Traumatic Stress Reactions
During and after traumatic events, it is common to experience feelings of confusion, sadness, fear, anxiety, panic, irritability, agitation, anger, and despair. It is also common to experience physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, sweating, shakiness, nausea, or dizziness. These are just signs that our innate stress response has kicked into gear. We might feel an urge to flee or fight. Conversely, we might want to curl up, like a turtle in a protective shell.
While these symptoms can feel unsettling, it is important to recognize that these feelings are expected and they are normal. In fact, they are your body’s natural way of digesting traumatic stress.
However, if you notice that you are having intrusive images, nightmares, or difficulty sleeping, this is a sign that you should seek support with a therapist trained in the treatment of trauma. Otherwise, you might begin to feel stuck. For example, you might not want to go to places, participate in activities, or see people that are associated with your trauma. Overtime, these symptoms can inhibit your ability to live a happy and healthy life.
The Body’s Wisdom in Threatening Situations
As human beings, we are equipped with a physiology that has built-in protective mechanisms to helps us survive threatening situations by mobilizing our defenses or disconnecting us from our pain. When we experience a threat, our sympathetic nervous system helps us to move into self-protection through the release of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine throughout the bloodstream. Just as animals seek to flee or fight a predator; we too, might rely upon these defense mechanisms to survive.
However, when there is no way to escape an ongoing threat, we tend to rely upon an evolutionarily older expression of the parasympathetic nervous system which leads us into an immobilization response. We can see this “feigned death” in animals who stop moving or faint in hopes that a predator will lose interest in them; for, unlike scavengers, predators will typically not eat animals who are already dead. This immobilization response is accompanied by the release of endogenous (naturally produced) endorphins that have a numbing effect on pain.
Having an understanding of the physiology of trauma helps guide the healing process.
Engage your Body to Help you Heal
Our bodies are essential for releasing traumatic stress and helping. For example, you might start by exploring how your body wants to move. Explore movements such as pushing, reaching, shaking, curling up, or rocking. Try these movements and notice how your feel:
- Stand next to a wall and push your arms firmly into the wall. Press and release several times. Imagine that are setting a boundary and pushing away anything that you do not want or that was a source of danger.
- Stand up and walk slowly and mindfully in place. Imagine that you are leaving any situation that is not safe or healthy for you.
- While sitting down, allow yourself to rest into your connection with your chair or couch. Notice if you feel an urge to collapse. If so, see if you can find enough muscular engagement to help you feel relaxed yet alert.
Emotional Support for Traumatic Stress
It is often important to talk about difficult event with someone, such as a therapist, who is able to listen to your experience without shutting you down out of fear. Seek someone who is unafraid of your fear so that they can help you to process your experience.
It is not uncommon to feel angry after experiencing a traumatic event. Anger and rage are not “bad” emotions. Yet, we need healthy outlets for these feelings so that this emotion does not get pushed into the shadows to create harm. Need ideas? You have an important perspective based upon your experience. Your voice is important! Maybe you write a letter to your senator or representative, participate in a rally, write an article, donate to a charity, or give a public talk. Someone is out there who will benefit from your courage to speak out and take action.
Feelings of guilt and shame are also common after traumatic events. Some people describe feeling survivor guilt. You might ask, “Why did I survive when others did not?” Some describe feeling ashamed as though they were at fault even if they were only a witness or a victim.
Grief is a normal response to trauma, as we must process the way that difficult life events change our familiar orientation to the world. We must adapt to this new and often unwanted reality. It is unarguably essential to acknowledge the sad and painful aspects of traumatic events. Give time and space for your tender, vulnerable emotions.
Resources for Trauma Recovery:
The good news is, trauma is NOT a life sentence.
You can find more resources for trauma recovery on my YouTube channel with yoga and somatic psychology based teachings like this one here:
Please forward this information to anyone you think would benefit from these healing resources.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook,follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts. Dr. Schwartz is the author of four books:
- The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Althea press, 2016)
- EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to Enhance Embodiment in Trauma Treatment (Norton, 2018).
- The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience, and Awaken your Potential (Pesi Publications, 2020)
- A Practical Guide to Complex PTSD: Compassionate Strategies for Childhood Trauma (Rockridge Press, 2020)