Trauma-Specific Self-Care: Part 1

Self-care is important for everyone. But how do you practice self-care and self-compassion when you have been through or are currently experiencing a traumatic life event? In this first of a two-part series on trauma-specific self-care, we look at how your body responds to stress and trauma and what individuals can do to begin healing.

What Determines my Level of Tolerance?

We all have different ranges of tolerance to life’s stressors. The ideal state of being in which you have the ability to deal with life’s ups and downs to a reasonable extent is what the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine refers to as your “window of tolerance.” Stress and trauma affect your window of tolerance, shrinking it and disturbing what stresses you’re able to handle. You may become hyperaroused—anxious, angry, overwhelmed—or hypoaroused—zoned out, numb, frozen. These reactions aren’t something you choose; it’s simply how your body reacts. Working with a mental health provider can help you by expanding your window of tolerance, so you have a wider range of situations and challenges you are able to cope with.

How Is my Body Affected by Stress?

Traumatic stress is experienced in the body. Upon noticing something novel, you become alert. You then move into threat identification, seeking social cues to evaluate the extent of the threat. Both the alert and the subsequent shift into threat identification are instinctual responses to your environment, and you may not even be conscious of them. If you perceive the novel event as a threat, whether real or imagined, your body is then aroused—your lower, reptilian brain takes over, and your threat-defense system is activated. This process sends adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin into your body. You then experience a defense response: fight, flight, freeze, or tend and befriend. If your defense response works, your body calms down and your upper or cortex brain begins processing the experience.

In a state of alert, your body becomes hypersensitive, with a particular heightened awareness of the real or perceived threat. You can experience hyperarousal when trauma associations are triggered, feeling a flood of emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger, and grief. Trauma expert and Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work professor Julia Colpitts, MSW, calls this state “stuck on.” Or, you can experience hypoarousal, where you distance yourself from emotions to quiet the state of hyperarousal, which can lead to numbness and a disconnection. Colpitts calls this state “stuck off.” Your arousal responses highjack your higher brain functions and create physical reactions.

When stress and trauma are complex or ongoing, your body does not return to its baseline, and this sort of constant hypervigilance and arousal flood your body with stress hormones, which can impact health. Physical reactions can range from simple tension to chronic illness. Often, those who experience trauma will develop behavioral patterns to manage traumatic arousal. These behaviors often involve food, alcohol, inactivity, or overwork, which can provide short-term relief but cause long-term negative consequences.

How Can I Heal from Stress and Trauma?

Calm the body, calm the mind. Self-compassion involves enacting a lesser-used cycle of emotional regulation, which Paul Gilbert calls the “soothing system” in his book The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges. The soothing system, which manages functions to slow down, soothe, rest and digest, safeness, kindness, and care, can be underdeveloped in an individual. With practice, you can build upon it to better manage your emotions and expand your window of tolerance.

What is a Resiliency Toolkit?

To strengthen your soothing system, spend more time in self-compassionate practices that center physiological and mind-body relaxation. Focus on creating a personalized relaxation practice from a menu of soothing options, Colpitts advises. Some soothing strategies to add to your resiliency toolkit include:

  • Breathwork, such as box breathing
  • Muscle tension release using progressive relaxation techniques
  • Guided meditation, such as those offered by Kristen Neff
  • Sensory stimulation (e.g., aromatherapy, calming visuals, nature sounds, savory tastes, touch, water, sexual activity, massage, Reiki bodywork, and grounding strategies)
  • Acupressure and acupuncture
  • Yoga, tai chi, and other mind-body centering work
  • Self-compassionate meditation and activities, such as bilateral stimulation like the butterfly hug, and affirmations
  • Interacting with animals, including equine-facilitated therapy
  • Mindfulness and related physical practices, such as walking meditation and forest bathing
  • Body scans
  • Expressing gratitude and love

Try to maintain a regular practice of your chosen relaxation techniques. You can form healthy habits by starting small and attaching a technique to part of your regular routine, such as breathwork after brushing your teeth each day. Take note of the improvements you feel, which will help you continue and build upon your emotional resiliency menu of options. By regularly employing direct body and other relaxation strategies, your body will calm down and your mind will follow suit. This will create patterns of calm that serve to “release stored arousal and reestablish a peaceful baseline,” according to Colpitts. “The more strategies you use,” she states, “the more difference it will make.”

What Else Can I Do to Take Care of Myself after Trauma?

In addition to using tools in your resiliency toolkit, you can also “burn off” the stress in your body from traumatic experiences by engaging in physical activity. This can include energetic pursuits, such as dancing and working out, and/or more soothing activities like hiking and listening to music.

You may also need strategies to depower your threat defense system, which for those who have experienced or are experiencing trauma is overactive. You can do this by partnering with a mental health professional to learn new patterns and activate the care system. We also advise working with a practitioner on cognitive behavioral work and to engage with trauma success factors, including taking reparative action, interrupting the trauma flow, managing arousal, bringing attention to cognitive adaptive patterns, cultivating positive attachment and experiences, and attending to context.

“Being kind to ourselves releases energy to move forward,” Colpitts says. And it “soothes body, mind, and spirit.”

Thank you to Julia Colpitts, MSW, for sharing her keynote presentation and ideas on this subject.

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