Fight, Flight, Freeze: My Story of Processing Trauma


As I sat with a client at the local public library, deeply concentrating on what was being said, I felt a hand plant on my shoulder. Without a conscious thought about what was happening, I froze. I could not breathe or move as thoughts of panic flooded my mind. My heart began to beat wildly as I felt the surge of cortisol flood my veins. In my mind I imagine this scene followed by me, the bad-ass super-strong fighter, grabbing the person’s hand, standing up, and flipping them onto their back with a flick of my wrist (as they do in all the amazing Kung Fu movies). Yet, here I am, catatonic. Helpless. Fearful.

8 seconds later (yes, only 8 seconds has gone by, my mind moving faster than the speed of light) I hear a familiar soft voice utter, “Hey Caitlin”. Another client of mine interrupts my irrational reaction, enabling me to break out of this fixed, frightened mindstate. “How are you?” she continues.

With as calm of voice as I am able, and a half cocked smile, I reply, “Oh, hi. You scared me.”

Oh the joys of unprocessed trauma.


This is one of many instances when unprocessed traumatic events momentarily take over my nervous system and cause me to become reactive. My on-going mindfulness practice creates pause in these moments, which allows me to act in socially appropriate manners (i.e. not decking a person in the face at the public library), but it does not address and dissolve the root of the problem. For this reason I sought out help in the form of counseling, coaching, meditation and yoga to process the events which lead to this immediate and unnecessary reaction of flight, fight, freeze.

Below are helpful practices, resources, and information I have found on this journey to process traumatic events and situations. Somewhat clinical and cold upon introduction, the process is rich, insightful, and well worth the 5 minutes of scientific explanation. 


When an event or experience takes place, the brain encodes the information and sends in through the nervous system. The nervous system processes the information and decides if the experience should be disposed of or stored. This occurs several times throughout the day and takes place during differing states: level, equanimous states, meaning they are neither overly pleasant nor unpleasant, or during distress. The latter of the two creates a trauma response. Trauma, which is held in the tissues of the body, is defined as an event or situation which occurs and is not processed normally.

During the trauma response the brain and body are flooded with cortisol, activating  fight, flight, freeze. If this occurs, the events are not processed and recorded as usual, creating gaps in memory. If this happens often the amygdala, a gland regulating chemical distribution in the brain, gets sensitive and reactive to this small signals of danger, fear, or elation, releasing abundant amounts of chemicals when it’s not necessarily needed.  

It should be noted that the amygdala cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional distress and when the amygdala is activated, physical symptoms present themselves. This allows one to conclude that to release this trauma one must process it physically, using the body.

To address both the cognitive and physical aspects of trauma, one might find Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy), which supports deactivating the changed thoughts which lead to chemical releases in the brain, along with mindful physical practices, helpful. Mindful physical practices reconnect the present focused mind to the body support the processing of the event. These practices might include yoga, tai chi, qigong, walking, swimming, or any other movement which is done mindfully (meaning paying attention to the movements, on purpose, non-judgmentally and with kindness).

If one is able to watch their thoughts and combat them by coming back to the present moment, checking their truth, rationality, and importance, combined with reconnecting to mind and body, watching the body sensations while processing the trauma, a person can help their mind and body understand it’s not in danger, and therefore can processes the event. Mindfulness practices support this process by means of practicing present minded focus while not in a trauma response, making the present focused awareness more accessible in heightened states. To begin this process, identify the location in the body where the trauma is held, create a visual representation, identify thoughts connected to the sensations, and process with the help of a professional. Below are steps aligned with this process.

Steps to Visualize and Process Trauma

  1. Outline your body using drawing paper, a journal, or large piece of butcher paper.
  2. Get colored pencils, markers, paints, oils, or a No. 2 pencil.
  3. Listen to the the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Body Scan Meditation (optional, but very helpful) https://palousemindfulness.com/meditations/bodyscan.html
  4. Draw what you feel in your body.
  5. Write any thoughts connected to the sensations and their location.
  6. Process with a professional.

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The map outlining trauma held in my body, overlaid with the 7 chakras, represented by the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and yellow.

Remember, the process of identifying and processing trauma in the body is ongoing. Utilizing a professional counselor, mentor, yoga teacher, and/or coach is helpful when moving through this process. After processing a certain trauma, do the activity again to reassess progress, supporting the ongoing nature of healing mind and body.

