the attention to the present moment and regulate the nervous system. For example, you may bring your attention to the sensation or temperature of the air entering the nostrils, or the sensation of the ribs or stomach expanding and contracting as the air flows in and out of the body. Finally, it might be helpful to find a place in the body that feels calm, safe or gentle, such as your sit bones on the chair or the back of the chair supporting you for example. In this case, you can focus on the sensation of your bottom being supported by the cushion, or notice whether it is leaning more on one side versus the other. In the book “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine, he talks about moving from the sensation of a difficult emotion (such as tingly, prickly, pressure, burning, etc.) to that place of safety in your body, and moving back and forth between the two until it the trigger settles. There is no right or wrong way to do this, simply remain curious and see which one works.
Some people prefer using other senses such as the visual or auditory senses. For example, you can look around your room and see if something calming, grounding, loving or supportive catches your attention. Really observe every details of it, while noticing the feeling that it brings in your body. It might help to note its shape, size, or color, and you can even bring in touch with the object to intensify the connection to the object. You can also imagine your acting as magnets, which bring the objects straight to you. This can help you really take in what you are looking at. And finally, you might prefer to listen to every sound that you hear you. You can bring you attention to distant sounds, loud sounds, quiet sounds and sounds that might be closer to you. Play around with it, and see what happens.