Trauma activates the stress response. This is known as a fight, flight and freeze response. It can cause people to be agitated (hyper-aroused). It can also make people shut down (hypoaroused). Survivors can experience one or the other and often both at different times. Being hyperaroused can make it difficult to sleep and concentrate. It can also make you irritable and angry. Sometimes people feel like they can’t breathe properly, and their heart is racing. You might startle easy and be constantly ‘on guard’.
When you’re feeling anxious or panicky i.e. activated or hyper-aroused the following strategies can help you feel calm. Different strategies work for different people. Try and see.
Trauma survivors often over-breathe. This is because we all breathe faster when we are threatened. This can make some people hyperventilate. Others can experience panic attacks. Our rate of breathing also affects our heart rate, blood pressure and the rest of our body. Slowing breathing slows other processes in our body. It also lowers our level of arousal. This, in turn, reduces tension and stress. Slowing our breathing down can help turn off the ‘fight/flight’ response.
You might find the following ‘controlled breathing techniques’ help you calm yourself if you start to feel tense, anxious or to panic. This is what you can do:
- Focus on your breathing.
- Try to breathe evenly
- Lengthen your breath
- Try to make your breath out slighter longer than your breath in e.g. in for the count of 3 and out for the count of 5.
Box breathing is another technique you can try to help relieve stress or anxiety. Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4 and repeat.
If you find breathing difficult, lie down and place a small pillow or piece of clothing on your stomach and watch it rise up and down slowly as you breathe.
Doing this every day, if you can manage it, will help lower your stress levels.
Focusing on breathing is particularly effective when you are able to ground yourself. Feel the earth under your feet, the seat you are sitting on. Looking out of a window, stepping outside into the fresh air. These strategies can enhance the effectiveness of breathing.
If panic sets in quickly and it is too hard for you to breathe through it, try breathing in and out of a paper bag.
These strategies can make your breathing more effective.
Mindfulness practices can help us connect to our bodies. They can help us become more aware of how our body is responding at different times. We can observe what is happening in our body and know that bad feelings in our body will pass.
- Is my throat closing?
- Am I getting a headache?
- Is my stomach tightening?
- Do I feel hot or cold when I feel scared?
You can scan your body moving your attention from the top of your head down to your toes. Notice how the different parts of your body feel as you pay attention to them.
When we sit still and breathe, we are being mindful. Simply breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, with awareness, and calmly sitting can help relieve your anxiety.
Mindfulness helps us learn to respond instead of reacting. It is empowering. It also helps us manage critical self-talk.
There are many books, websites and classes for mindfulness available. Choose one that suits you and use it when you need to. Mindfulness is not for everyone. Feel free to try it if you want.
Doing repetitive movements can be helpful to calm us e.g. try knitting, bouncing a ball, jumping on a trampoline, drumming, or colouring in.
When you’re feeling spaced out, shut down or ‘unreal’ you might be dissociated or hypo-aroused.
Being hypo-aroused is the survival response of `freeze’. When we freeze we might zone out or shut down. We can also go onto autopilot. When some people are hypo-aroused they dissociate.
It is best to try and notice as soon as we are feeling overwhelmed and are shutting down. When we do, we can then use one or more of the following exercises to help us get back into our bodies in the present.
Choose the strategy which helps you so you can use it when you need to ground yourself
- pushing your feet into the ground
- pushing your backside into the chair
- standing up and stomping your feet against the floor
- pushing your fingernails into the palms of your hands
- your imagination is the limit …
The following ‘orienting’ exercises can help you orientate to the here and now:
- looking around the room and naming 5 things that begin with C
- looking at objects and naming them
- focusing on someone else talking
- naming the day, date, time, year
- Other ideas include, using cold water on your face, touching ice, flicking a rubber band on your wrist,
or taking a warm shower followed by a cold one. Some things work for some people. Some with for others.
Choose the strategy which helps you so you can do it when you feel you are shutting down.
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Blue Knot Helpline and Redress Support Service is a specialist service.
Our counsellors provide empathetic, informative and empowering support for adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse.