become the alchemist of your past
The impact of trauma can make us feel like we just got wind knocked out of us by a violent tornado uprooting us from shelter.
Picking ourselves back up and finding direction again can feel confusing.
Our inner landscapes may feel distorted.
Our thoughts may be messy and jumbled up.
We may feel emotionally stuck and immobile, unable to know what our next step is.
Our minds may repeat the trauma unconsciously or at random by a trigger in the environment.
The question we may most often ask ourselves is, “Why did this happen to me?”.
One night when I was thirteen I found myself asking that question to a sky full of stars.
“It wasn’t happening to me but for me” — a voice bellowed from deep inside me.
I don’t know what it was but that night changed the course of my life.
Through different therapies and healing techniques I have found a way to translate my trauma into life tools that help me navigate the muddy waters easier.
Here are some that have stuck with me to this day.
Know your triggers.
When we begin the process of recovery we start to learn and know our trauma.
A trauma according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness is an accident, assault, military combat or natural disaster.
Knowing our trauma involves getting very intimate with ourselves and identifying our triggers.
An emotional trigger is a topic, situation, place or person that can make us have a strong emotional reaction.
Sometimes the trigger can take us back to the trauma and it can feel as if we are re-living it all over again.
There is a reason for your behaviors and actions.
You aren’t just “crazy”.
For a long time if an older man stared at me I got triggered.
It triggered the sexual abuse with my father hence the intense emotional response.
Identify what triggers you.
If you don’t know what your triggers are reflect on moments where you had a strong emotional response.
- What was the situation?
- What thoughts did you have?
- What story did your brain create?
- Was there any concrete evidence to prove your thoughts were factual?
For example, one of my former partners cheated on me when she went out to a party.
In my next relationship I got triggered when my new partner said he was going to grab a drink with a friend.
Immediately I started to panic and felt fearful that he would cheat on me.
However I had no evidence of him being someone who lied.
In fact all of his relationships showed me he was a man of integrity but my traumatized brain couldn’t believe it.
I had to practice trust and vulnerability to identify and heal that trigger.
When we can start to identify and know our triggers it helps us to differentiate between reality and the past.
Get in touch with your body.
When I am triggered sometimes I don’t even know what I am triggered about until I take a moment to be with what I am experiencing.
In the book, The Body Keeps the Score, author Bessel Van Der Kolk describes it as:
“When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present.
But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are reexperiencing and reenacting the past — they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed or frozen.”
We may get immobilized by our emotional response so much that we aren’t in touch with what is happening in the body.
When you are experiencing a trigger, practice pausing for a moment and listening to your body.
Notice what is happening.
Does your chest tighten?
Do you clench your fists?
Do you hold your breath?
Do you get quieter or shut down?
By knowing what is happening in our bodies we can reconnect to the present and disengage from the trigger.
Connect to Your Breath.
Our breath is our first tool to ground us back into our bodies.
Here is a simple and effective breathing technique:
Take a natural breath in.
Exhale to the count of 4.
As you exhale, imagine a word in your mind such as calm or relax.
Repeat this technique for at least 3 cycles.
You can try this tool as a way to reconnect with your body.
Another practice that aids in transforming our past is yoga.
Yoga gives us the opportunity to slow down and synchronize our bodies with our breath and spirit.
Bessel van der Kolk shared that yoga has an impact on our heart rate variability which decreases stress.
In his studies they were able to find that areas of the brain involving self-awareness get activated by doing yoga.
These particular areas get locked out by trauma and are needed to be accessed in order to heal.
Therefore yoga over time with consistency can have a positive impact on healing trauma.
This is a technique I learned in my trauma therapy.
Changing my environment immediately gives me space from whatever my brain and body are experiencing.
Sometimes it’s stepping out for air.
Getting a drink of water.
Going for a walk.
These simple strategies have saved me from saying the wrong thing or interpreting a situation inaccurately.
Change your environment even if for five minutes.
Observe what you are feeling.
Do something else and then revisit your trigger.
Notice if your thoughts have changed or you feel even a slight difference.
Science has shared that mindfulness can help us get unstuck from a negative cycle of thinking often where we go when we are triggered.
Something I learned that helped me in my recovery is becoming mindfully aware of my environment.
The moment I am triggered I immediately start looking at my environment and naming everything I see in front of me in great detail.
For example: I see a flat screen television. A white desk. A white vase-shaped aromatherapy lamp. I am wearing fuzzy pink and white socks. It is 10:19 p.m. I live in Los Angeles.
There is something about touching our actual reality that can decrease our symptoms.
It can get us out of the mental loop our minds can go on when we are triggered.
Another practice to try is mindful feeling which is being conscious and aware of your feelings without judgment or action.
Mindful feeling exercise:
Acknowledge your what you are feeling.
Be the observer of it without jumping to a conclusion or reacting irrationally.
Notice what story your mind is creating.
What can you learn from what you are feeling?
See what the emotion is trying to tell you.
For example, this is a story my mind used to create when my partner went out with his friends:
“I notice I am feeling angry. I am angry because I feel like my partner is lying to me. I think he is cheating on me.
But why would he do that?
He has been a person of integrity and showed up consistently. Maybe he is cheating on me anyway? Even if that happened I am safe and have choices.”
We can become a witness to what we feel and practice loving-kindness to ourselves.
Onward & turning lead into gold.
As we practice these mindful tools and develop a deep sense of self-awareness we transform our relationship to our trauma.
We are no longer just what happened to us.
We may not get tripped up over the remnants of the trauma as easily as we once did.
That is what is the miracle about moving forward.
We can be the alchemists of our stories and turn lead into gold.