Today’s post is the fifth installment in a series about special needs parenting from the inside out. The series is the result of what I learned while researching Does My Child Have PTSD? What To Do When Your Child Is Hurting from the Inside Out.
The Seven Stages of Trauma Response
Our brains go through seven stages of trauma response when we can’t escape a perceive danger. These seven stages are explained in the Intensive Trauma Response (ITR) model developed by Dr. Louis Tinnin and Linda Gantt, the founders of Intensive Trauma Therapy (ITT), an outpatient trauma clinic located in Morgantown, West Virginia.
These stages are automatic and instinctual for newborns, infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, and adults who go through trauma. This post focuses how each trauma response is experienced in those under age 18. Parents familiar with these seven stages will better equipped to deal with their kids’ behavior during and after traumatic events.
Trauma Response #1: Startle
Startle is the quick, intense response which puts the body on high alert. Baby fingers splay, arms go rigid, and the babies cry. Toddlers, children, and teens tend to jump and gasp. Their hearts pound and their palms turn sweaty about things that adults shake off.
Trauma Response #2: Thwarted Intention
After the initial startle, the body releases a surge of hormones to prepare for fight or flight. When fight or flight aren’t possible, the thwarted intention response kicks in. As kids grow, they become strong enough to hide from perceived danger, to pitch magnificent fits, or to fight back. But babies can’t do any of those things. Therefore, the younger or more helpless children are in any given scary situation, the more like they are to reach the stage of thwarted intention.
Trauma Response #3: Freeze
When intentions are thwarted and there’s no hope of escape, the brain enters the freeze state. The body goes numb and immobile, at least for a moment or two. Children who experience similar, repeated traumas go through the two previous steps so quickly and automatically they may appear to have skipped them completely. They may freeze at the slightest hint of threat. No jump. No gasp. No attempt to fight or run. Their brains freeze and go offline for a while.
Trauma Response #4: Altered State of Consciousness
If the freeze state lasts for more than a few moments, the brain enters an altered state of consciousness. Adults often describe this state as watching a movie of themselves or the feeling of shrinking deep inside their bodies. When threatened, babies disengage and shut out the threat often through gaze aversion. Older children enter this stage by telling themselves, “This can’t be happening. It must be a dream.” Many children escape the situation through daydreaming.
Trauma Response #5: Bodily Sensations
These bodily sensations can be experienced during different stages in the ITR model. All of them are stored as non-verbal memories in the right brain. They remain there as sensations that can’t be put it into words. This step is especially risky from birth to age three because young children have no words. The memories are like terrifying movies playing over and over inside the brain. As children get older, their rational mind can’t explain these sensations, so many adolescents think they’re going crazy.
Trauma Response #6: Automatic Obedience
This instinctual response causes a person to automatically obey a perpetrator’s demands in order to survive the immediate threat. For children in life and death situations, automatic obedience is an appropriate survival response. Therefore, babies undergoing hospital procedures learn to lie quietly when people hurt them. Toddlers surrender when grown-ups touch their private parts. Young children do whatever their parents say to avoid a beating or verbal abuse. Automatic obedience is often the only survival weapon children have until their old enough or big enough to fight back.
Trauma Response #7: Self-Repair
After the threat passes, children tend to the emotional and physical wounds of trauma. Children instinctually seek out a favorite blankie, a stuffed animal or people they trust to comfort them. Sleeping, eating, rocking, going to a quiet place, and washing are other forms of self-repair. Young children revert to sucking their thumbs again or using abottle instead of a sippy cup. Older children regress to baby talk or demand a nightlight at bedtime. These behaviors are attempts to return to a safer, more comfortable time before the trauma happened.
Hope for Traumatized Kids
Keep a few things in mind while reflecting on these seven stages. First, all children face perceived threats and go through these stages. But research shows that children who have a compassionate, calm parent or caregiver to help them process the event are much less likely to experience long term mental health issues. Second, children dealing with unresolved trauma or PTSD that develops from it can be successfully treated by trained trauma treatment professionals.
The next post in this series will look at symptoms of PTSD in children from birth to age 3, ages 4 to 6, 7 to 12, and 13-18. Until then, you can learn more about the seven stages described above in The Instinctual Response and Dual-Brain Dynamics: A Guide for Trauma Therapy by Dr. Louis Tinnin and Linda Gantt, and in Does My Child Have PTSD? What To Do When Your Child Is Hurting from the Inside Out by Jolene Philo.