For questions please feel free to email me personally at Caitlin4Wellnes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

 

Time, Values, and Living

How many instances have you started doing something benign, uninteresting, or unimportant (ie. searching the internet, scrolling through social media, watching an uninteresting show or movie, or reading an article in a trashy magazine about the Royal Families new addition) only to find an hour, an afternoon, or a whole day has slipped you by? Time which is permanently lost due to an unchecked habit or a desire to leave the present moment. This is where suffering begins. Suffering because you didn’t get the relaxation you needed, or your work done, or spend time doing the things you love with the people you love. This suffering more clearly defined as any action taken which is contrary to one’s own belief or value system.
A slue of questions then arise. Do we know our own belief and value system? How do we know they are not from others or society as a whole? How often are we prompted to adopt the value systems of others, values the social construct hands down to us all, such as the pursuit of power, money, and objects over mental, physical, and spiritual wellness?
It takes the dedicated and ongoing practice of defining what we believe and what we value, then taking action to move in that direction. We have to counteract the perpetual pull away from ourselves (the external) and move toward developing the self (internal). This can feel difficult in the beginning, moving upstream in a river. But eventually it gets easier, the water becoming increasingly placid and easy to maneuver as one moves toward the head water.
But how to start or correct ourselves when we find ourselves spending our time acting or participating in activities contrary to our values and beliefs? Below are some questions to ask yourself. If you are serious in wanting to live in accordance to your own beliefs and values, take a few minutes everyday to reflect on these questions and take action (great or small). You’ll be better because of it.

-Deep down, what is important to you?
-What do you want your life to be about?
-What sort of person do you want to be?
-What sort of relationships do you want to build?
-If you weren’t struggling with your feelings or avoiding your fears, what would you channel your time and energy into doing?


If you have questions or comments, writer me or leave a comment below.

Questions were taken from Chapter 24 of The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. 

The Wonderful and Difficult Path of Finding Yourself

It is up to us to find out who we are, no one else holds that knowledge. Externally we find there are many manners in which to live and learn; There are teachers, religions, books, and ways of living which can serve as a guide. If we are able to use them as such, we can take what practices enable us to live joyfully and leave the rest. But if we look at another’s path as the ultimate path, we eventually find the path lacking in one way or another, not perfectly completing the picture of happiness and wholeness.

I have experienced this personally in my life as a cycle of inner-connection, growth, searching externally, suffering, and a re-connection and homecoming. Let me explain, In the times we feel most connected to the inner voice, the inner knowing of walking within our correct path, there is a deep connection felt, a synchronized movement and flow through life. This spurts growth. Then, we may find an outside source, someone we respect deeply, revere, or has something we want, be it peace, serenity, sobriety, or joy. Instead of sticking to our path and following our inner voice, we try theirs, as if trying on a pair of jeans or test driving a new car. We think, “Well, they seem to enjoy it so I might too”. Soon after we begin to walk this path, we realize this way of going about life didn’t bring us the same joy it did the other person. We tried, it didn’t work, and now we suffer. We suffer from living a life outside of our values, outside of what is most important to us. We are back again, searching diligently for what makes us happy with options of looking yet again to the external or diving deeply into what it is we find important. It is up to you to find out who you are. No one else knows. No one else can tell you.

Questions I recommend asking yourself:

  • What is most important to you?
  • What do you value?
  • How are you spending your time?
  • What would it look like to live in accordance with your values?
  • What would it feel like?
  • What is holding you back?
  • What can you let go of? Possessions, relationships, behaviors?
  • What behaviors are supporting you in living in accordance with your values?
  • What people are supporting you?

Personally, this has been a long and arduous journey. As I move to a new place and create new habits and ways of living, I am looking seriously at my old, habitual ways of living and reflecting on these questions. I now have the opportunity to rid myself of the old and replace them with something different, something more, or possibly less, in line with my values. I feel drawn to follow the external easy path, which seemingly works for others. But will they work for me? Time and experience has shown that no, these external and contradictory behaviors which make others happy will not bring me the same happiness as they do others. So I must go about replacing these behaviors mindfully instead of at the will or influence of others. In doing this I become more of myself, pursuing my own interests and way of looking at the world while developing inner-strength. This is wonderful and also difficult. This path is unknown. There are no guides to show me what I must do next or what choices I need to make to be happy, healthy and whole. There are only reminders coming from within to continue defining what is right for me. All I have to do is listen and act accordingly.

It is much easier to look externally for answers; To trust others instead of your own inner-voice. Yet we know what is lost when the inner-voice is ignored: discomfort, agony, and suffering.

Keep listening to yourself, learning about yourself, and acting accordingly. This is the only way.


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An Excerpt From My Latest Book

An excerpt from my latest book, Getting to Know Yourself Sexually; A Down and Dirty Guide

Dictionary
sex·u·al
ˈsekSH(o͞o)əl
adjective
Relating to the instincts, physiological processes, and activities connected with physical attraction or intimate physical contact between individuals.

Introduction
Why is knowing yourself sexually important to you? Are you craving connection? Pleasure? A shared experience? Whatever your reason, you’ll find this book supporting you in getting to know yourself and help to expand your current thinking about what sex is and the role it plays in your life.

