Trauma and Grounding
Hey everyone, and welcome to week 10 of our blog posts. For those of you who participated in the polls for this post, thank you! And you’ll also have noticed that all of the questions I asked were about grounding techniques. I asked, “have you heard of grounding techniques?” 11 people said yes, and 1 said no. I’m pleased and surprised that so many people know about grounding, because it’s such a wonderful tool. I also asked, “do you have a favourite grounding technique?” and received answers like box breathing and tree visualisation.
Of course, today’s topic is trauma and grounding, but I only asked the audience about grounding. I was racking my brain over how to ask you all questions about trauma, and I felt that any question I came up with felt too personal or more like a question I should be answering for you. Trauma is a difficult topic to talk about! It’s difficult enough that I spent some time wondering if I should use it as a topic at all. But I reminded myself that we’ve covered difficult topics on this blog before, e.g. sexual assault and harassment for SVAM, and that if a topic is difficult to talk about, it’s often even more critical that we do.
So why did I choose trauma and grounding as the topic for this week?
1) I’ve been working on our trauma informed communities presentation, and my brain is so filled with this information!
2) 75% of people will experience some type of traumatic event in their lives.
3) As with resilience and self-care, it seemed like an extremely relevant topic right now.
I often hear from coworkers that because of COVID-19, we are going through a collective experience of global trauma. That can be pretty heavy to hear, but I think it’s all the more important that we talk about it and learn more about trauma and what we can do to get through it in a healthy way. COVID-19 may be something that we don’t know much about, and don’t have the tools to fix right now. But we do know a lot about trauma, and there are proven techniques that help you with that! It’s actually an empowering idea, at least for me, that while COVID is a scary unknown, the experience of trauma is a scary experience that we know and can work through together!
Trauma is the lasting emotional response that often results from living through distressing events in our lives, that we perhaps didn’t predict were going to happen. Sounds like COVID-19 to a tee! But there are many types of events that can be considered trauma. The distressing event from the definition could be a recent, single traumatic event – like a car crash, a single traumatic event from the past – like a natural disaster, or a series of events (long-term chronic pattern trauma) such as child abuse.
You may have heard of big T and little t trauma. Dr. Barbash on Psychology Today defines big T trauma is defined as “an extraordinary and significant event that leaves the individual feeling powerless” (Source 1). Examples include everything I just mentioned; a car crash, natural disaster or abuse. She defines little t trauma as “events that exceed our capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning” (Source 1). Examples include neglect, divorce and financial worries.
People often think of trauma as very intense experiences, like natural disasters or sexual assault, and these are some of the most profound experiences people can endure. However, events we tend to overlook, such as childhood neglect or financial trouble, can still have a traumatic impact on a person especially if these small events accumulate over time. I wanted to mention big and little t trauma because it’s a pretty common way of defining different types of trauma. However, as therapist Robyn Brickel says, “there is no such thing as little trauma. Trauma is a fundamental feeling of threat. It’s a perceived lack of safety. And it’s different for everyone. Trauma is more about the impact than the cause; it’s about how the trauma is “remembered” in the body. It is not up to us to judge . . . the impact of someone’s trauma. The only person who can do that is the person who feels it” (Source 2).
Trauma also has a different effect on different people. Two people could go through the exact same event, and one person may go home and be like “Oh that was scary, but not so bad.” And then another person may really struggle with what just happened. It’s very dependent on who you are, what your history is, who your supports are; all of these factors are going determine how you deal with the experience. Trauma is a very personal experience, and we cannot determine how someone will be impacted by it, only they can!
Since trauma has a different effect on different people, responses or symptoms of it can vary widely as well. I’m going to offer a few examples of what trauma symptoms can feel like, sound like and look like, to help recognize them in yourself or others.
What do trauma symptoms feel like?
· Constantly feeling unsafe – their brain is always looking for danger. This is a very common theme with people who have experienced trauma, that their general belief becomes that they are not safe anywhere.
· Like they’ve lost their sense of self – who they are, where they fit in this world, how do they integrate what they’ve experienced into a new normal.