Do you have insights or questions about the seven stages of the ITR model? Feel free to share them in the comment box.
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Wendy, if your son is not yet seeing a therapist about his trauma issues, you would be wise to find one. A good therapist may have ideas concerning the SPD issues, too. Jolene
I see the last three particularly with my son, he is medically complex and has had many invasive procedures. He is also mild SPD. I am now worried I am not responding correctly to his sensory issues.
Gratitude is a funny thing. It doesn’t always come easy for survivors of trauma and abuse. Gratitude is defined as a positive experience of thankfulness. Some people actually wonder why they don’t feel more gratitude after surviving a life threatening event such as a plane accident or being a victim of a crime. Sometime their sense of feeling grateful to “just be alive” is impacted by their day to day PTSD symptoms of unresolved trauma and a sense that it is “not over yet” or that they are “not safe anywhere”. For many trauma survivors fear gets in the way of feeling gratitude and thankfulness. People who have survived trauma have had their joy taken away. In fact, a feature of PTSD is hypervigelence which creates fear in people of being hurt again.
Healing from trauma can happen in multiple ways. Sometimes a gratitude practice can begin the process and other times gratitude can come later after other forms of trauma treatment such as, EMDR therapy has taken place. Knowing what we are grateful for can be something that we think in our heads but don’t quite feel in our hearts. Research shows that gratitude practices don’t always provide a quick fix for survivors of trauma. In fact, some studies show that the positive effects of gratitude increases over time and with practice. This suggests that gratitude needs time in order to help us heal from traumatic life events.
“Not every day is good, but there’s something good in every day.” — Alice Morse Earle
Consider a gratitude practice in your life. Here are some ideas in developing gratitude: a gratitude list or journal, moment to moment gratitude in your thoughts, sharing your gratitude with others such as a partner, spouse or a friend who has agreed to participate with you.
Brene’ Brown, PhD an author and social researcher gathered information on gratitude. She shared in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, that without a doubt every person that she interviewed who said that they were happy actively practiced gratitude in their lives. Examples of gratitude she came across in her interviews were; doing daily gratitude meditations or prayers, creating gratitude art, and even stopping during their stressful, busy days to actually say these words out loud: “I am grateful for . . .
Gratitude can certainly help with the healing process of trauma as well as create more resiliency to deal with future trauma or stress. So in this season of gratitude take time to reflect on what being thankful means to you and look for small or big ways to incorporate this practice in your life.
Life is like a wild roller coaster ride. It is full of ups and downs, as well as unexpected surprises, both good and bad.
It usually goes a little something like this: You’re at the top of your game, the high point on the roller coaster. Suddenly, you’re thrown forward. You’re quickly gaining speed, flying downward with no end in sight. It’s thrilling. It’s scary. There’s a mix of emotions and feelings.
All in all, these negatives and positives frequently balance each other out.
The universe strives for an energy balance. It’s a constant tug and pulls. All of a sudden, you’re flying back up to the top of that next hill. You’ve forgotten about the last downward spiral. The anticipation and excitement for what is to come have taken over.
Yet sometimes, these positive aspects can be hard to find, especially when your soul has taken a significant hit. Maybe you are healing from a divorce (good or bad – it isn’t easy moving on). Maybe you have recently been fired or laid off from your job. Perhaps you’ve lost someone close to you, by choice or otherwise.
It might feel like someone took your soul and trampled over it. You feel empty, numb, and lost. You’re grasping for direction. There are all types of trauma. This is where the biggest hurdle comes. You can’t seem to move on.
But, you can and you will. Moving on from past trauma is possible. It takes time for your soul to heal, but you’ll get there.
Important Note: If you are really struggling, talk to someone. Find a therapist or a professional that can help you find your path again. Under no circumstances does the following advice replace a qualified therapist who knows you and your situation.
Processing these painful emotions is a challenge. When you are ready, face up to that challenge. Proper mental health care and some soul searching can help get you there.
It’s time to pave the way for healing techniques that will help you address past trauma and guide you toward a better life.
4 Steps to Heal Past Trauma
Step 1: Acknowledge & Accept What Happened
Take the time to recognize what you have been through. Acknowledge that it is causing you emotional pain and distress.
