Moving through everyday trauma and triggers
It all happened very quickly.
The other day I was running an errand, driving along on a beautiful day with the windows down and music playing. I was happily singing along, feeling calm and happy, when I ran a red a light.
I noticed it right before I passed into the intersection, but it was too late. I felt my stomach drop and an icy feeling in my belly as my hands tightened around the steering wheel. It felt like my heart stopped as I looked out the passenger side window to see that I had driven directly into the path of an oncoming bus. Without thinking, I swerved the wheel violently to avoid getting hit.
incredibly, I did not get hit by the bus or any other oncoming vehicle- nor did I hit anyone myself.
I crossed the intersection, and pulled the car over to the side of the road. In my rearview, I saw the bus stop in the intersection- probably registering the shock of almost slamming into my vehicle, before moving on.
As I sat in my car, I could immediately feel my body reacting. By scanning around me and in my rearview, I could assess that I was safe and out of immediate danger. My muscles began to relax, as my insides continued to churn as I registered what had just happened.
As a therapist, I help people that have experienced trauma in their lives. And each of us, every day, experience big and little traumas. Whether it's having a confrontation with someone on the street, or having a near miss in the car, daily traumas are a part of our lives.
I want to pause here and note two important things about trauma:
1. Trauma is not about what happens but how we perceive what happens. Two people may experience the same incident and one may come away feeling traumatized, while the other simply shakes it off and moves on.
2. We experience trauma in the body. While there may be ideas, thoughts, stories and feelings that are related to the trauma, trauma is a bodily experience and therefore we need to address and move through the trauma in our bodies. Clinically speaking, trauma is described as: "actual or threatened death or serious injury" in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, used to diagnose individuals with PTSD, for example), and so involves harm to the body.
Which brings me to a 3 step process I have used to help people in moving through everyday traumas or triggers, and what I used myself on the day that I ran the intersection.
First: Let it Move Through the Body
When something traumatic happens, or when we feel triggered by a thought, feeling or experience, we may instinctually contract around the feeling. Instead, we can let it move through the body, not attempting to block or control it.
Because trauma is body based, the body will have a reaction. You may notice that your body wants to shake or quiver, your fists or jaw may clench, you may have the urge to yell or move. This is a natural reaction to the flight or fight response that is triggered automatically when we encounter danger (or the perception of danger) in the environment.
We can allow the body to release the cortisol and adrenaline that is produced by letting your body to move according to whatever impulse arises, or by consciously shaking your hands or stomping the heels, which can be done discreetly if you are in an environment where you don't feel the freedom to move freely.
Stay with the body for as long as you need. At least 20 minutes is needed to fully experience and release, more is ideal.
Next: Drop the story and connect with sensation
Once you feel more grounded and somewhat regulated in the body, the story may start up: What just happened? I can't believe you did that! How could you? That is just so stupid!... Here is where we can begin to spiral into the story of what happened, and try to analyze, resolve, and find a solution.
The problem is, there is no solution- which can lead to shame. The majority of trauma survivors experience shame and self blame, whether or not they had any power or agency in the situation. Here, it is really important to stay with the feelings, whatever they may be, and to drop the story.
Allow yourself to experience the feeling in the body while dropping the story. What is the experience or sensation of this feeling in my body?
You can practice Tonglen:
-Breath in the sensation of what you're experiencing- knowing that what you are feeling has been experienced throughout time and throughout all cultures (*this step is particularly important, as trauma can isolate us- convince us that no one can understand or relate to our experience).
-As you breathe out, imagine what would bring relief. It could be acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, understanding...
-Do this for at least 5 minutes, and for as long as needed
Then: Feelings to Connection
After letting the trauma move through the body, dropping the story and connecting to sensation, see what feelings remain. If you can, observe the feelings from a distance and with curiosity as opposed to judgment.
If you are experiencing shame, what is the shame related to? If you are experiencing fear, what are you afraid of? If there is anger or sadness there, allow the story to come forward. Allow these feelings to connect you to what is most important to you.
For me, in considering the consequences of running a red light and almost causing an accident, I connected with the grief, shame, and sadness I would feel if I had hurt someone else. I recognized the fear of being hurt myself, and potentially losing my life because of not paying attention- leaving my family, and especially my two young daughters, deeply saddened and without their mom.
I felt a connection to people who are important to me in my life, as well as compassion and connection to the bus driver who's path I had intercepted, and others who may have witnessed the near miss.
I allowed the sensation and feeling to flood and flow through me, and held the reminder of the fragility and impermanence of everything. My sense of shock, sadness, fear, regret, and shame led me to acknowledge how important it is to me to be alive, to be connected to those I know and don't know, and to find a way to live with intention and mindful awareness.
Similar to the rupture- repair cycle in the therapeutic relationship, having a rupture in the thin thread connecting us to permanence and certainty can allow us to see how importance it is to show up fully in the "one wild, and precious life" (in the words of Mary Oliver) we each are given.
Here's the nutshell version:
To move through trauma or an experience of feeling triggered by a past trauma:
1- Let the feeling move through your body as opposed to contracting around it.
Allow your body move in any way it wants, or actively shake your hands and bring your weight into your heels to activate and move the sensation through your body.
2- Drop the story and focus on sensation. You can practice Tonglen to fully breathe in sensation, and breathe out relief.
3- When the body is settled, you can look at feelings that are present from a distance. Let those feelings guide you to what is important and valuable to you.