This past year has been incredibly difficult, to say the least. We’ve had to cope with several major historical events including a tumultuous election and a deadly pandemic, which has had not just an effect on global health but on financial stability across the nation. In times of great stress like these it can also be difficult to cope if you have a history of trauma.
As a therapist I tend to see themes in my clients and one of the most recent themes is a retriggering of traumatic memories for people who have a history of trauma. Trauma that is more recent and trauma from many, many years ago has started to resurface for a lot of the clients I work with, partially due to all the stress from the current political on-goings and global health crises. Therapy can be incredibly useful in working through a history of trauma, but there are also some everyday strategies that you can use to try to cope with some traumatic symptoms you may be experiencing.
Identifying Your Triggers
The first step to coping with any sort of traumatic response is to identify and label your triggers. It’s important to keep in mind that there are some situations/people/conversations that you can consciously limit your exposure to, while others are completely out of your control. The important thing about spotting and identifying your triggers is that it can alert you about your own mental health and help you become more aware. When you are more aware, you can begin to take responsibility for the way you manage your emotions, as opposed to letting them control you. When you can’t manage or process your emotions appropriately, you will end up simply reacting to others.
One great way to start identifying your triggers is to write them down. Start to take notice of when you felt upset or shaken up. What was going on at the time? Who was around? Were you talking to anybody? What were you thinking of? What environment were you in? What specific phrases were said? Try to pay attention to the details, and the more details you notice, the more you’ll begin to identify themes.
Take a moment to notice any strong negative emotion you’re experiencing. If you’re not feeling anything negative now then think about the last time you were upset. Whether your unpleasant feelings are present or past, don’t judge or resist them. Send your memory backward in time to find the moment when you switched from “okay” to “not okay.” Did you begin feeling bad at breakfast this morning? While going to bed last night?
Once you recall the approximate time your mood went sour, notice what felt most upsetting: a comment from your boss, a story on the news, the number on the scale. Be patient with yourself as you search for the precise trigger. It’s a delicate skill that takes practice. You might want to enlist the help of a therapist, a coach, or a friend, especially at first. But even on your own, tracing bad moods back in time will eventually help you spot the triggering event.
The following is a worksheet to help you start identifying your trauma triggers:
Identifying Your Trauma Response (Physical, Emotional, Behavioral)
Another important step in coping with your trauma is to identify what sort of trauma response you experience, whether it be physical, emotional, or behavioral. Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect. However, you may also experience symptoms following the trauma or even years after you experience a traumatic event. The following are symptoms you may experience following a traumatic experience:
|Shock, denial, or disbelief||Guilt, shame, self-blame|
|Confusion, difficulty concentrating||Feeling sad or hopeless|
|Anger, irritability, mood swings||Feeling disconnected or dumb|
|Anxiety and fear||Feelings of depression and emotional dysregulation|
|Insomnia or nightmares||Edginess and agitation|
|Fatigue||Aches and pains|
|Being startled easily||Muscle tension|
|Racing heartbeat||Chronic health conditions related to stress|
|Withdrawing from others||Compulsive behavior|
|Avoidant||Self-injury and self-destructive behaviors|
|Self-medication (ex. Alcohol and/or drugs)||Aggressive behavior|
|Impulsive behavior||Interpersonal and social difficulties|
Mindfulness exercises and writing your symptoms down can help you to begin identifying your trauma response. It can be very helpful to keep a trauma journal in which you can track days that you felt “off” and identify the symptoms that you were experiencing. This is another way to start identifying patterns and themes surrounding your trauma.
Self-soothing is a way in which we treat ourselves to feelings of betterment, so that we can move forward, past any negativity or pain. No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself. Not only will it help relieve the anxiety associated with trauma, but it will also engender a greater sense of control.
Mindful breathing. If you are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, practicing mindful breathing is a quick way to calm yourself. Simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each ‘out’ breath.
Sensory input. Does a specific sight, smell or taste quickly make you feel calm? Or maybe petting an animal or listening to music works to quickly soothe you? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment with different quick stress relief techniques to find what works best for you. Good techniques for coping with stress are ones that appeal to the five senses:
- Taking a warm bubble bath filled with Epsom salt to help relax any muscular tension
- Getting a massage
- Drinking a cup of hot herbal tea to help relax
- Chewing gum or sucking on a piece of hard candy
- Aromatherapy and the use of essential oils
- Lighting candles
- Distracting yourself with your favorite comedymovie or television show
- Laying in a field and watching the clouds pass by
- Listening to your favorite music
- Using a sound machine during periods of rest and sleep
Staying grounded. To feel in the present and more grounded, sit on a chair. Feel your feet on the ground and your back against the chair. Look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue in them. Notice how your breathing gets deeper and calmer.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it. Acknowledge your feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them.
By, Marion R. White, MHC-LP, Senior EAP Counselor