In several previous blogs we learned about how trauma affects the brain and body. What is equally important to know is how to cope with the trauma in the aftermath. As a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, I often get people asking for skills to help them move forward and better cope. Knowing and understanding how trauma affects us is a great first step but another aspect of recovery is learning how we move forward.
It’s important to know that humans are hard wired with instinctive coping impulses. All of us are born with strong survival instincts that help us stay alive when we are babies and completely dependent on those around us. As we grow older and our brains develop more, we are able to learn to translate our coping impulses into coping skills. Once we are able to implement coping skills, we gain more control over our brains and in turn, our lives.
Building a Coping Skills Tool Box
One important part of trauma recovery is having a toolbox of skills to reach for when in need. Below is a list of tools that may be helpful to add to your toolbox…
1. Slowing Down Breathing: While it can be hard for someone with trauma or anxiety to slow down their breathing, it is one of the most effective tools toward regulating oneself. It’s much harder to be anxious physiologically when we are taking deep breaths. Inhaling and exhaling to a count of 4 is a good exercise to start with.
2. Muscle Relaxation: As we discussed previously, often trauma will become trapped in the body and manifest as pain or anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation exercises can be helpful to calm our tense muscles and regulated our bodies.
3. Grounding Techniques: This can be a highly effective tool for someone who experiences flashbacks. Anxiety and flashbacks often exist in the present or the past so what grounding does is it allows us to get back into the present where we can experience a sense of safety. Grounding involves using our 5 senses to come back to baseline. This may include identifying colors in the room, touching an object and describing the texture, identifying sounds in the room, etc.
4. Self Care: I’ve had patients look at me in session with a blank stare when I’ve asked them what they do for self care. If you are someone who is accustomed to taking care of others before yourself, this may feel foreign but that may make it even more essential. This can include anything from taking a hot bath to going for a hike.
5. Avoid Isolating If Possible: Sometimes when someone has been traumatized, the idea of leaving the house can be enough to throw them into a full blown panic attack. This can lead people to avoiding friends, family, and activities they once loved. While this is understandable it is certainly not helpful. If returning to work or school feels too overwhelming, taking small steps such as meeting a friend for coffee or going on a walk may be a good place to start.
6. Avoid Alcohol and Drugs: While these may seem like good choices for instant relief, it’s like a dentist using Lidocaine on a tooth or a doctor using Cortisone for an injury. It can be highly effective for a short time but it doesn’t actually fix the problem. Alcohol and drugs actually decrease our resiliency and make it harder to recover long term from trauma.
7. Knowing When To Seek Help: Trauma can often feel isolating and can lead people to feel as if no one understands them. In this case, working with a trauma specialist or joining a trauma group can be helpful. A therapist specializing in trauma can help you understand what’s happening and assist you in developing a trauma recovery plan.
While trauma recovery can be frightening and challenging, it is certainly possible. I’ve watched patients go from being unable to get out of bed to returning to a fully functioning and enjoyable life. If you are struggling with trauma recovery and feel unable to recover on your own, it may be time to seek professional help. If you would like to learn more about Shannon’s services, contact her today for a free consultation.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.