The heat in my face was nearly unbearable. As I described how my 13-year-old self had felt during a particularly ugly bullying session at school, and come home feeling like I was just too much, that I couldn’t connect, that if I didn’t change, no one was going to love me.
It was during a training session in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy that I really came to terms with some of the “little t” traumas in my past; namely bullying and shaming throughout middle school and high school for my appearance, my hairstyles, my clothing, my “otherness”. I was confronted with the sensations of being deeply embarrassed and ashamed of who I was, and the feeling that something was utterly wrong with me and needed to be fixed, pronto. Along with the other student in my class, who was practicing processing trauma symptoms and memories by tracking them in the body, I noticed the temperature change in my face, the hot tears streaming out of my eyes, the rise of energy from the lump in my throat up through my burning cheeks, to the sensation that I just wanted to be invisible. My fellow student stood with me and guided me through noticing what happened to these sensations when I paid attention to them, how they would change, transform, and eventually dissipate. With this approach, memories that have become physically embodied can be processed and integrated, providing greater emotional health and regulation and fewer traumatic responses to perceived threats in the environment.
I am an addiction and trauma counselor, and I also have severe PTSD from early childhood trauma. My ACE Score is 8 out of 10, (find your ACE Score ) and I have to work very hard sometimes to keep myself emotionally regulated. My brain and body tells me the world is not a safe place.
When folks have trauma (Big T Trauma, such as ACES, or Little t traumas, like chronic stressors), the nervous system is often in a battle between being hyper-aroused (i.e. panic, anxiety, hypervigilance, anger, urge to run) and hypo-aroused (depressed, numb, shut down, foggy). It can be difficult to find a calm place in the middle to access peace and feelings of self-worth. A triggering incident can throw you off the flow of a whole day. So, what tools can trauma survivors use to get back into a regulated state?
5 Ways to Self Soothe and Self-Regulate Emotions
- Talk to people in your support network: make an appointment with your therapist, spend time with friends, members of a support group, or loved ones. We need other people to help us keep our emotions in check. This process began when you were a baby. Allowing others to help us monitor and balance our emotions through connection is called co-regulation.
- Grounding: Literally go outside and put your bare feet on the ground. If you are in a meeting or helping a customer, caring for a child, or otherwise occupied, feel your feet in your shoes, wiggle your toes, feel your seat in the chair or how your weight is distributed to your legs if you are standing. Notice where you are and take in everything you can with your senses. If you are in a truly dangerous situation- get out of there, and ground once you’re safe.
- Breathe: Our breath is the best tool to help bring us into the present moment and into awareness of our bodies. Take 10 deep belly breaths, and if you notice your thoughts are drifting away from your breathing, gently bring them back.
- Smile: If you make a half-smile, just slightly turning up the corners of your mouth, your facial nerves will communicate to your brain and your hormonal system that you are happy, and you will begin to feel happier. If you know someone who often makes you smile or laugh, talk to them. Humor is healing.
- Start a Program of Recovery: If you are a trauma survivor, having a daily routine that includes self-care around your traumatic experiences can help you to be more resilient. This can include nutrition, mindfulness practice, therapy, support groups, exercise, research (learn about how your brain and body process trauma), and purposeful work or volunteerism.
My daily toolbox includes all of these and more, which allows me, as a person with high ACES, to be fully engaged in my life and notice trauma triggers when they arise, decide how to address them, and continue to experience all of my feelings, joyful, embarrassed, angry, content, amused, annoyed, inspired… ALL THE FEELS. Triggers and my body’s trained response to them typically make me want to avoid any feelings, at all cost, but through practice and determination, it is possible not to shut down or freak out when trauma raises its head. You are not broken, you are a warrior.