“Where do you feel safe”, I asked. I watched her scan her memory. Nothing registered. 'Nowhere' was the unspoken answer. This is a long term friend of mine, Heidi, who has experienced complex trauma in her childhood. Abuse, negligence and parental mental illness. This is trauma I would describe with a capital T. Trauma that has a lowercase ‘t’, is trauma we might not know is trauma. It is our bodies response to an event through freeze, flight or fright that leaves a lasting imprint. For you it may be a humiliating experience with a peer, an accident or near miss. For others it may be a few moments too long underwater, with mounting desperation to refill your lungs with air.
These lasting imprints on ourselves are often invisible, until a new experience touches on their shadow. This is when we find our traumas reactivated in a different context, but with the same feelings. All traumatic memories, those with a capital 'T' and those a lowercase 't', are stored within our bodies with the main access switch stored in our reptilian brain. The reptilian brain only uses sensory information for encoding and retrieval, and so we cannot 'think' our way through these sensations. We must wait for the sensations to abate, before we can process what has been awakened.
Because the part of the brain that these imprints are stored in uses only sensation, it is trickier to retrieve the memory attached to these sensations through normal thinking processes. This can be confusing to the individual experiencing the trauma reactivation and confusing to other people who are within the new context. This behaviour doesn’t make sense. And yet, for the person experiencing the trauma activation, it does. But it's very hard to put into words.
When we think about Heidi’s lack of feelings of safety in her life, I can tell you this is a trademark of trauma (both lowercase and uppercase). There are other signals of trauma that you may also be familiar with.
1. Easily overwhelmed
2. Doesn’t do well with surprises
3. Feelings of powerlessness and helplessness
4. Lack of boundaries both in setting and keeping.
A person that experiences these types of trademarks will likely have an associated trauma(s) attached. When Heidi and I were working through how she can reduce her trauma symptoms, to allow her to feel greater levels of safety, we realised that there are simple ways she can support herself:
1. Manage overwhelm by moving gently and slowly. Use somatic body-work (e.g. weighted blankets, reduction in sensory stimuli [noise, visual etc], deep tissue massage) to ‘switch-off’ the trauma activations. Because the trauma 'switch' is in the reptilian brain, you must use sensation based interventions to return the body to homeostasis, or neutral.
2. Communicate your need for a surprise free life. Talk openly and lightly about how you can be ready for anything, you just need a little notice. You likely already read the environmental clues for surprises, but it's nice not to have to be so hypervigilant.
3. Allow yourself to be empowered. Find a friend, therapist or good listener who doesn’t have a ‘fixing’ agenda. Nothing disempowers faster than being told what to do or being ‘fixed’. Building your own skills with a supportive coach fits that old adage of teach a person to fish and they’ll never be hungry again.
4. Be clear in what your rules of engagement are. This is something to be done in advance of a situation that may be triggering, and as you get more used to working consciously with yourself, you will retrofit learnings and build a stronger toolkit to support yourself. For those who are not good at seeing, holding or making boundaries – the best place to learn this critical skill, is in the hands of a good psychologist. We all feel safer if we know the rules. So you being clear of your own is a very useful place to start. Others will feel safer around you too, if they know what your limits are.
How do you manage your overwhelm?