I recently had someone ask me if I could walk them through a real-life scenario and explain, step by step, what to do when past trauma gets triggered and the system gets flooded with survival energy. How to come down? And what to do if they are in a place where it’s not safe to stop and process the experience?
A great question! So I thought I would share my answer with all of you, because this is very good information for everyone to have.
This question also brings up another question that can be answered in a very similar way – what happens if you don’t get “triggered” per se, but you fall down and hurt yourself or otherwise get overwhelmed in some way that, if you didn’t take the time to process it, could become a trauma? I’ll provide a walk through of both of these scenarios, and also explain what to do if you’re in a situation where it’s not safe to process.
So first lets go through an extreme example, that also has ideal circumstances, of what to do when past trauma gets triggered. I’m going to use an extreme example because it would require the most attention and follow through, and everything I describe could be scaled down if it’s a less intense experience. I’ll also describe what to do if the circumstances aren’t so ideal as in this example.
I guess I should say *trigger warning* since we are going to be describing a hypothetical traumatic situation. The person who asked about this was a woman, so this scenario applies specifically to women, but all the principles could be applied to any “triggering” situation involving any gender.
You and a friend are hiking in the woods and having a lovely time.
Then a group of loud, aggressive young guys, who are stomping along and drinking beer approach you on the trail, going the other way. They go by you without incident but you smell the beer on their breath as they pass, you can hear their objectifying and demeaning comments regarding you and your friend’s bodies as they walk away, and one of them actually looked a lot like a guy who had assaulted you at a party in high school, years ago.
Then your heart is racing, heat rises, you’re panicking and terrified and at the same time you start to feel checked out and unable to connect to the forest around you… full on trauma response.
Fortunately you’ve had training in this stuff so you know that the first thing that needs to happen is to connect to safety in the environment and that social engagement is one of the best ways to do this, and you have a friend right there who is also tuned in. So you stop and just tell your friend what is happening – you hug her and feel her presence of safety.
While you are connected with her you let your eyes scan the forest and notice the green and the textures. You let your eyes see that the group of guys is actually gone down the path and let your ears notice that you can’t hear them any more, instead you listen to the wind through the branches, you see the green, you feel your friend.
This brings you out of dissociation and you start to feel much more “there”. But the shaking and tremors are still moving through your body. As you allow this to happen, knowing that it is simply your body releasing the survival energy, some sobs emerge and tears flow. And then, after the grief, you start to feel rage. Rage that you have to get triggered like this all these years later, rage for the injustice of what happened to you, rage at the idiot who hurt you.
Luckily you and your friend saw the video on YouTube of Irene and her husband demonstrating a way to release rage in a safe, embodied way. You also both have read Seth’s article on Healthy Aggression, and so when your friend sees your anger emerging she says, “hey! let’s do that arm thing”.
So you take her forearm in your hands (knowing that as long as you squeeze and don’t twist you can squeeze as hard as you can and not hurt her) and you put all that rage into your hands. You squeeze and you imagine his neck in your hands as you squeeze. You squeeze and you snarl and growl and you FEEL that heat and energy surging up through you.
You also read Seth’s article on annihilation work, so in your mind’s eye, as you squeeze your friend’s arm, you squeeze your attacker’s neck until his head pops off and his decapitated body falls dead to the floor and you stomp on it (actually stomping your feet on the forest floor) and smash him until there is nothing left of him at all – all the while really staying connected to, and feeling, the effort of that in your body, allowing the emotions of sadistic glee, victory and savage triumph to flow as he is totally annihilated. (This is key – if you don’t stay connected to your body while doing this kind of intense work it does nothing and can even be re-traumatizing. You have to feel safe and be embodied to do annihilation work effectively, I go into more detail about that in the article).
Then that energy is simply gone! You allowed it to rise up and protect you in the way that it couldn’t back then, and has been wanting to all this time. You’ve turned a triggering experience into a powerfully healing one. You feel fantastic! A little sore and achy but filled with alertness and vibrancy and keenly aware of the forest around you – the detail, the colour, the scents. You have a great day and the next time a bunch of stupid guys pass you on the street you feel a little echo of that alarm, but it is greatly dissipated.
Now.. on the much subtler side of things… This is an example of what to do to keep a small injury from becoming a trapped trauma, which can happen very easily due to our societal programming that encourages us to suppress and repress, especially if we have already had this habit ingrained more deeply from previous traumas.
You are walking down the street and you stub your toe badly and go sprawling. Instead of immediately picking yourself up in embarrassment and continuing on as if all is fine, you pause.
It’s not a busy sidewalk so it is safe just to lay there for a moment and feel yourself. You notice that your toe hurts quite a lot but other than that you seem to be ok. You roll over and crawl to the side of the sidewalk where there is some grass and sit down there.
