I’ve had the experience, time and again, a client really wants to be heard. It happens in groups and one on one. Too often, in the rush to have their story heard, striving for community and connection, a client begins to tell a painful story. It often starts with little nervous system activation, but as the client gets more into detail their nervous system goes into flight, fight or freeze and, boom, they are somewhere else. They are in their memory, re-living the pain, sometimes the horror, in reality, being re-traumatized. Not with this therapist I say! No re-traumatization in my office. I often have to be very directive, something I will do when it’s needed. If a nervous system is out of control, I am going to step in and help that client come back to the present, get grounded, slow the breathing, realize they are safe. I’ll share some tips with you how to do this at home, in the office, out on the town, anywhere really. You are the master of your body, and experience. You choose how to deal with your emotions, thoughts, body sensations. You are powerful and can learn how to calm the nervous system, the driver of traumatic expression in the body. Oh yes, you can, and I’ll help you. Here are 5 skills to do so:
1. Notice the environment-Begin by looking around and noticing where you are. Are you in a room? Outside? What kind of lighting is in the room/area? What is the color of the floor or ground. What is the color of the furniture in the room? Pick a color now and name three objects of that color. If you are outside, and it is safe to walk without shoes, feel the grass or ground on your bare feet. Stand in the sun and feel the ground at the same time. Notice the smells that are present. Smell is regulated in a part of the brain that affects our mood and emotions. We can be largely influenced by smell. If you are in a time in your life when you are intensely working on trauma and learning how to calm yourself so you can work or be in relationship; it may be helpful to find a scent that makes you feel safe or enjoy very much and carry it with you.
2. Make contact with a safe person-Remember, this only works with a safe person that you trust. don’t push yourself to do this if you aren’t sure about someone, or if they don’t know they are your safe person. Make a plan with them in advance. Come up with some words or phrases they can say to you. In the moment or if you notice you are becoming activated, tell the person what’s happening. A good phrase to have them remind you is “ you are here with me, “ “I love you,” “ you are safe,” “ is it ok for me to touch you?” Choose words that work for you, my examples may not work for you and what works may change over time. Your safe person could then initiate contact that feels safe for you, maybe holding your hand. It is really powerful to have someone push on your feet or stand on your feet. This sounds weird, I know, but it works. We often don’t notice sensations in our lower body when our nervous system is activated and we are freaking out. Having a little pressure on the feet, can sometimes help to bring you back to the body. If you do not want touch, that is completely ok. You are the boss of your body, what you say goes, your safe person should respect that.
3. Diaphragmatic breathing-Fact, you cannot have a panic attack if you are doing diaphragmatic breathing. You just can’t. You can’t hyperventilate and it actively calms the nervous system. When you are first learning, lay on the floor or ground and put your hand on your low belly, below you’re belly button. Breath into that part of your belly until you make your hand move. Breathe out very slowly and smooth. You can then begin to lengthen your in and out breaths as much as you can. When you have practiced this enough and are really good at this type of breathing, you can do it anywhere, without laying on the floor or putting your hand on your belly. You can do it as you sit at your desk at work, as you have a conversation with a friend, or in the bathroom as you take a break from a social event. You have the choice how to deal with your experience, you are empowered and powerful.
4. Feel the feet- Like I mentioned above, feeling our feet can bring us back into our bodies when re-experiencing trauma. When you start to feel activated, feel your feet. Notice the temperature of them. Become very curious. What do your feet feel like in your socks or shoes? Are they comfortable? Uncomfortable? Wiggle your toes. Stomp your feet into the ground. Make circles with your ankles.
5. Drop a cord- I do this exercise with every client of mine, not just the ones that are currently working through trauma. It is beneficial for anyone to ground into the body. Imagine a cord running from the base of your spine to the middle of the earth. You can imagine a cord, or a waterfall, rainbow, tree trunk, anything that feels good to you. Now imagine the color of the grounding cord. Is it one color? Is it a multitude? Is it rainbow colored with sparkles or glitter? Allow it to anchor you into the middle of the earth. Allow your awareness to rest there for as long as you can. Hold the intention that anything you would like to let go of runs through this cord and is recycled into the earth. You can close your eyes to do this exercise or not. You’ll need to practice this at home or with your therapist until you get pretty good at it; it doesn’t take long though. It’s really simple, and has profound effects. You can do this twice an hour or twice a day. You choose what works best for you and how activated you are on a given day. This practice builds your capacity to feel grounded and safe in your body.
There are also other practices that help to active the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our autonomic nervous system that helps us to relax, on an ongoing basis. One is yoga. Yoga is an ancient practice that has a cumulative calming effect on the nervous system. It also helps to open up rigid physical patterns, which in turn open rigid emotional patterns. It’s true that we store emotional patterns in the body; like grief in the lungs and heart area, stress in the shoulders and neck, and general emotions in hips.
Meditation is also a great practice to help you take command of your overall health. When you meditate, you are focusing attention on the present moment; when your attention is pulled away to plans for the day, conversations you’ve had recently or what you’ll be having for dinner, you bring it back to the breath or another present moment object. Daniel Siegel talks about how this effects the brain. When we continuously use our brain to practice a skill, we build myelination in our neurons and strengthen connections between clusters of neurons (neural networks). When we strengthen our neural networks in the brain that control present moment awareness; when we have a moment of activated nervous system stress, we are more able to pull ourselves back to the present using the breath and our strong mindfulness skills.
Love to you.