Post traumatic stress is experienced in varying degrees and its symptoms are also varied from seemingly constant mild anxiety to acute anxiety and hyper vigilance, where the nervous system is running on overdrive.
An accident, incident, abuse or violation of a boundary can produce or reveal extreme vulnerability where anger and/or rage become a form of protection from very vulnerable emotions. The positive in the anger and rage is that one is attempting to regain a sense of personal power. However, without the appropriate help and support these feelings can be very difficult to deal with and depression may become a way of shutting down difficult feelings.
Trauma can be defined as any experience that a child or adult finds far too overwhelming or unbearable, and common to the survival of traumatic events is to dissociate from the felt sense of the body during the trauma. This often happens by becoming numb as a natural response to shock. Then, in order to continue the psychological survival of the trauma, one may repress, deny or dissociate from feelings associated with the trauma, including what it took to survive, and any other underlying feelings that were triggered by the trauma or its aftermath. This is why PTSD can sometimes be quite complex.
Dissociation from feelings often causes displacement of feelings onto the body. Its as if the body tightens up in an attempt to squeeze out the pain which ultimately doesn’t work because it must remain in a state of tension. And so now the body becomes the vehicle of physical, emotional and psychological pain, and further dissociation from the body becomes the mechanism of survival as if the trauma is still happening.
In a sense, trauma is still occurring, if to experience the feelings for their release seems far too overwhelming, producing intense fear and anxiety. It is clear to see how the stress disorder is maintained, and for good reason. The problem is, ongoing dissociation, while initially for the purpose of survival, becomes a way of self defence (defence against one’s own self) and therefore self neglect. The body may then start to provide feedback by manifesting further physical symptoms.
It thus becomes unsafe to live in one’s own skin for fear of re-experiencing unconscious feelings and emotional reactions associated with the trauma. The psyche may try to bring partial relief via dreams, nightmares, or flashbacks. As uncomfortable as this may be, it is a healthy sign.
Going head on into re-experiencing the trauma and its associated feelings can often be re-traumatising and it is not always necessary. The first thing is to find ways of learning how to be comfortable and safe again in one’s own body. This must be done slowly and gently – not too much, nor too soon. Helpful practices are gentle Yoga and Yoga Nidra, Mindfulness practices, walking and being with the natural world, Tai Chi or Qigong, relaxing in a warm bath; anything that allows us to re-engage the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response) to help us relax with our body and feel safe with it.
The idea is to bring awareness to the body and sense into it and feel the body again, starting with areas of the body that still feel safe and slowly bring awareness to other areas that do not yet feel so safe. This is grounding and helps to regulate the whole nervous system, giving us a chance to release bound up energy, a little at a time. In cases where insomnia has set in, resetting the body clock/circadian rhythm, although helpful, will not be enough. We must relearn how to feel safe in our own skin in order to disengage the fight or flight response. We cannot sleep soundly while we are trying to escape. Good friendships and quality time spent with others that helps us to feel connected are also very important.
Self soothing is the key, and then if feelings or memories need to arise for release, it will feel safer to allow this to happen. Psychotherapies that gently help those suffering from trauma to feel safer in their body will be very helpful. If you think you may be suffering from trauma and related symptoms and are looking for help, please call 020 8780 9449 or use the contact form.
- Psychotherapy and Embodiment