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Trauma Fatigue: Responding to Stress During Difficult Times

Trauma Fatigue

We have entered a time in history when traumatic occurrences are happening so frequently, there is hardly time to process one event before another is shoved into view. After the world revolted to protest the death of George Floyd and support Black Lives Matter, more lives continue to be threatened by human ignorance and brutality. Observing the current political climate is painful and for many of us, intolerable. And over the last month, and ahead of a fire season that no longer exists, the West has seen unprecedented destruction due to climate change-driven wildfires, with over two and a half million acres already destroyed. On top of all of this, a global pandemic continues to affect the health and economic strength of the world, and leaders in science and medicine are continually vilified in order to fulfill political agendas. 

Although violence and destruction are part of the human experience, traumatic occurrences are pummeling humanity like a persistent over-head swell. We are not wired to repeatedly experience trauma and function efficiently, therefore there has never been a more important time to tend to our emotional shores. I realize the word trauma carries a lot of charge and is relative to the experience of the individual. So for the sake of this article, I will place trauma into three categories: Big-T trauma, little-t trauma, and debilitating external stimuli, all of which may affect an individual’s equilibrium by limiting functioning and blocking much-needed relational connection and healing.

The current influx of environmental and social destruction is affecting the global psyche and for many of us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the forest from the burned trees. Tending to our emotional shores means committing to staying present in the moment, sensing tension in the body, and nurturing awareness practices that honor our precious time here on earth. When we pay greater attention to our inner structure of defense and protection (fight/flight/freeze response), we become more capable of reacting to the world in a way that is beneficial to well-being. Constantly panicking about the world, feeding fear, and consuming excess media leads to a dysregulated nervous system. Choosing to operate in this manner is not helping you, nor anyone else stay healthy. We all go there at times because we are mammals wired to defend ourselves. It is important to have compassion for the part of the brain that is conditioned to anticipate predation, real or imagined. That being said, committing to daily practices that regulate the nervous system supports health by reducing cortisol and promoting healthy immune-response in the body. The more we become aware of how thoughts, feelings, and body sensations negatively affect us, the better armed we become to attenuate negative response patterns driven by fear and anxiety. When you are confronted with an internal or external crisis and feel unable to utilize supportive resources, think about your patterns of defense and how to work with them. 

Withdrawal

Withdrawal, also know as the “freeze” response, is a primitive defense function deeply wired in the brain to increase the likelihood of survival. When the system becomes flooded with negative information and uncomfortable feelings or emotions, many people unconsciously enter a state of physical or emotional immobility. We distance ourselves from the input we are unable to tolerate and in doing so, also distance ourselves from good feelings and experiences that are there to support and regulate us. The body may feel closed off, and interpersonal connection becomes limited or nonexistent. In this peculiar era of social distancing, it is important to pay attention to the part of ourselves that wants to shut down and tune out, especially since social contact is already limited.

The first step in healing patterns of withdrawal is noticing your behavior. 

When you feel sad, angry, or frustrated, do you shut down? Do you limit social contact and go quiet instead of reaching out to a friend or family member? Do you turn to substances to numb the pain? How does your mood change? Do you stop engaging in activities you would otherwise enjoy? Do you stop exercising or move less? If so, you are most likely attempting to protect yourself, yet are doing so in a way that may be disconnecting you from the healing your body, mind, and spirit so desperately needs for balance. 

When you withdraw, do you feel disconnected from your body? How does the breath feel? Is it shallow, tight, heavy, or barely there? Is there less sensation in your legs and feet and more in the upper centers of the body? Is there no sensation at all? It is through the recognition of darkness that we are able to look towards the light and disarm unhealthy patters of avoidance, somatic tension, and withdrawal. If you tend to withdraw when you feel compromised, do what you can to feel more embodied and connected to your thoughts and feelings.  After conducting extensive research on interpersonal neurobiology, contemporary psychiatrist Dan Siegel M.D. coined the phrase, “If you can name it, you can tame it”. By naming our experiences, we acknowledge what is happening in the here and now and become more able to reclaim a sense of self and belonging. By naming our experiences, we acknowledge what is happening in the here and now and become more able to reclaim a sense of self and belonging. 