· Lack of emotional regulation. They might cry a lot or seem very angry or irritated or agitated. Everyone is very unique in their response to trauma. Emotional regulation may look a little different after a traumatic experience.
What do trauma symptoms sound like?
For this, we’re referring to phrases that people might say if they’ve experienced trauma, and are feeling the physical effects of that. These phrases could include:
· “I feel stuck”
· “My stomach hurts”
· “I often feel paralyzed”
· “My heart races/flutters/flips/skips a beat”
· “My chest feels tight”
· “I feel dizzy/nauseous”
It’s important to know that trauma can represent itself physically in some sense. These are all very normal natural responses to experiencing trauma, and it’s important to know that it may not just represent itself through things like anxiety or depression.
What do trauma symptoms look like?
· Dissociation – glassy eyes, not able to concentrate, you speak to them and it’s like they’re tuned into a different station (not hearing you)
· Extreme nervousness – hypervigiliant, hyperaware, always looking for danger
· Avoidance – opposite of extreme nervousness; don’t want to deal with anything or interact with anyone and experience complete exhaustion.
· Dysregulation – where someone might seem to be ‘overreacting’ to something that you might not think is ‘a big deal’. E.g. someone at a party says something that the group laughs at, and another person starts crying or wants to run away from the party.
These are just a few examples, but they are a really good place to start. If you recognize some of these symptoms in others, it might be a sign that they are traumatized and need some help.
What can we do to help?
If you’re working, living, or simply know someone who has experienced trauma, and you want to help them, grounding exercises are a really good place to start. Before I get into what grounding exercises are and how they work, I want to mention that if you or someone you know is struggling with trauma, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional. These posts are meant to be informative, but are NOT a substitute for professional guidance, counselling or therapy.
Here are some Alberta numbers you can call or text for help.
Mental Health Help Line
Crisis Text Line
Text CONNECT to 741741
More resources: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/amh/Page16759.aspx
How do grounding techniques work? “Grounding techniques help control symptoms of trauma by turning attention away from thoughts, memories, or worries, and refocusing on the present moment” (Source 3). “Different strategies work for different people, and there is no ‘wrong’ way to ground yourself. The main aim is to keep your mind and body connected and working together” (Source 4). These help to bring our attention back to the present moment, and can start building resiliency as well. We recommend practicing these techniques even when you aren’t feeling stressed, because it will become more natural to do when you need them! Here are some examples:
4x4x4 (box) breathing: For this exercise, you simply inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. You can repeat that process 7-10 times, or however many times you need. For some people it’s more than that and for others, they are able to do it in a few breaths. Paying attention to what their needs or your needs are is important. This breathing exercise lets our nervous system know, it’s okay, we can calm down, and we’re safe. Retraining our brain through our body can be really effective to calm someone down. And practicing this on a daily basis can help bring us back to that front brain where we’re able to make more rational clear decisions.
5-4-3-2-1: You can do this exercise with the 5 senses, or with objects in the room. You also start this exercise by noticing your breath, and work to have long and slow inhales and exhales.
With objects: would sound like, “I want you to look around the room right now and find 5 things that are blue, 4 things that are red, 3 things that are green, 2 things that are yellow, and one that is white.” Of course, these colours can be changed to whatever works best for you. With senses: finding 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste or 1 thing you're grateful for. This exercise asks your frontal lobe to track and find what’s in the room around you, or become aware of your senses, and that lets the amygdala (flight fight freeze response) know that it’s okay to calm down. It distracts the brain and helps it get regulated!
There are many different exercises beyond the two I mentioned here. It's totally okay if the above techniques don't work for you; everyone is different! You can always search for grounding exercises online and find new and different approaches.
If you’re interested in a more thorough walkthrough on different grounding techniques, you can check out the Saffron Centre podcast! We have a series all about walking first-timers through different grounding exercise, and they are a great resource for those who’d like to practice them by themselves or share them with others: https://www.saffroncentre.com/the-saffron-centre-podcast
Thanks for joining me today to learn about trauma and grounding. I hope that, like for me, learning more about the topic makes you feel more comfortable talking about it, and that you feel empowered to use grounding techniques even when you’re simply feeling stressed or anxious. I myself use them quite often and they help me every time!