This topic is important to me because of my firm belief in getting to you know all areas and aspects of yourself; thoughts, feelings, emotions, motivations, desires, and sensations. Doing this sexually adds another layer of richness to life with ourselves and our intimate partner(s). To do this we must experience and reflect on life utilizing our intimate and sexual relationships as a tool. In doing this we become more comfortable with ourselves, which we bring to our intimate relationships and the world.

There is a process for getting to know yourself sexually, which I myself have gone through. Firstly, I began in isolation as to better identify wants, desires, and motivations (Steps #1 and #2). Then, I shared my ideas, wants, and desires with a community of like minded individuals (explained further in Steps #3 and #4). And after developing comfort and understanding of myself, was able to share with an intimate, committed partner.

Bear in mind these steps are not linear and may not, at all times, be accessible or appropriate. As you begin to move through them you might have a new experience, leading you back to Step #1 of the process. That’s great! This is a lifelong learning process. Repeating each step with a different intention or motivation will only further your understanding of yourself.

No matter your age, taking care of and getting to know yourself sexually is as important as finding the right career, group of friends, lifestyle, or committed partner. I encourage you to keep an open mind while reading and working through this process. Who knows? You might just learn something about yourself.

…a few things to note before we begin…

Trauma
Sexual trauma can resurface five days, five months, five years, or 50 years after the event occurred. If you have had sexual trauma it is important to identify triggers which send the body and mind into a heightened,  reactive state of fight, flight, freeze. It is equally important to have a discussion with your sexual partner prior to a sexual encounter which  may re-traumatize.

Don’t wait until you are in the moment to have this conversation. Create a way to communicate about this topic before and during sex. Discuss it during a non-sexual, non-charged, safe activity (making dinner, driving, grocery shopping). My partner calls this Casual Conversations (more about this on Step #5). Practice this a few times, revisiting when/ if necessary. I have found once this has been identified and discussed, with a process created by which to communicate in the moment, re-traumatization is infrequent or null.

If sexual trauma is something you are beginning to uncover within yourself, research sexual trauma, get help with a therapist, and find out how you can heal. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has worked wonders for me.

Shame
There is an abundance of shame surrounding sex.

“Sex is dirty – mouths, tongues, fluids, ewww!”
“You urinate from there, I’m not putting that in my mouth!”
“Sex is for the purpose of having babies only and is sinful to enjoy”
“If you enjoy sex you are slutty”
“You’ve had sex with HOW MANY PEOPLE?”
“Having sex before marriage is unacceptable, NOT OKAY!”
“Don’t have sex! You’ll get pregnant. And if you don’t get pregnant, here is the list of diseases you can get.”

Nothing is off limits. And don’t get me started on the shame surrounding genitalia shape, size, smell and taste!

“Too small”
“Too big”
“Smells like tuna”
“Tastes like soap”

When an initial judgement or feeling of shame comes into your mind as a thought, notice it before reacting and ask yourself the following:

Where is the judgement, or feeling of shame, coming from?
Whose judgement is this? Your own? Society? A past partner?
And most importantly, Is it true?

Remember: Sex is natural. Thoughts and judgments are natural. Reacting to thoughts and judgments surrounding sex is a choice. Only after full deliberation should one act. This takes time and effort. If you are dedicated to this practice of self-reflection, anything can be accomplished, including not shaming yourself or others based on sexuality.

Step #1. Self Reflection
No one knows you better than you know yourself. Having considered this, many of us do not know ourselves well when it comes to our sexuality. You may not have had the opportunity to explore these differing aspects because of the culture you grew up in, the relationships you’ve had, or the social group with which you interact. Using Self Reflection as a tool, one can become aware of beliefs and feelings toward sexuality. Ask yourself the following questions to uncover your beliefs:

-How do I define being sexual?
-What is my belief on the nature of sex? Its purpose?
-How do these beliefs impact my willingness to look at my sexuality?
-What taboos do I have towards my own sexuality or sex in general?
-What is my reaction when I think about sex? With myself? With others?
-What is the value of shared sexual experience?
Dictionary
ta·boo
/təˈbo͞o,taˈbo͞o/
noun
a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

If you would like to read steps #2-#7 order my book on Amazon by clicking here or go to her website www.Incorporate-Wellness.com/shop/

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Hello fellow wellness seekers!

Join me every Monday night at Flourish Foundation in Hailey for 30 minutes of movement followed by 30 minutes of and mindful meditation. The movement portion is a slow flow yoga sequence which is for all levels and body types followed by 30 minutes of meditation based on the 4 foundational mindfulness practices: breath awareness, body scan, sitting meditation, and loving kindness.

The Goal: Reduce stress while cultivating balance and well-being.

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