Start simple–say it out loud.
No one has to be in the room, at least not to start. This is for you. Say what happened. Say how you feel. Make the decision and choice to move forward to resolve these feelings.
You could even try a few healing affirmations. Confirm how you feel through them. Then, choose a few to say to empower you. This will help you move on.
And remember, feelings are temporary. They will pass. It takes time to process them. But once you accept them and begin to understand them, things will get better. You can take another step forward and begin the process of moving on.
Step 2: Experience Your Feelings
Acknowledging what happened and accepting it can uproot your previous feelings or intensify them (again, healing affirmations can help you do this!).
Also, talk to someone like a therapist or someone else you trust.
Tell your story. Explain your feelings again and again. Or write about it. Let it all out. Allow this energy space to exist outside of you. It’s the whole “getting it off your chest” idea. And it helps you come to terms with it.
Try engaging in mindfulness every day to soothe your soul and give it that breathing room to finally heal.
Whatever you do, don’t repress your feelings. Bottling it up can lead to a ricochet of emotions and trauma down the road. You deserve better.
Step 3: Take Action
You have let your feelings out. You’ve worked through them. Now comes the hardest part: taking action and shedding the negativity.
Embrace forgiveness. Learn to let go of any resentment. It’s only harming you and holding you back. Write a letter to those who might have helped you through this time and thank them. Help someone else struggling as you once were.
Action takes various forms. Take responsibility for your part in the experience or situation that occurred. Similar to step 2, you can write about it or paint about it.
Step 3 may overlap with step 2 as you work through your feelings and move forward. Healing is complicated. It takes many different tactics and time to work through it.
Each situation is also very different. We all process our emotions differently. Get in tune with yourself and your emotions. Find what works or discuss it with your therapist or friend.
Ask for help when you need it. That’s what a support system is for.
Step 4: Reintegration
Reintegration isn’t just about becoming part of your life again and re-entering society. It’s about becoming a new and improved you. It’s taking this past trauma and accepting that it is part of your past. The best thing you can do is take something from it.
What did you learn? Who were you then compared to who you are now? Next time, what would you do differently?
Grow from your experience. Learn from it. And walk through that door into a new stage of your life. Become that new person. You are strong, and you have made it through. You survived. Share your growth. Allow others to learn from it as well.
Recovery & Growth is Coming
You’re stronger than you think.
Trauma can take a slice out of your heart and batter your soul. But you can recover. You can also take on other important mental health care strategies to continue your road of continued personal growth and development.
These strategies could include:
Let those endorphins boost your mood and your confidence.
Getting the right amount of sleep.
Your cognitive abilities don’t function as well on little sleep. You need sleep to think clearly and sort through your emotions. Without it, the trauma may seem even worse. Literally, sleep it off. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be more prepared to get through it.
Try to stick to a positive mindset, even when you don’t want to.
Come up with a list of positive affirmations. Say them every day. Know your worth. Positive beats and tunes can also help you in this regard, so create a playlist for yourself to listen to when needed.
Perhaps life feels much more fragile than before.
Use this and spin it to make your life the best it can be. We all go through emotional trauma. It’s okay to break a little. But fight through it, work through it, and come out stronger and better than you were before.
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“Believing in yourself is really half the battle,” says Krista. Anything is possible and you really can achieve anything you set your mind to, is her motto. Physiotherapist, Piano player, skydiver, yogi, adventure traveler and energetic force of positivity, Krista is herself a (delightful) force to be reckoned with! As. Read More
By Carly Herbert , posted 07.20.2021
How to Heal From Trauma
70% of U.S. adults have been into some traumatic experience at least once in their lives. Notably, extremely stressful events that make you feel helpless, destroy your sense of security in an unsafe world result in emotional and psychological trauma. Let us take an example of the pandemic Covid-19. It traumatized most part of the world, adversely affecting people from across the globe physically, emotionally, and financially as well. The good news is you can heal from trauma. Here are several useful tips in this blog but know that everyone’s journey will be different.
What Is Trauma?
When defining trauma, it is an emotional response to a terrible event such as rape, accident, or natural disaster, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Adding to it, a Traumatic experience can also include life experiences such as death, divorce, and illness. After trauma, you feel denial and shock typically. As far as its long-term effects are concerned, you possibly suffer from physical symptoms, e.g., fatigue, headaches, and nausea. The long-term traumatic effects also include volatile emotions and flashbacks.