You let yourself orient to the surroundings – the cars driving by, some people on the other side of the street walking, the sky, the clouds, the grass underneath you, the feeling of the ground supporting you. As you do this you let go of a breath you didn’t realize you were holding and a deeper breath comes in. You notice how your breath is returning to normal.
You let yourself really see the crack that took you down – really stare at it and notice if you have any anger towards that crack, if so you let yourself feel it – the energy, the heat – maybe you clench your hands into fists or grip the grass and you let that energy move! Maybe be you cuss out the stupid f*%&$ing crack for tripping you.
Or maybe you feel a wave of self-recrimination and embarrassment, so you notice that and you put your hand on your heart. You’ve done Irene’s heart meditation so you practice that – holding space for both self-recrimination and self-compassion to exist in that heart space and this lets a few tears flow and allows the grief that is under that self-recrimination to emerge.
You notice that your toe still hurts but that you are basically ok so you stand up and orient again – to the crack, to the street, the sky, the grass, to the weight of your feet on the ground and the ground coming up to support your feet. You have another bit of shakiness, which you allow, and you wait, and then another spontaneous deeper breath comes in and you feel ok again.
You continue on your way with a sore toe, but no internalized and stuck survival response.
Now – what if it’s not safe? What if you are hiking alone and have no friend to support you, or what if the sidewalk is really busy and you actually need to pick yourself up right away in order to avoid tripping others and getting more hurt yourself?
In these cases you still need to do all the basic things I just described, but you need to do them later when you get to a safe place. Remember that, as a trauma survivor, you know very well how to hold this stuff in!
So you consciously and deliberately say to yourself – “I can’t process this now but I know how to hold it until I get to a safe place. I will get to a safe place as soon as I can and then I will work with processing this experience.” If you know when and where that will be, say that as well, “I will be able to work on this in an hour when I’m back home again.”
Then…. you have to actually DO that.
If you have a safe person to support you in that work, someone who knows how to simply hold space and be present, that is always a bonus! If you have no other person but you do have a pet, that can work well too. If you have no safe person and no pet you can turn on some music, or listen to the radio or tv in the background – even the sound of a human voice coming through speakers, or soothing strains of music, can spark up those good social engagement wirings.
Obviously you will have to use your memory and imagination to recontact what happened, and what the surroundings were, and you will be alternating between that and the current safe environment around you, so it’s slightly different work, but the same basics apply. All the emotion is still there and available, it just takes willingness and a little courage to call it forth.
So let’s review the basic steps of what to do when you get triggered into a trauma response, or if you get injured or otherwise overwhelmed in some way that could become a trauma if not processed.
If it is safe to do so, stop! Don’t just continue on your way as if nothing has happened.
Orient to safety in the environment and connection with others if possible. Bring yourself into the present by orienting to safety in the present. Notice any changes in the body and breath as you do this.
See that the threat or trigger is gone, or over. Notice your reaction to that in your body.
Or, allow yourself to see the thing that caused you to stumble, or become injured or overwhelmed (unless that thing is an actual danger that you need to get away from). Notice your reaction to that in your body.
Allow the sensations and emotions of what happens next to occur, and allow them to be expressed in whatever way they need to be – usually there will be some kind of combination of terror, grief and/or rage. Stay with the physical, felt experience of these energies and use your imagination as necessary.
Be with the physical changes in your body as you do this – notice how the sensations change, and how the breath changes.
Orient to the present environment again.
Notice your body again.
When you actually feel settled again (or possibly even better!) continue on with your day.
I hope this information may be useful for you!
Two nights ago I went and saw Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens with my wife and son and, let me tell you, that was a big deal! Or actually, it wasn’t a big deal but it would have been a couple years ago…hmmmm. I better back up so you know what the hell I’m talking about.
I used to have ritual around attending movies that could NOT be broken. Before I get to what this ritual meant and how it changed let me just break it down for you. This is what going to a movie used to involve, and ONLY this….
I ONLY went to movies alone.
I had to go to a matinee about 3 or 4 weeks after the movie came out, that way I would be assured that the theater would be reasonably empty, which was necessary because of the high level of social anxiety I had (being in a crowded theater could put me into a state of panic).
I would purchase candy ahead of time so that I could avoid the concession stand once I went in, because I was going to be stoned at the time and couldn’t stand the pressure of interacting with actual humans in that state.
I would get my ticket about 15 minutes before the movie started and return to my car.
I would get stoned. I would time my little smoke session so that I was toking up at exactly the time movie was set to start, because I knew that actually that start time was when the commercials and previews were starting and I intended to miss those so that I could, ideally, arrive in my seat, freshly rocked, right as the actual feature began.
The rules of this movie-going ritual were unbreakable and if circumstances somehow dictated that I was going to end up going to a movie that I wanted to see with someone else I would either try to see it first under these conditions, or I would be really pissed the whole time I was watching it with someone else.
That’s a very constricted way to live, but it was necessary for me cause that ritual enabled a kind of sublime dissociation that enabled me to really LIVE in the movie and not in myself, which was something I really needed at the time, because of the amount of pain and suffering that was within me.
