Recognizing the Trauma Response
For those of us with trauma baked into our life experiences, it can be an accomplishment in and of itself just to learn to recognize when our trauma is triggered, and when it’s not.
It’s important to learn to recognize both states and the transitions between them, as this will gradually teach us how to more consciously choose which state to be in.
Basic Bodily Happiness
When not currently in an emergency, our bodies will orient naturally towards feeling good (relaxed, comfortable, alert).
When I say our bodies feel good, I don’t mean high or with activated, intense sensations of pleasure, per se, as we might be used to from our addiction patterns, but something more like the pleasant neutrality.
The body is basically happy to be alive, unless we’re currently in an emergency OR thinking over past events in such a way that it feels like that emergency is still happening now, even though it’s actually over.
This is a clue to check with your body – if you’re starting to feel bad in your body, it might be your trauma. But let’s start with focusing on feeling good in our bodies.
Basic Bodily Happiness
The following exercise can help you explore how much basic happiness exists in your body in the times in between trauma-reactivation episodes.
Journal: 12 Tiny Body Happinesses
Identify 12 subtle tactile, physical body sensations that are neutral or mildly pleasurable at the body level, that you have enjoyed recently. Spend a little time describing each one.
Here’s one from me:
- This morning I woke up early and noticed that I felt a little chilly, and then I pulled the covers over my shoulders, which felt comforting and good. I felt warm and safe.
Look for easy wins: when you’re in the shower, when you drank your morning coffee, or when you splashed your face with pleasantly cool water. It’s the little things! It can be helpful to go through each of the 5 senses and identify pleasant things in each category.
My body likes the sound of rain on the roof. My body likes the scent of new marigolds.
Feeling Bad is a Clue
Unless you are currently in a life-threatening emergency your body “should” not be responding to life as though you are. If, technically speaking, your life is not at stake, but any of the following apply, you may be re-experiencing your trauma energies that actually belong to a previous event, but are coming up for witness now:
- You feel very, very bad, such that you feel like you have to change something right away or else it feels you’ll die
- Body is having a strong physical reaction, such as not being able to breathe, feeling mobilized like you need to move physically OR that you’re feeling numb and shut down (a little like a sort of quicksandy feeling)
- Your thoughts are noticeably activated, perhaps speedy or especially negative, it’s hard to think clearly, or suddenly especially foggy
Trauma is basically leftover physical body reactions from past situations that we did in fact survive, but we didn’t have a chance to fully process. If you’re not dying but you feel like you are or you might if you don’t take immediate action, that’s most likely your trauma.
What to Do if Triggered: Help the Body Return to Safety (without Substances)
If you recognize that your trauma is triggered, do your very best, with a lot of compassion and gentleness, to help your body return to feelings of safety. Do this by creating mild, neutral, pleasant feelings in the body (such as by deliberately creating some of the sensations on your Basic Bodily Happiness list).
It can be helpful to think about babies and what they need when they’re upset. They need to be responded to, held, soothed, sometimes rocked. Body needs the same thing and will respond to such things.
Practice These Tools
Hold Yourself and use the Mantra “I Am Safe”
Create a strong embrace around your torso, by lifting your left arm up, placing your right hand on your left rib cage, folding your left arm back over that right hand, and then letting your left hand cross to the right side of your body where it can fall comfortably on your right arm below your right shoulder.
This is a lot like crossing your arms, except your right hand is directly on your ribs close to your heart on the left side.
Adjust for comfort, but you should feel firmly held. While hugging yourself this way, repeat out loud or in your head, “One, I-am-safe, Two, I-am-Safe, Three I-am-Safe”…all the way to the number sixty. Breathe and let yourself feel your own hug.
Hold Each Finger One by One
In this technique, you hold each of your ten fingers one by one, this time taking three breaths with each finger.
Wrap the fingers of the right hand over the left thumb and feel what that’s like, breathe slowly and as naturally as possible, but with zero judgment about the quality of those breaths, three times, then move on to your left index finger, and so on. When you get to the right hand, you’ll use your left hand to hold your fingers.
Lay Hands on Your Activated Body Sections
Finally, you can try placing your hands over places where you notice sensations of activation. These tend to be head, chest, heart, neck, and belly, but can sometimes include legs and back too. Wherever you’re feeling the discomfort, place your hands there and just keep them still, allowing warmth and sensation to seep into the part of your body that’s unhappy right now.
If you do these three exercises repeatedly, your trauma activation will have a good chance of exiting your body system. But even if you aren’t fully successful in soothing yourself in the moment, you can trust that sooner or later your body will return to a non-traumatized state, so it’s mostly about getting through the activated episode somehow, someway, without using. You can do it, sister.