What Are the Effects of Trauma on the Body?
Overproduction of Stress Hormones:
When in trauma, your body stimulates overproduction of stress hormones named cortisol. Noticeably, your body remains in a state of high alert due to the activation of stress hormones in case you are reliving a traumatic experience constantly. Triggers might include an exaggerated startle response or trembling, occurring due to the things reminding you of a traumatic event.
Fight or Flight Mode:
Whenever you feel triggered, your body will step into the flight, fight, or freeze mode. To put it simply, you will either: Defend yourself against the trigger or Feel paralyzed. You might also feel difficulty sleeping and the need to avoid situations or people that you believe threatening.
Psychological and Emotional Distress:
Trauma put an impact on three areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. This can cause lasting changes in all three areas. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause impaired functioning of the brain and make significant changes in its size as per some animal studies. Moreover, post-traumatic stress leads to fight or flight response that further causes overproduction of cortisol. If so happens, rewiring of your brain’s circuitry will take place, bringing about emotional and psychological distress.
How to Heal from Trauma?
You can start healing from trauma by following these useful tips:
Limit Media Exposure:
Avoid watching disturbing footage and social media before bed. Also, if you are watching the news and feel triggered, turn it off and do something pleasant.
Accept What You Feel:
In this regard, you need to process painful emotions in the following ways:
Giving yourself time to get through your feels and mourn any loss you have encountered.
Seek a therapist
Preparing yourself for volatile emotions.
Learning to reconnect with uncomfortable emotions.
Be Physically Active:
Being physically active is a helpful way of releasing endorphins, i.e., the feel-good hormone that will boost your mood.
You can do the following for staying physically active:
Indulge in rhythmic exercises, e.g., running, walking, dancing, basketball, or swimming.
Practice mindfulness by participating in rock climbing, martial arts, weight training, or boxing.
Increase your exercise timing over time.
Have a Healthy Diet and Get Quality Sleep:
Having a well-balanced diet is extremely important. In fact, you can cope with traumatic feels better by having a healthy diet, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and high-quality protein. As well as that, getting quality sleep is also necessary for coping with trauma. To accomplish this purposefully, avoid caffeine, make your bedroom dark, soothing, and quiet and go to sleep at the same time.
by CarmenLeah Ascencio
photo by Amira Alhassan
Growing up, I thought that experiencing violence or abuse was practically inevitable if you were a poor woman or girl, or if you were a person of color. This impression came from the fact that most of the women, girls, and people of color I knew had experienced violence or abuse. My mom went to great lengths to make sure that I was protected from violence, always making sure I was by her side, explaining to me the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch”, putting me in martial arts classes, encouraging me to fight back if anyone bothered me, and sharing her experiences of violence and abuse with me so that I would be aware of any possible danger. I grew up thinking that at some point, I too would have to face violence, and remained bewildered when, by my 20’s, I had not.
People I work with often ask me if I am a survivor. I’m not. I came to care deeply about survivors of violence and abuse, and became very curious about what helped people heal, because so many of the people I loved were survivors and because I was keenly aware of the large scale impact that trauma could have on a community’s well-being. I not only cared deeply about the survivors I loved, but also admired their resilience and resourcefulness in finding ways to heal. Understanding resilience and healing became central to the work I did as a therapist and advocate with survivors of war, sexual violence, partner abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, and hate crimes. Working with survivors has taught me that there are 6 foundational steps to begin the journey of recovery from trauma.
1. Recognize that there is nothing wrong with you.
No matter how you have dealt with trauma so far, no matter how distressed you might feel, there is nothing wrong with you. What is wrong is what happened to you. Many survivors of violence feel shame and self-blame for not being able to protect themselves or their loved ones in the face of violence or abuse. Or feel ashamed for having debilitating distress long after the traumatic event is over. This shame and blame belongs to the perpetrator of the violence and the systems that cultivate this violence, not those victimized by the violence. Keep the shame where it belongs. It is not yours to carry. Our society diagnoses survivors of trauma as mentally ill, when it is their social conditions and the horrifying things that happen to people that are the real disorders. This does not mean that you don’t need help or don’t have mental health challenges because of trauma. But the cause of your condition does not reside within you.
