When the body experiences a traumatic event, it responds on a neurobiological level with mechanisms that are meant to support your survival. It kicks into fight/flight/freeze and works to get through the incident alive. One of the major difficulties with the body’s natural response to traumatic events, is that it stores these experiences in a part of the brain that lacks a sense of time or context, and struggles to differentiate between “then” and “now”. This causes much of what people experience as “triggering” when facing daily life after the trauma. Silly, inconsequential seeming things can suddenly provoke intense fear responses, seemingly out of nowhere. These unpredictable responses can wreak havoc on a person’s confidence to engage in daily life, for fear of reacting in ways that are over the top or embarrassing.
The trick to handling trauma triggering, is to gradually remind the body of the opposing experience to trauma and fear: Safety. When you feel fear, what does your body feel like? Typically our bodies feel hot, tense, jittery, tight, heart racing, shallow breathing, jumpy, clammy, nervous and panicked. What about when you feel safe? What are the physical and emotional markers of safety? Even heart rate, slow even breathing, neutral muscle tension, neutral body temperature, open posture, sense of calm, sense of steadiness, clear thinking. When the body feels triggered, it responds by jumping into fear responses in an effort to protect you from a perceived threat that may or may not be present in the current moment. The hard job is helping to convince your body that it is actually safe right now. Here are a few ways you can start to practice this:
1. Safety Statements
Safety statements work to remind our brain and body that we are safe. These are things similar to what a nurturing parent might say to a fearful child, with a similar tone centred on soothing and connecting. This is often in direct opposition to our natural voice when we feel triggered which often sounds like “snap out of it,” “stop being so weak,” “why can’t you just get over this?,” “stop being so stupid!” Safety statements can be said internally or out loud. These statements might sound like, “what I’m feeling is from a memory, right now I am safe and secure,” “I know where I am and that I am safe,” “I know I can do what I need/I have what I need to be safe right now,” “I’m ok.”
2. Grounding & Mindfulness
Grounding and mindfulness are tools that ask the brain to be fully engaged in the present moment as opposed to recalling the past or thinking about the future. Often people think of meditation, but these tools can look like a lot of different things. I often suggest a game called 5-4-3-2-1, where you say 5 things you see around you; 5 things you hear around you; and 5 things you feel (tactile touch) around you in your immediate environment. Then you say 4 of each, 3 of each, 2 of each and 1 of each. Ideally you are changing the items you are identifying each time (this may not always be possible depending on the environment). Ideally this happens out loud, but can also be done internally if in a public space. By the end of the activity you are present in space and time because you have just described your space in the present time in detail. An alternative includes describing the activity you are doing in explicit detail. Additional grounding games can include an “Alphabet Game” where you try to name a category (eg. fruits and vegetables; song titles; movie titles) from A-Z. All of these tasks are meat to reactivate the part of your brain that knows where it is in space and time and reorient it to the present, as well as reactivate the parts of your brain involved in problem solving and decision making in an effort to support regulating emotional and physiological reactions to triggers.
3. Physical Relaxation and Opposite Actions
When the body experiences physiological reactions to fear and stress, managing triggers must also include the body. These tools require that you be aware of moments where your body is carrying increased tension, increased heart rate, shallower breathing, etc. As you notice your body beginning to respond with fear responses, the goal is to initiate an opposite action to train the body to associate the triggering material with the capacity to regulate the body and respond more naturally in this way. This requires consistency and repetition. For example, when noticing the body to have shallow breathing and increased muscle tension, but the brain is aware that the present situation is safe and not requiring these responses to protect from a real threat, working intentionally to draw long slow breaths and standing with arms raised, and chest open can help calm the system.
4. Self-Care & Community-Care
Self-caring actions are meant to show oneself nurturing and support. These actions teach our body that it can rely on us to take care of it well. This includes speaking kindly to oneself, caring for one’s practical needs, and choosing relationships with people who are good to us. Self-care is a lot of things, and closely tied to self-care is community-care. Community-care is grounded in the concept that societies that promote independence can lose access to a sense of rootedness in community, and can lack support. Intentionally developing relationships with like-minded people who invest in relationship can permit us access to people who genuinely want to support us well in the various ways we might need. A community is a diverse group, with different skills that each person brings to the relationship, and where those skills are valued. When we engage in self-care and community-care consistently, we can mitigate the degree of damage experienced from a traumatic event.
The comprehensive integration of these tools creates a trigger safety plan, that you can set up in advance and communicate to people in your life who can help facilitate using these tools when they see you struggling. Writing them down and adding to them when you find new things can help to prompt more consistent use. It will take a while before these tools are easy to use – often people find it difficult to think of them in the moment they need them most. Using them whenever you experience low grade stress/distress can be helpful practice, as it helps your brain associate these tools with its checklist of things to do when it feels dysregulated. As you practice them more, your brain will find them easier to naturally integrate into your coping strategies.
Trauma can impact our lives in deeply life-altering ways, but it can also shine a light on our resilience. In the face of recovering from a traumatic incident, or lifetime of trauma, showing our brain a sense of safety can help us to grow. change. live… Thrive.