Symptoms of a Trauma Trigger or Stressor:
Narrowing Vision (or tunnel vision)
Hypervigilance or “On Guard” and Reactive/Jumpy
Saying what you don’t mean or reacting more strongly than the situation warrants
Racing heart, rapid breathing, “freeze” in body
Flashbacks or intrusive thoughts/images
Avoiding and leaving situations/hiding
Urges to use unhealthy coping mechanisms (binge eating, alcohol, cutting, over-exercising, over-working to ‘perfection’, etc)
Feeling of “panic” and needing to escape
Negative thought cycles or snowballing worries
If you have an unprocessed trauma history or PTSD diagnosis, it is often hard to feel safe or calm.
Our nervous systems are wired for survival and, when a traumatic event occurs, it sometimes goes into overdrive- or doesn’t stop after the event. This can leave you in a constant state of “fight, flight, or freeze” where the body doesn’t know that the event is over now. Because the nervous system is on high alert, trauma survivors sometimes react more quickly or intensely than the current situation calls for. It isn’t your fault by any means, but you often need specialized support in order to feel more calm and in control again.
This blog will highlight a few resources and tools that many of the clients I work with find useful. This isn’t a replacement for therapy, though can be a good starting point. There are many types of trauma treatment available to survivors of trauma these days that can help resolve the triggers and help them find relief. For more information about a few of these, see my trauma resolution treatment page. If you are a survivor of trauma and resonate with the symptoms noted and wish to engage in trauma focused treatment, consider outreaching a trauma therapist to discuss the therapy options available to you. You can also contact me here for support as well. You don’t need to do this alone- it’s normal to need help. Having support in this healing journey is often necessary for survivors. In this blog, I’m outlining some of the skills that I teach in therapy and that my clients have reported useful to them in their process. It can be a useful place to start. Everyone is different, so notice which ones resonate with you and which ones don’t.
10 Skills to Help Find Your Center:
Stop, Take a Step Back, Observe, Proceed Mindfully. Before using any other skills, you want to be sure you are actually safe and have some capacity to make decisions. This is a DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skill that is used to pause before proceeding with any other skill. You use the skills when you know you are not in current danger, but you feel a strong reaction/your body is responding as though it is in danger. For many people, when they feel triggered (or have an emotional response that is greater than a “6” on a 1-10 scale where 1 is no distress and 10 is the most distressing experience ever) they need a break to get calm before they can make the next best decision.
This one is a simple but effective CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) exercise to reset our nervous systems. Practice it daily or multiple times a day to support retraining your nervous system. To use this skill, find a relaxed breath- don’t try to force it. I imagine having a balloon right below my ribs/by my diaphragm (which is your low belly). After an inhale, exhale out of the balloon for 5 counts, then inhale for 4 counts. Keep this pattern of inhaling for 4 counts, exhaling for 5 counts, in the lower belly for 10 or so cycles. You can change the number of counts you need/rhythm that works for you. The important thing is to have your lower belly activated with rhythmic relaxed breathing and a slightly longer exhale. This is because the longer exhale from the lower belly activates the parasympathetic nervous system- which is the calming side of our nervous system. If we breath in our upper chest and “hyperventilate” then we make ourselves more anxious.
“I Am Aware”:
This skill is used in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy and various mindfulness practices. It is useful to bring you into the present moment and out of the trigger memory, which allows our prefrontal cortex to re-activate. Once our prefrontal cortex is re-activated, we are then able to make more balanced decisions. To practice: look around you and name 3 things you are aware of. For example: I am currently aware of the succulent sitting on the window sill, the round shaped mirrors on the wall, and the sounds of the keyboard as I type this. Keep naming things that you are aware of until you start to feel a little more settled. Be gentle with yourself.
When your head is spinning and thoughts are racing after a trigger, sometimes it is helpful to give our brains a task to slow it down. Try counting backwards from 100 by 3’s for as far as you can. Alternatively, count the number of items of a certain category in the room/space (such as “count the number of picture frames”, “count the number of trees,” etc).