When practicing somatic (body) awareness, individuals who withdraw or freeze often say things like: 

“I feel numb”

or,

“I am having difficulty identifying sensation”

“I feel like I am floating upward”

“I feel walled up”

What does walled up feel like? 

“…it feels dull, dense, and cold”

 

Anxiety (Fight or Flight)

When the system becomes flooded with negative input and uncomfortable feelings or emotions, many people enter a state of moderate to extreme anxiety. This response is often associated with what is known as the “fight or flight” response, instigated by the sympathetic nervous system branch, and frequently associated with states of heightened anxiety. Similar to an immobility response (withdrawal/freeze), this defense mechanism is neurologically wired in the primitive part of the brain, and was designed to help mammals move away from, or fight their adversaries. As the nervous system becomes flooded, it feels natural for people experiencing a fight or flight response to react to stimuli, rather than withdraw from it, although sometimes there is a fluctuation between all three response patterns. When the flight or flight response is in full-swing, it can feel as though we are being carried away by an internal storm that crashes over everything and everyone in its hyper-aroused path. Although what we desperately need is these moments is regulation and support, what we exhibit often ends up pushing away connection, therefore sabotaging the likelihood that deeply vulnerable needs get met. 

In this era of heightened arousal and anxiety, the first step in easing symptoms is acknowledging them. 

When naming the sensation, thought, or feeling, we are better able to disarm unhealthy patterns of reactivity, anger, and anxiety. From this place, it becomes more feasible to seek support, develop coping skills, and start moving towards connection.

If you struggle with symptoms of stress and anxiety, try slowing down and checking in with yourself. How many hours, days, or weeks have you been aware of the symptoms? Do you react quickly rather than pause, and take a few mindful breaths? Do you feel unsafe in your environment even when there is no tangible threat? Do you feel distrustful of others or demand that they listen to you? Where does anxiety manifest in your body? How would you describe it? Do something every day to get in touch with these feelings. 

 

Common things said by individuals who feel anxious or are operating from a fight or flight response:

 

“My shoulders and back feel tense and tight”

“I feel like something is pinching my chest”

“My mind won’t stop racing”

“It feels like there is a ball bouncing around in my head” 

“It feels like there are butterflies under my skin”

“I want to escape”

“I don’t feel safe” 

What makes you not feel safe? 

“…I feel like walls are closing in on me”

 

Few humans become nervous system-regulating Jedis by practicing stress reduction occasionally. Take time each day for either self-care or somatic (body-centered) awareness. It is a practice that needs to be cultivated. Your nervous system and loved ones will thank you. 

Quick and powerful breath practice: Antara Kumbhaka

Antara Kumbhaka aids relaxation, decreases stress, improves concentration, and increases physical and mental energy.

  • Set a timer for 5-10 minutes
  • Inhale through your nose
  • Hold your breath for a few seconds (or more)  
  • Exhale slowly through your nose (a bit longer than your inhale)

Although these are challenging times, we have an abundance of resources at our finger tips. You owe it to yourself and your cause to continue taking loving care of yourself and others. 

Self-care ideas: Exercise, nature exploration, camping, meditation, getting more sleep, calling a friend, gardening, yoga, writing, cooking, creating or listening to music, being of service, activism, reading, sitting with feelings, reducing media consumption, learning something new, podcasts, educational videos, hot baths, sunshine, crying, resting.

Romi Cumes LMFT, CMT is a leading professional in somatic psychotherapy, intuitive healing, bodywork, and yoga. She has been passionate about healing work for over twenty years and created Transformative Healing Arts in 2005. Her private practice is located in Santa Barbara, California.

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