If you are struggling with any of the above trauma-related reactions, the best plan of action is to see a psychotherapist. Recovery from trauma or PTSD can be difficult and painful but it is much better facilitated with support from a trained professional.
To find out more: How Trauma therapy (and Skype therapy) Can Help You. That being said, here are some measures that may help you cope with trauma-related stress symptoms.
We have all experienced situations in which we felt overwhelmed. Many times the situation itself causes us to become stressed. But often with trauma-related stress, intense feelings and bodily sensations come on suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere. Because traumatic experiences affect our emotions, our thoughts, and our bodies, the most effective treatments target all of these areas.
Calm the thinking
Recognise that you are not ‘going crazy’. Even though your emotional and physical reactions may not make sense to you.
Acknowledge that the fear response is not your fault. Though it might happen to you at the worst possible times, don’t beat yourself up or blame yourself for the perplexing reactions. It is unpleasant (and sometimes downright scary) but it is your brain’s way of protecting you.
Accept your emotions and bodily sensations. If you begin to experience anxious sensations, don’t try to control or stop them, notice and accept them. Often the more one fights stress sensations, the worse they become. Anxious feelings come in waves; even when they are intense, they eventually subside.
Reassure yourself that you will get through this. Our brain reacts differently depending on whether we believe that we can handle a stressful situation. If we believe that we can handle a stressor, our brain prepares us for a challenge, heightening our thinking capabilities. If we believe that we cannot handle a stressor, our brain prepares us for danger, heightening our physical capabilities. Our heightened physical arousal then hinders our thinking brain’s ability to calm us down. Read more about this here.
Connect with someone. Connecting with someone you care about, even with just a short phone call, can release bursts of oxytocin (bonding and soothing neurochemicals) into your brain and calm your mood as a result.
Become self-aware. Begin by paying attention to what you are thinking and feeling, and how these are linked to specific bodily sensations. Understanding our inner experiences takes practise, so practise on a regular basis, especially when you feel stressed or anxious. Mindful meditation trains you how to do this.
If your anxiety arises from too much attention to your anxious thoughts and bodily sensations – and you feel overwhelmed as a result – then read more about Anxiety.
Name it to tame it. When we articulate what we are going through, we are able to make sense of the impact that our past experiences have on us now. Neuropsychiatrist, Dan Siegel, suggests that just by telling someone or writing down these experiences, we diffuse the fear and anxiety that they cause.
Remember that you are not alone. You share similar reactions with millions of people who have experienced trauma in their lives. And you can always contact me to work through it.
Calm the emotions
Engage your senses. Place your hand on your heart. Trauma author Lisa Graham writes that ‘Neural cells around the heart activate during stress. A warm hand on the chest, in the area of the heart centre, calms those neurons down again, often in less than a minute’.
If you know you are about to go into a stressful situation, place your hand on your heart and imagine that you are in a safe place. Conjure feelings of warmth and wellbeing.
Hug someone. Similar to talking to someone, studies have shown that ‘a 20-second full body hug releases oxytocin in the brain’. Just like when you talk to someone, physically connecting with someone in a positive way triggers bursts of oxytocin (bonding and soothing neurochemicals) and makes us feel better.
Calm the body
Breathe deep. Deep belly breathing works because it activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (responsible for our body’s rest and digest signals) and relieves anxious feelings. Practice deep breathing exercises before you enter into a stressful environment.
Practice yoga, dance, or mindful movement (Tai-chi or Chi gong). Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk suggests, repetitive and skilled movement stimulates both the emotional and thinking parts of our brains. It heightens our body awareness and directly calms our arousal system through focus, breathing, chanting, and movement.
Get good at it so you can use it any time. We can strengthen our capacity monitor and control our bodily sensations with practices like Mindfulness meditation and yoga. Van der Kolk, found that, ‘ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment’.
Though these steps can alleviate your post-traumatic stress symptoms, they don’t address the underlying traumatic memories. Trauma has a way of popping up again and again if not treated. If you feel overwhelmed by your traumatic memories, you can contact me or a therapist in your area. Most importantly, you don’t have to do it alone. Read more here: How Trauma therapy (and Skype therapy) Can Help You.
References and Contributors
Alan Baddely. (2016). Memory and Learning. The Brain From Top to Bottom.
Ruth Buczynski & Peter Levine. (2016). Why It’s Critical to Understand the Role of Memory In Trauma Therapy.
Anthony Damasio. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.
Paul Gilbert. (2010). The Compassionate Mind.
Helpguide.org. (2016). Traumatic Stress. Recovering from the Stress of Experiencing or Being Exposed to Traumatic Events.
Joseph Ledoux. (1998). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.
Joseph Ledoux. (2007). Emotional Memory. Scholarpedia.
D.E. Linden. (2006). How Psychotherapy Changes the Brain: The Contribution of Functional Neuroimaging. Molecular Psychiatry.
Catherine Pittman & Elizabeth Karle. (2015). Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry.
Dan Siegel. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
Dan Siegel. (2010). The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration
Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
Ann Wetmore & Claudia Herbert. (2008). Overcoming Traumatic Stress: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques.