Trauma Maths - Practical Ways to Work Through Your Trauma
Trauma has become something of a buzz word in the last few years. Lots of courses and therapists now offer 'trauma-informed' content, and a great deal has been written or spoken about what trauma is and the effects it can have...but what should you actually DO when you're in the belly of the beast, when trauma has got you in its grip and you just need to something to help you get back to somewhere that feels less overwhelmed and more functional?
Photo by Marco Bianchetti
There are a few practical tips that can help all of us navigate our way through the minefield of conflicting thoughts and feelings - or, indeed, the numbness and sense of disconnection from the world - that can be present when the trauma inside us has been triggered. Some of them are longer-term strategies, and others are more about things we can do in the short term to get ourselves through an immediate crisis. In practice it is precisely this mix of long and short term strategies, applied consistently over time (and that last bit is the crucial bit), that will start to move us out of our traumatic survival patterns and into something that both looks and feels healthier and more life-affirming.
For the sake of simplicity, and to (hopefully) make the list easier to remember, I've grouped these into an acronym: MATHS. This list is by no means meant to be comprehensive (nor have I listed the items in order of importance) but it should at least give a place to start. Number one on the list is...
MOVEMENT - often, when trauma is present, there will be a lot of freeze in the nervous system: emotional or survival energy that has become stuck in the body. That stuckness will show up as feelings of heaviness, numbness, inertia, despondency, hopelessness, despair or even in suicidal thoughts. Finding a way to get that energy moving again - gently if we need to, or more vigorously if that is what our system is calling for - will begin to get us back in touch with the river of life that flows inside us. There are all sorts of ways to get energy moving. We could find someone to talk to about our feelings. We could write them down in a journal, paint them, dance them . I'm a big believer in the value of physical movement for keeping energy flowing. Gentle movement practices like qi gong, tai chi, or yoga can be great for waking up our energy and helping us to get in touch with our centre again. Sometimes we need something more vigorous like dance, running or cycling to engage some of that fight/flight energy that's lurking under the freeze and help to burn it off.
ACCEPTANCE - the first step is to accept where we are. Resisting how we feel only puts us into an energy-sapping state of internal conflict, and actually adds to the sense of overwhelm in the long run. Once we start to accept how we're feeling, we also make space for self-compassion to arise. So often, when the parts of us that are carrying the trauma show up, the voice that we use to speak to those parts is full of judgement and self-condemnation: ''Why are you so stupid? I can't believe you did that again! You're so pathetic! Why can't you ever get anything right?'' If we recognise that those harsh voices (often inherited from the way our parents and other adults spoke to us as a child) are just trying to keep us safe, and aren't trying to ruin our lives - anymore than the anxious, wounded or traumatised parts of ourselves are - then we can begin to soften and turn towards our own suffering with an attitude of ''How can I help you?'' rather than an attitude of ''How can I make you go away?'' This simple shift can start to bring us out of our internally polarized state and allow energy to flow again.
THERAPY - it's possible to do a great deal of work by ourselves on healing the trauma that many of us carry. There is also a lot to be said for finding a skilled, compassionate and well-informed therapist who can support us and help to guide us through some of that work. Much of our trauma will likely have happened in relationship to others, and some of the healing and unpicking of that trauma, therefore, can only really happen in relationship with another human being. There are many different kinds of therapy out there. Whether we choose a more traditional talk-focussed therapy - such as psychotherapy or counselling - or something less conventional and more body-focussed, such as Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi or Bodynamics, I believe finding a good 'fit' with a therapist is more important than the modality we choose. Whilst it's natural to feel anxiety, resistance and even apprehension as part of the therapeutic process, you should ultimately feel safe with the person you work with, as well as trusting their good intentions towards you and their ability to work with you competently, in a way that enables you to make progress with the issues you're bringing to therapy.