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2. Learn about common reactions to trauma.
Understanding common reactions to trauma can help you identify when you need help and also help you remember that you are having a normal reaction to a traumatic event so that other people can’t make you feel abnormal or broken because of your very normal reaction (and so you don’t make yourself feel this way). A good plain English overview of common trauma reactions can be found here. Understanding what you are going through is essential to reducing the stigma and harsh self-judgment that many survivors experience.
3. Know that trauma is remembered in the body, which means that you’ll have to do more than talk it out to heal.
Part of what is most difficult in recovering from trauma is the way our brain records and stores memories about trauma. Survivors not only have to contend with the negative stories they have internalized about themselves because of something bad that someone else did to them, but they also have to deal with their brains and nervous systems not being able to understand when they are in danger and when they are not. People who have experienced violence or abuse don’t remember traumatic events; they re-experience them. Traumatic memories are stored in the part of the brain responsible for human emotions and the fight or flight response. When a traumatic memory surfaces, the parts of the brain linked to emotions and physical functioning are stimulated, causing survivors to feel like the traumatic event is happening in the present rather than like it is something in the past.
If the trigger happens in the body, any helpful intervention must also happen there. There are numerous physical practices that can help rewire your brain to help calm the alarm that your survival brain is sounding. These practices include yoga, martial arts, dance, somatic therapy, specialized bodywork, and physical exercise, among other things. Anything that gets you to befriend your breath and body with awareness when you are triggered will help.
4. Identify what makes you feel safe and stable and do those things.
Trauma takes way one’s safety, choice and control, so the re-establishment of these things is necessary before healing can take place. Of course, this is difficult when we live in an insecure world and know that absolute safety is impossible. Yet this also does not mean that no safety can be found. In order to heal, survivors must identify what choices and control they do have that increase their sense of safety. What makes you feel comforted, secure and stable? Make a list of these things and proactively practice them every day.
5. Connect with others.
Trauma causes people to feel different, other and alienated. Considering that an estimated 70 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, and up to 20 percent of these people develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, it’s important to recognize that you are not the only one, even if it feels like that. Because trauma makes one feel isolated, getting connected to others is essential to healing. It might feel like too much to talk about your trauma with other survivors, and that’s ok. If this is the case for you, who else can you connect with? Who feels safe or non-judgmental? While it’s sometimes necessary to take rest and refuge alone, this can quickly become an ineffective coping mechanism for dealing with trauma. Also, you don’t have to share the details of your trauma to connect with others. You can focus on what you are feeling and ask for specific things that you need.
6. Know that what happened to you does not mean anything about you.
What happened to you was horrible and unacceptable AND it didn’t mean anything about you, no matter what the perpetrator may have said. Violence and abuse are about the perpetrator and the social conditions that foster a culture of power and domination. It is not about who you are. It doesn’t mean you are weak or less than or any of the other lies that perpetrators may have told you. You get to choose how to view what happened, so notice what view you have and whether or not it supports your healing. If it doesn’t, consider giving up this view for one that does support your healing. The only absolute truth is that it happened. How you make meaning of what happened (or perhaps choose not to make any meaning of it at all) is central your ability to heal.
The journey to heal from trauma is a long one. Some say, life long. And what survivors have taught me more than anything is that people heal, people are resilient and people are capable of much more than they can imagine when they choose to take their first step towards healing.
An inside look at the traumatized brain, and how you can start to heal.
- The brain is plastic, growing and evolving throughout life. Trauma survivors can capitalize on this plasticity to heal.
- A traumatized brain tends to experience excessive activation in areas related to fear, and reduced activation in “thinking” areas.
- Psychotherapy and mindfulness training can reduce activation in the fear center and allow for healthy emotional expression.
Approximately 50 percent of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. While reactions to trauma can vary widely, and not everyone will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma can change the brain in some predictable ways that everyone should be aware of, especially if you or someone close to you is struggling to cope after trauma. With increased awareness, you can seek treatment to address your symptoms and learn skills that could actually rewire your brain for recovery.
Additionally, knowing what’s going on can be immensely helpful because it may help you realize that you’re not crazy, irreversibly damaged, or a bad person. Instead, you can think of a traumatized brain as one that functions differently as a result of traumatic events. And just as your brain changed in response to your past experiences with the world, it can also change in response to your future experiences. In other words, the brain is “plastic,” and you can change it.
