I was recently asked: “What can I do while in a crisis that will reduce the chance of long lasting trauma?”
My Answer: “We have to turn off the override switch.”
The cool thing about our brain is it is always looking to protect us. During heightened stressful times and traumatic events our brain can jump start our survival mode. You can think of our body and our nervous system as having two settings:
- Baseline, often referred to as rest and digest. This is when we are run by our parasympathetic nervous system, and where we hope to be most of the time.
- Fight or Flight,aka our sympathetic nervous system, or our “override setting”, which is triggered by a potential threat.
Normally these two “settings” actually work together to keep us operating, but when something potentially traumatic happens our sympathetic nervous system takes the wheel to try to protect us. Trauma occurs when the result of this survival mode leaves an emotional memory and pathway behind (for example if your heart races when you go by the spot you got into a car accident). Many times we don’t become aware of the neuronal pathways built in our brains by traumas we experienced until we do self-growth and reflection, such as happens in therapy.
Wait, so what’s happening to my brain?
The short answer, in times of crisis and trauma our brain wants to flip that override switch. Our brain tells our body to release higher amounts of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine which impact important things like our executive functioning, emotions, memory, and processing. Some noticeable changes in our body include our heart rate and blood pressure increasing and we start breathing heavier, this is what causes some to hyper ventilate. Once upon a time, this helped flash the emergency lights in our brain and helped us run faster and breath more efficiently to avoid being eaten by a lion, which could be considered a very good reason to flip the override switch and go into survival mode. Now we can experience this when we are super stressed about a late assignment, what someone thinks of our appearance, our instagram post, saying the wrong thing, or when experiencing crisis and trauma. This brain and body response, in frequent or severe amounts, can have a long lasting impact on our brain functioning and brain health.
What does this have to do with crisis and trauma?
When our brain is prioritizing safety and triggering trauma responses like fight, flight, fawn, or freeze, it doesn’t have the capacity to process events and memory like it should. Has someone ever cut you off in traffic or maybe you had a conversation that rubbed you the wrong way? Did it really bother you that day but a month later thinking back on it you no longer feel physically upset? Your brain was able to functionally and properly process those memories and emotions and transfer it from short-term memory to long-term memory, i.e. it’s in the past and no longer affects us.
However, when we experience trauma, our brain isn’t able to process the emotions and memories from the event like it should. It holds on to the strong emotions and fears and is unable to properly process through them to a place where we feel better on our own. Even after the event has passed, the emotional part of our brain keeps telling our body that trauma and threat is still present and wants to keep turning the override switch on. In other words, our brain is reacting to something in the past as if it’s in the present.
So what can I do about it?
Luckily, there are things that we can do to help engage our parasympathetic nervous system and turn off the override switch, which can be help us to make sound decisions using the logical part of our brain, process events and memories properly, and prevent traumatic stress and PTSD.
- While breath work may sound trivial, it is highly effective in managing our sympathetic nervous system. We know that during trauma mode we increase oxygen levels (breathing heavier with inhaling more oxygen). When we are safe we breath out longer than breathing in– the higher rates of CO2 tells our brain we are safe. Three types of controlled breathing techniques to try:
- Box Breathing: breath in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4, repeat
- 3-4-5 breathing: breath in for 3, hold for 4, out for 5, repeat.
- 5-6 breathing: breath in while counting to 5, pause, breath out to a count of six 6, pause, repeat.
- Grounding, let’s activate those senses. Grounding skills help to bring and hold our focus to the present moment and what we are currently experiencing. Grounding skills engage our 5 senses. A popular grounding technique is the 5-4-3-2-1 (usually paired with slow and controlled breathing). Identify and notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Take the time to slowly engage with each sense.
Other sensory grounding experiences to try: washing your hands with cold water and noticing the sensation, smelling your favorite candle and focusing on the scent, or listening to running water. The goal is to try to take deep breaths while focusing on the present sensations our body is experiencing.
- Keep that brain engaged. We know that when our sympathetic nervous system takes over, parts of our brain don’t optimally perform and process information. Doing things that activate both the right and left hemispheres while alternating helps to keep all parts of our brain engaged and our parasympathetic nervous system activated. Activities like going for a walk (right foot left foot…) or dribbling a ball back and forth (right hand left hand right hand left hand…) are great examples. This mimics something called bilateral stimulation which is used in trauma therapy techniques like EMDR to help process past trauma and treat PTSD symptoms. (To email our office about EMDR or other therapy options click here: https://www.abalancedlifetahoe.com/contact-us/or call (530) 544-1748.)
How therapy can help
A client recently shared with me how talking in therapy somehow helps so much more than talking with friends. I shared how as educated and trained professionals, therapists and licensed mental health professionals learn specific techniques to treat symptoms, educate, and help our clients navigate and process all types of experiences. We learn how to help our individual and unique clients find what works for them and their needs. Whether it’s learning some grounding skills or processing a natural disaster, therapists can be a huge asset in helping clients learn techniques to process past events still having a negative impact on their life or help “turn off the override switch” in their brain.
Call our office today to get your therapy questions answered or inquire about services:
Charlotte Santos, ACSW #9596