Although humans have evolved over time it’s worth looking to the fundamental survival mechanisms in our bodies and minds to understand how to manage stress, including traumatic stress.
This is because our bodies automatically react to any kind of threats in our environment, including at unconscious levels. For people who have experienced significant and/or repeated stress, these automatic reactions are heightened. When it comes to trauma, such reactions can feel uncontrollable as they are re-experienced many times afterwards.
One of the first things to be affected when stressed is our breath as our muscles become more activated for fight or flight (increased oxygen), or less activated for freeze (decreased oxygen). This are states of hyper- or hypo-arousal, respectively.
If your stress comes out as agitation, panic, or anxiety then this is a state of hyper-arousal. You’re taking in oxygen but it’s not being retained in the body, often because of shallow breathing. Your heart has to beat faster to get depleted amounts oxygen around your body.
Here it’s helpful to take a breath in for three seconds, hold your breath for three, then out for three. It feels counterintuitive but this enables any oxygen to stay in the body, which allows your heart to slow down and overall you begin to relax.
Combining this with anything that engages your five senses is helpful in grounding you in the present moment comfortably, helping you to re-establish a sense of safety in a small, controlled way.
If your stress causes you to feel less activated, like depression, then the key is to take slower breaths in and out for even counts. Increasing oxygen flow to your muscles helps them become more activated in a gentle way, so that you’re in control without feeling overwhelmed.
Combining this with small physical movements, like scrunching up your hands/feet or tapping each of your fingers one-by-one, is a good start to becoming more mobilised out of a freeze state.
For a more detailed explanation, and demonstrations of these techniques, click here for a free video.