3 Areas to Know
Trauma can alter brain functioning in many ways, but three of the most important changes appear to occur in the following areas:
- The prefrontal cortex (PFC), known as the “Thinking Center”
- The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), known as the “Emotion Regulation Center”
- The amygdala, known as the “Fear Center”
The PFC, or thinking center, is located near the top of your head, behind your forehead. It’s responsible for abilities including rational thought, problem-solving, personality, planning, empathy, and awareness of ourselves and others. When this area of the brain is strong, we are able to think clearly, make good decisions, and be aware of ourselves and others.
The ACC, or emotion regulation center, is located next to the prefrontal cortex, but is deeper inside the brain. This area is responsible (in part) for regulating emotion, and (ideally) has a close working relationship with the thinking center. When this region is strong, we are able to manage difficult thoughts and emotions without being totally overwhelmed by them. While we might want to send a snarky email to a coworker, the emotion regulation center reminds us that this is not a good idea, and helps us manage our emotions so that we don’t do things we regret.
Finally, the amygdala, a tiny structure deep inside our brain, serves as its fear center. This subcortical area is outside of our conscious awareness or control, and its primary job is to receive all incoming information—everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste—and answer one question: “Is this a threat?” If it detects that a dangerous threat is present, it produces fear in us. When this area is activated, we feel afraid, reactive, and vigilant.
What’s Going on in a Traumatized Brain
Traumatized brains look different from non-traumatized brains in three predictable ways:
- The Thinking Center is underactivated.
- The Emotion Regulation Center is underactivated.
- The Fear Center is overactivated.
What these activations indicate is that, often, a traumatized brain is “bottom-heavy,” meaning that activations of lower, more primitive areas, including the fear center, are high, while higher areas of the brain (also known as cortical areas) are underactivated. In other words, if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation. You may also have a hard time feeling safe, calming down, or sleeping. These symptoms are all the result of a hyperactive amygdala.
At the same time, individuals who are traumatized may notice difficulties with concentration and attention, and often report they can’t think clearly. This, not surprisingly, is due to the thinking center being underactivated.
Finally, survivors of trauma will sometimes complain that they feel incapable of managing their emotions. For example, if someone spooks them as a prank, they may experience a rapid heart rate long after the joke is up, or may have a hard time “just letting go” of minor annoyances. Even when they want to calm down and feel better, they just can’t. This is in large part due to a weakened emotion regulation center.
What You Can Do Now
Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time. The best gift you can give yourself toward this goal is psychotherapy. If you’re ready to start that journey, look for a psychologist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, and who uses evidence-based methods that change the brain by working with both the body and the mind.
Also, consider adding a body-based or mindfulness-based technique to your daily routine, to help begin deactivating the fear center. This is a vital first step to healing, as when we are able to quiet the fear center, we are better able to work on strengthening and activating the thinking center and emotion regulation center. Two such exercises include diaphragmatic breathing and autogenic training. (Access free, guided practices of these techniques HERE.) The recommendation is to practice these techniques, or similar ones, for short periods of time multiple times per day. Remember, practice makes progress.
LinkedIn Image Credit: tommaso79/Shutterstock
The Three Boards Model of trauma healing offers a roadmap to carry us through.
- What Is Trauma?
- Find a therapist to heal from trauma
- Trauma is not a singular event that can be overcome in one sitting; rather, it affects survivors’ lives in almost every way.
- Trauma impacts the body and brain so strongly that it can actually change how we perceive, experience, and react to the world around us.
- Because of this, healing from trauma is a complex and personal journey.
This post was written by Annie Rooks and Albert Wong.
What is trauma?
Trauma, in the body, can be understood as the chronic and persistent dysregulation of the nervous system due to overwhelming events or life circumstances. This reaction in the body occurs when an event happens in a way that the brain considers either “too much and too fast” (too much of something bad) or “too little and too late” (not enough of something good).
These events cause the body and brain to go into either a state of hyperarousal, meaning they get stuck in overdrive (fight/flight), or a state of hypoarousal, meaning they get stuck in nervous system shutdown (freeze).
Both hyperarousal and hypoarousal can cause wide and far-ranging mental and physiological side effects. Physical changes in the body due to trauma are known as somatic symptoms and are the basis of the Three Boards Model (Price, 1996).