So how did I do it?
How did I transition from this iron-clad ritual to being able to genuinely enjoy the new Star Wars, completely sober, with my wife and son?
Slowly, that’s how.
You see, this old addiction of mine that I used to manage my trauma was necessary. I couldn’t simply force myself to let go of it all at once, it had to happen gradually, over time, as part of a larger process of healing.
As I was going through my Somatic Experiencing training and doing the sessions for myself that were a mandatory part of that training, my nervous system started to heal. As my nervous system started to heal there began to be less of a pressing need to ONLY do it the old way, because there was genuinely less pain and constriction within myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I still did it; but I also started to go to movies with my wife and son more. I would still sometimes get secretly stoned beforehand, but I had to let go of the timing aspect of the ritual and the alone-time part of the ritual. The parameters for what could be ok were slowly shifting.
Then, I started to go with others and NOT get stoned. This was a big step and a significant turning point because what I started to notice is that I genuinely preferred the feeling of shared experience that this kind of movie going engendered. I liked sharing the thrills with others. I like holding my wife’s hand or sharing significant glances at key moments with my son. I realized that I actually enjoyed the social engagement of the shared experience.
Little by little my old ritual, my coping mechanism, withered away.
Now, I almost never do that old thing anymore, in fact, I can’t remember the last time I did, because I much prefer the new version.
The key here is that it happened organically and slowly over time as part of a bigger process.
The really important thing that I would like you to take away from this is that our addictions aren’t character flaws.
There is no addict out there who is not in some kind of pain. The addictions are part of a coping strategy that is necessary for us to feel ok. We can’t just take away that coping mechanism and expect the soul and the psyche to follow; when we do that, like in the case of going cold turkey, or embarking on an extreme diet, rebellion is the inevitable outcome.
As the brilliant Dr. Gabor Mate says… “All substances of abuse, whether they’re opiates or cocaine or anything else, they’re actually pain-killers. Some of them specifically are pain killers, but physical pain and emotional pain, the suffering is experienced in the same part of the brain…. so that all addictions are attempts to soothe the pain. When I work with addictions, the first question is always not, ‘why the addiction?’, but, ‘why the pain?’”.
Check out this YouTube link for the full brilliant excerpt from his TED talk (only 3.5 min) youtu.be/T5sOh4gKPIg
Before our old ways of coping can die away our nervous system needs to first discover other options, or else it will feel lost and will inevitably go back to what it knows and is comfortable with, because that known option has been there for a reason. We have to address that underlying reason.
When we do that, The Force – the ability to feel, to be in tune and empathetic, to know and accept ourselves and others – can awaken in all of us.
Recently, I was compiling some notes for an upcoming interview – there will be an article coming out about me and my work in The Vancouver Courier sometime next month. The interview ended up being mostly about my somatic work with trauma and nervous system physiology and how that relates to spirituality (which was cool), but at first I thought it was just going to be about the sound healing aspect of my practice so I wrote up these notes about how sound promotes healing in the body and mind.
The neocortex and the ventral vagal complex (VVC) are the two most evolved portions of our brain (the neocortex) and nervous system (VVC).
The neocortex is what enables abstract thinking about concepts such as science, the arts, spirituality, philosophy, etc..and also supports activities within those disciplines. Essentially, it is the main part of our brain that differs from other mammals. Use of the neocortex is best facilitated by a smoothly running, well-developed ventral vagal complex.
Pleasant sound positively stimulates the ventral vagal complex by engaging the inner ear which the VVC enervates.
In a therapeutic setting sound is a great “non-content” stimuli (i.e. – disconnected from any story or painful memories – unless the client has negative associations with those particular sounds – something to ask about beforehand!). It can be a gentle way to wake up the social engagement function (that which enables us to be comfortable and attuned with others) which facilitates a feeling of safety.
By attuning to the client and responding appropriately with varying sounds, tempos, rhythms and volume, we can build tolerance for emotion and sensation.
Our brains and nervous systems did not evolve in an industrial setting, yet in our industrialized world we are constantly bombarded by mechanical, low-pitched vibrations and loud industrial sounds that are very often subconsciously perceived as threat. Taking time to come out of that noise into a quiet space and be exposed to the pure tones of things like drumming, crystal singing bowls, and the human voice greatly promotes ease in the system. It can help people get into the ”rest and repair” portion of their physiology, which helps everything.
On the more esoteric end…Sound is also therapeutic in that it not only passes into the ear, the sound waves penetrate and pass through the entire body. Sound carries with it the meaning that surrounds it’s creation – this may expressed in lyrics or the emotion of the singer, or by the intention of the practitioner. I can focus on my compassion and universal love for my client, or on repairing a connection between chakras, etc.. while singing and playing the singing bowls and that intention is literally carried into their body, riding on those sound waves – creating those “good vibrations” the Beach Boys sang about.