HIGHER POWER (and HELPING OTHERS) - not all of us hold spiritual or religious beliefs. For those who do, those beliefs can bring a wider context to the challenges of working through trauma. Whether it's a feeling of connection to God or some other form of higher power, a specific practice such as Buddhism or mindfulness, or a feeling of connection to the natural world, the feeling that we are held by something bigger than ourselves can do a great deal to calm the nervous system and bring meaning to our struggle and suffering where it might otherwise seem senseless at times. A belief in spirit doesn't inure us from the sense of despair or bleakness that can afflict everyone at times but it provides a broader context and a container for that suffering that can help us to bear what might otherwise feel unbearable at times. Many who don't hold spiritual or religious beliefs find comfort and meaning in their connection with the natural world, in the cycles of death and rebirth, decay and renewal, that are evident throughout the nature in the movement of the seasons and in the lives of the plants and animals with whom we share the planet. Others find succour and a sense of purpose through helping others. The need is currently greater than ever and even small acts such as checking in with a friend, volunteering to go shopping for an elderly neighbour, or donating whatever we can spare to a local food bank, can help to positively focus away from our own troubles for a while, as well as reminding us that we do have the power to make a difference.
SELF-CARE - self-care can mean many things but at its most basic level it means taking care of the body: drinking enough fluids, eating good enough food, bathing, brushing teeth, going outdoors regularly, making sure we rest and get enough sleep, attending to our need to move and exercise, getting dressed in clothes that we like...these are all messages that we value ourselves, that we believe life is going to carry on and we are subtly investing in our future selves. This kind of self-care is often one of the first things to slide when we are feeling overwhelmed or depressed. Whilst it's fine to let it go for a little while, in the long term not looking after ourselves only adds to the feeling of low self-worth and stuckness. Engaging in some basic self-care is one of the simplest ways of beginning to reclaim some sense of control over the world. We don’t always have a choice about feeling overwhelmed, but we do have some choice in how we deal with it. Self-care can also extend to taking care of our immediate environment. Although it's often the last thing I feel like doing at the time, tackling a household task like sorting out the laundry, checking to see if I've watered the plants, or sorting out an old drawer full of junk not only helps to get my energy moving when I'm feeling stuck but can also help me to contact some feeling of order and purpose again when things are feeling chaotic or out of control on the inside.
I'm going to cheat a little at this point and add another 'S' onto the end of the list...
SAFETY - in some ways, this may be the most important item on the list. Often, when we are in a state of high alarm or shut-down due to the trauma in our system having become activated, the element that is lacking in order for us to find our way back to a state of greater equilibrium is safety.
In one way, the original conditions that created the trauma we now carry could be defined as an acute or on-going lack of safety. Probably both. Maybe our caregivers were absent or abusive in some way. We might have been bullied at school. Maybe we experienced some early separation from caregivers, such as being sent away to boarding school, or through the death of a parent or sibling. Perhaps we were involved in an accident, or a violent incident at some point in our lives. In every case, the threat that presented itself was sufficient for our sense of safety to be permanently compromised. We left that incident feeling either a little, or a lot, less safe in the world.
Usually, there has been more than one incident. In the case of developmental trauma, there will have been a series of instances of abandonment, neglect or abuse (many of which may seem insignificant to our cognitive minds) that built up over time into a feeling that we just weren't safe in the world; that who we were fundamentally wasn't ok. In order to move back to a place of greater balance, we need to find ways of reintroducing the very thing that was lacking at the time we became traumatised: if in doubt, a good maxim for how to begin to restore a sense of well-being in the nervous system would be: ''find safety.''
What this means in practice can be different for each of us. If we say ''find safety'', many people will imagine diving under the duvet, or some similar form of retreat from the world...and perhaps right now what your frazzled nervous system needs most is to be soothed by retreating into a quiet walk alone in nature, or into a warm bath, or, indeed, into the containment and comfort of your own bed.
But it is a mistake to think that this is the only kind of safety we need...in fact retreating sometimes makes us feel worse, causing us to feel even more isolated and cut off than before. It might be that today what we need in order to feel safer is to make contact with another human being, to feel the warmth and support that connection with a friend, a loved one or a therapist can offer.
Or it might be that we need to feel some of reassurance that comes from engaging our fight energy. Perhaps there is a necessary negotiation or confrontation in our relationship or place of work we have been avoiding. We might have been taking on too many projects and need to get in touch with our own resentment and irritation in order to say 'no.' Retreating or taking a long bath is unlikely to help us in these circumstances. Only finding a way of getting in touch with our ability to state what we need or draw a much-needed boundary is going to provide the reassurance our nervous system is craving.
© Gavin Conochie 2021