To understand the Three Boards Model, it is important to first understand the window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999). The window of tolerance is a frame of reference for what is considered normal in the body and what is considered traumatic. Its purpose is to graph the average arousal-cycle, which will typically look like a bell-curve, with the peak of the curve being the highest point of anxiety and/or stress a person is feeling.
Trauma occurs when the peak of the arousal cycle is above the person’s threshold, meaning that they are no longer within the window of tolerance. When this happens, different aspects of a person’s reality begin to fragment off and disconnect from one another (discussed further in “Why You Can’t Think Your Way Out of Trauma”).
So how do we fix this? With a model that can be adjusted to suit each individual’s needs and allow them to work at their own pace. This is where the Three Boards Model comes in.
The Three Boards Model
The Three Boards model emerges out of the oral tradition from the Esalen Institute (Price, 1996) and outlines three different approaches to somatic healing, all using some sort of “board” in their practices. Each approach also correlates with a different stage of the trauma healing process and aims to help people better understand their trauma and regain control over their lives.
This framework to understanding trauma and the recovery process is effective because it helps restore a person’s agency, which can be incredibly empowering, and because it also gives them a roadmap on the way to healing. Here is a basic summary of each of the “boards”:
- “The Surfboard” looks at the graph in the window of tolerance as a wave. This means the person and their surfboard both rise and fall with the wave. However, sometimes the wave is too big, and the person gets thrown off of their surfboard and ends up stuck outside the window of tolerance. This stage is focused on resourcing (finding resources to help get back inside the window of tolerance).
- “The Keyboard” compares different components of lived experience to different notes on a keyboard. In this framework, there are multiple constituents of experience (sensation, images, behavior, affect and meaning), but they are not always readily available to us (Levine, 2010). The “Keyboard” stage of the work invites us to ask the following questions: How accessible are these different channels of experience? Can they all be “played”? Are some stuck? This stage of the work is focused on examining the constituents of experience and determining what we have access to—and what we don’t.
- “The Boardroom” reflects the importance of listening to every inner voice and welcoming all thoughts, images, sensations, and feelings. This stage of therapeutic work is focused on letting each part of our experience be heard, seen, valued, and felt, which—with luck—allows us to complete the arousal cycle (come down from the peak of the stress to a place of calm).
In the blog posts to come, we will be exploring each of these “boards” in more depth. Stay tuned.
Annie Rooks is a sophomore psychology major at Chapman University. Currently, she works as an intern at Somatopia, an online educational platform dedicated to creating an embodied world. She plans to attend graduate school and become a child psychologist. Rooks is passionate about making information and resources accessible. She hopes to write children’s books that teach coping methods for mental disorders.
- What Is Trauma?
- Find a therapist to heal from trauma
Quincee Lark is a senior psychology major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Aside from pursuing her degree and freelance painting and illustration, Quincee works as an intern at Somatopia under the supervision of Dr. Albert Wong.
Price, C. (1996). Gestalt Awareness Practice. Workshop conducted for Extended Students at the Esalen Institute.
Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
By Nirmala Raniga
Emotional trauma is everywhere, and so many of us are affected by it.
When we lose someone or something we love, or a stressful event breaks apart our sense of security, we can begin to view our environment and those around us as dangerous. Even if a certain event doesn’t cause us any physical harm, being in a state of fear can still cause us to become traumatized.
Before we get into the 5 steps of healing from emotional trauma, let’s take a quick look at common forms and symptoms that often accompany it.
Common types of emotional trauma:
• Divorce or relationship breakup
• Loss of financial stability
• Loss of a cherished dream
• A loved one’s serious illness
• Loss of a friendship
• Loss of safety after a trauma
• Selling the family home
As a result of emotional trauma, we begin to feel numb, disconnected and lose our trust in others. It can take a lot of time for this pain to go away, and for us to feel safe again. If the trauma we’ve experienced is psychological, we may suffer from troubling memories, anxiety and emotions.
Trauma causes a shock to our minds, bodies and souls, which can lead to emotional problems in the future. There are cognitive, behavioural, physical, and psychological reactions to emotional trauma.
