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!