Our nervous system responds to visual cues and visualization similarly to real events. This is why competitive athletes or public speakers often use visualization before performances. This skill is used in EMDR Therapy, Art Therapy, and in Mindfulness Practices. To take it a step deeper than visualization only, you can create a picture of this space, or take a picture, to remind yourself of this resource whenever you need it. To use: Take a moment to imagine either a real place, or a place you would like to have/create for yourself in your mind’s eye. This place should be safe, calm, and dedicated just for you. Examples clients have told me include: a cabin in the woods with nature around them, by a river/water, in their apartment with their dog, under the stars at night, in bed with their cat, in their office, or next to a tree in their backyard. This place will be unique to you. Imagine being there and notice what you sense around you (see, touch, smell, hear,). Notice how your body feels when you do this and give it time to ‘anchor’ in your nervous system.
To use this skill effectively, we are shooting for a sense of feeling protected, supported, and potentially more powerful. To use it, take a moment to imagine what kind of figure you would like or wish you could have as a protector. This might be an imagined entity (dragon, bear, superhero, force of nature, etc) or a real entity (animal, person you know who is safe, etc). Bring in as many as you need, imagine placing them in the space around you and notice how your body feels as you visualize them with you.
Talk to a Friend (but not to vent/ruminate):
Getting support or talking to friends is natural for some people. It can also be a healthy way to not feel so alone and have a helpful second set of eyes on a situation. Identify people in your life who respect and love you. Also, be sure they are someone who knows how to listen and help you calm down versus the friend or family member who will escalate the situation (by getting more angry or anxious with you, or jumping to conclusions/reacting). Hint: sometimes getting together with a friend to distract with a healthy activity can be the best bet. Letting them know you are having a hard time and need to shift mindsets can help to both acknowledge the trigger but not ruminate in it.
Distract with a Pleasurable Event:
This one is a DBT skill that is useful for learning how to self-sooth. When you aren’t triggered, identify a list of things you enjoy doing. Bonus if they engage the 5 senses (taste, smell, sound, sight, touch). Examples include: a cup of warm tea, getting outside in the sun, looking at the skyline, gardening, playing or listening to music, wearing a soft sweater, working on a project you enjoy (woodworking, art, cleaning the house, sports, fishing, planning a vacation, trying a new recipe, etc), enjoying a meal or treat, using essential oils, taking a bath, talking to a friend, or spending time with a pet. Make your own list and ask others for ideas if you get stuck. Then, if you are ever triggered, use some of these events to distract and calm down. Or, if not triggered, use them just for enjoyment/to re-enforce pleasurable feelings that are healthy.
Distance- Zoom Out from the Situation:
This skill is useful if you are having trouble with intrusive images/memories or replaying a situation in your head repeatedly. In your mind’s eye, turn the intrusive image/flashback or memory into a movie screen- as if you are watching the movie rather than in it. Then, zoom out from the movie screen until you are at a distance that feels less intrusive/more calm. Notice what it is like to have control over how close the image is to you- or even when it stops and starts.
Move-Shake it Off:
After we are triggered, there is a significant amount of energy running through our bodies. It can be helpful to find a way to “discharge” this extra energy. Peter Levine studied animals in the wild and noticed that after an escape from a predator or dangerous situation they “shake it off” to discharge the adrenaline. As humans, we have learned to control our impulses and hold things in/not allow ourselves to discharge. Let yourself cry, shake, and/or move, without any story or trying to figure it out. To do this, go somewhere you feel safe and comfortable to start. Then, shake your hands and feet, slowly building to adding your arms, legs, and shoulders/body. You can even jump up and down, or move in a circle. Anything to get the energy moving and out of your body. Hint: You can also use dancing, something faster paced/rhythmic to discharge.
Skills are a useful resource in our recovery journey, though we often need relational support as well.
The skills above are used to support your nervous system in developing new neural pathways that are wired for calm. It can take some time to rewire the brain/body, so be patient and kind to yourself as you practice. Also note that not all skills will be right for you, listen to your own body and learn how it responds to the different resources provided.
I like to remind my clients that skills can help, but we also heal in reparative relationships- particularly if the trauma we experienced was relational in any way. Some people find healing relationships in friendships or partnerships. Others, find they need specialized support from someone who understands the path of trauma resolution and healing. If this is the case for you, consider reaching out to a trained trauma therapist.
About the Author
Aiya Staller is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Addiction Counselor, and Board Certified Art Therapist who sees private clients in Boulder, CO, while also working with various mental health organizations. She specializes in trauma treatment/resolution, body-based psychotherapy, art therapy, anxiety, and LGBTQ+ concerns. She is an artist, interested in inspiring others to connect more deeply with their authenticity and resilience.