Here are some of the most common emotional responses:
• Post traumatic stress disorder
• Avoidance of social settings, friends, loved ones
• Feelings of anger or irritability, reactiveness
• Sense of guilt and shame
• Grief and depression
• Self-image and views of the world become more cynical
• Sexual relationships suffer
• Drug and alcohol abuse
The emotional responses listed above can make us feel as though we’re going crazy or “losing it”. Have you ever noticed that, following a traumatic event, your physical health begins to show symptoms?
Whether the trauma caused direct physical harm, or the heavy energy of pain and negative emotion wore you down, both circumstances are accompanied by deep emotional pain which can make you ill. Insomnia, nightmares, chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating, panic attacks, edginess, agitation, muscle tension and a rapid heartbeat are all physical symptoms of emotional stress.
Untreated emotional trauma also has serious side effects.
If unaddressed and left untreated, emotional trauma can result in:
• Self-destructive and impulsive behaviours
• Uncontrollable reactive thoughts
• Feelings of shame, guilt, hopelessness, or despair
• Loss of former belief systems
• Compulsive behavioural problems
• Substance use challenges
• Inability to maintain close relationships or maintain appropriate friendships
• Hostility and argumentativeness
• Feelings of being threatened
When we experience emotional trauma, oftentimes, we’re told to focus on ourselves— but that can be much easier said than done. When it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, it’s challenging to even find the strength to lift your leg, and begin putting one foot in front of the other. In fact, finding strength to heal from emotional trauma can be utterly exhausting and debilitating at times— however, it’s one of the most important things you can do for your well-being.
It’s important to maintain the principle of “keeping it simple” when you begin your healing journey, to avoid overwhelm, frustration or the desire to give up entirely. With that in mind, here are five simple but necessary steps for healing:
5 Simple Steps to Healing From Emotional Trauma
1. Be Willing to Heal
The desire to feel better can be your best ally on the road to recovery. Don’t give in to the ego, which will try to tell you there’s something wrong with you: there’s nothing wrong with you. The reactions you experience because of trauma are only responses— they are not who you are.
2. Accept Support From Loved Ones
When healing from emotional trauma, it’s important to connect with others regularly and avoid isolating yourself. It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to heal a person. Surrounding yourself with those who support, love and respect you will be invaluable on your path to healing.
3. Seek The Assistance of Trained Professionals
You may wish to attend individual or group therapy, seek out expert opinions and receive the help of someone trained in the field of emotional trauma, who you feel comfortable with and trust. Treatments may focus on education, stress management techniques, the release of body memories, and suppressed emotions that are causing physical and psychological pain.
4. Practice Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation helps quiet the chatter of the mind, to allow you to experience wisdom, acceptance and a new appreciation for life. Emotional trauma gets stored inside the body, so in addition to therapy sessions, the body greatly benefits from entering thoughtless moments and having a mindfulness practice.
5. Incorporate Movement Into Your Daily Routine
Yoga and other forms of physical activity release endorphins, and make you feel safe and stable. It’s vital to ensure you regularly engage in physical activity to help create positive feelings which have been torn down from emotional trauma.
It may be hard to believe this now, but you must remember the heart does heal. Love yourself enough to believe that you deserve refuge from pain and suffering. With faith and willingness to take the right steps, you’ll experience new levels of joy, appreciation, and vitality once you’ve healed.
“If you are to free your heart, you must embrace your painful feelings, have faith that your thoughts will arise and cease of their accord. They will pass if you can face them head on, with kind eyes. Your thoughts and feelings will dissolve if you don’t try to hold on to them or push them away. Thinking will dissipate. Trust in this universal law of change.”
–Detox Your Heart: Meditations for Healing Emotional Trauma
T – Trust yourself, family, friends and professionals to support you
R – Recovery is a process that takes time and patience
A – Attend to yourself with love and self-care
U – Understand emotional trauma is not your fault
M – Meditation, Mindfulness, and Movement are essential for healing
A – Accept that you are a whole person
How our Team at The Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center Can Help
At the Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center, we recognize each person is unique. We work with individuals to explore what their personal challenges and struggles are, to determine what’s necessary for their healing. We also work closely with the individual’s support network, which can ease the stress in everyone’s lives and increase feelings of joy, equanimity and peace.
Contact us via phone or email with your questions and inquiries today. Our therapists are available to provide answers on how we may best assist you on your path to wellness. We look forward to hearing from you!
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