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Trauma Fatigue: Developing Resilience to Manage Stress and Anxiety

Trauma Fatigue: Developing Resilience to Manage Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety & The Collective

In an age of widespread anxiety and global challenges, we struggle to process one crisis before the next one unfolds. There is currently a surge in social and environmental turmoil that profoundly affects the collective psyche. The scale and frequency of local and global disasters is unprecedented, challenging our ability to focus on life’s joys. While many yearn for ease, countless individuals are caught in a profound struggle. When witnessing or experiencing challenging circumstances, our capacity to navigate life is put to the test. Fortunately, there are numerous simple ways to promote healing and self-care, especially vital for managing stress and anxiety.

Trauma Response

I recognize that the term ‘trauma’ holds significant emotional weight, and its effects vary widely among individuals. For better clarity, I categorize trauma into three types: ‘Big-T trauma,’ ‘little-t trauma,’ and ‘debilitating external stimuli.’ Each of these can disrupt a person’s balance, impair their functioning, and negatively affect interpersonal connection and well-being. Consider the catastrophic traumatic massacre event of October 7th, 2023, a day that casts a long shadow over Israel’s history. This traumatic event brutally targeted the Jewish community and the ongoing chaos of war continues to create suffering for many across the region. That dark day was a stark illustration of how unprecedented disasters continue to traumatize populations.

While this journey often presents adversity, it also offers substantial potential for growth and resilience. Amid these challenges, a sense of unity is emerging among those who provide mutual support. As we navigate through the taxing symptoms of stress and trauma response, we discover opportunities for healing. Somatic (body-centered) therapy practices enable us to regulate the nervous system and tune into our body’s response patterns. Enhanced embodiment reduces stress and cortisol levels, nurturing deeper connections with ourselves and others. Gradually, light pierces the darkness of trauma fatigue. A deeper understanding of this process aids stress management and bolsters vital interpersonal connections, essential for well-being and self-care.

The Nervous System and Resilience

Our society is driven by a tendency to emotionally respond with fear and anxiety due to the persistent intake of overwhelming stimuli and the excessive consumption of news and media. By noticing our internal defense mechanisms — the ‘fight,’ ‘flight,’ or ‘freeze’ responses — we enhance our capacity to regulate and heal. It’s natural for us to resort to biological defense mechanisms due to our instinct for self-preservation. Offering compassion and somatic awareness to the parts of ourselves conditioned to anticipate threat plays a pivotal role in enhancing resilience and facilitating mental health.

Caring for our mental and physical health involves recognizing and engaging with the inner wisdom of the body

Withdrawal, Overwhelm and the 'Freeze' Response

When inundated with negative stimuli or uncomfortable emotions, many of us may unconsciously slip into a state of physical or emotional immobility. In this state of somatic immobilization, the body enters ‘shutdown’ mode as a protective measure, leading us to distance ourselves from overwhelming input. During this process, we also disconnect from positive feelings and experiences that are essential for our support and regulation. The ‘freeze’ response, characterized by immobility and withdrawal, is governed by the parasympathetic nervous system and predates the ‘fight or flight’ response as an evolutionary survival tool. Crucial for species survival, it reduces visibility to predators and conserves energy in extreme danger, enhancing survival chances.

In the aftermath of the October 7th massacre, a few survivors bravely shared their harrowing accounts, with many resorting to the chilling act of ‘playing dead.’ Beyond the fundamental freeze response, some displayed remarkable quick thinking amid the overwhelming stress, even resorting to smearing blood on themselves to heighten the illusion of death. This interplay among the various facets of survivors’ brains highlights the intricacy of survival instincts harmonizing with the more advanced cognitive processes.

nervous system regulation and wild animal in a freeze response

The extreme example discussed above emphasizes the essential role played by the freeze response in survival. In our daily lives, we too can be somatically affected by it, influenced by our nervous system’s ability to regulate and our personal trauma history. Common symptoms of the ‘freeze’ response include physical numbness, restricted movement, sensations of coldness, emotional detachment, and a ‘shutdown’ feeling. Recognizing these signs is key. If you find yourself withdrawing in response to emotional or physical challenges, pausing to focus on your body’s felt experience is vital.

The Neuroscience of Trauma

In the realm of ‘The Neuroscience of Trauma,’ the work of Daniel Siegel, M.D., a renowned psychiatrist in interpersonal neurobiology, stands out. His principle, “If you name it, you can tame it,” beautifully captures the power of understanding our experiences to manage them effectively. Engaging with the intricate connection between body and mind, we enhance our ability to develop coping mechanisms, seek support, and build meaningful connections. I recommend delving into the works of Dr. Siegel and also exploring Peter Levine, M.D.’s insights on somatic healing and experiencing.

Somatic Therapy Practice: Avoidance

Reflect on the following questions to gain a deeper understanding of your personal experiences and reactions. Observe personal insights on the connection between overwhelm, withdrawal, and neurological dysregulation.

  • When confronted with emotions such as sadness, fear, anxiety, or anger, do you tend to shut down, either emotionally or physically?
  • Do you observe yourself pulling away from social interactions, including those with friends or family members?
  • Do you limit your participation in social activities when you feel overwhelmed?
  • Do you find yourself turning to substances in an attempt to alleviate your pain or discomfort?

Notice any changes in your mood, or if you feel a disconnection from your body. Consider whether there has been a decrease in your overall activity level, or if you’re avoiding physical movements or activities. Pay attention to your breathing — is it shallow, tight, heavy, or barely noticeable? Also, focus on the sensations in your lower body, such as your legs and feet. Are you able to feel them, or do you notice a lack of sensation? Withdrawal and dissociation manifest in various subtle somatic (body-centered) symptoms.

Below are examples of expressions individuals might use when experiencing these states:

“I feel numb”
“My body feels empty”
“I feel stuck”
“I can’t sense anything”
“I feel cold”
  

Somatic Support Tip

If you tend to withdraw or dissociate when facing emotional challenges, actively engaging in grounding practices is vital. Such practices can be diverse, ranging from connecting with nature and practicing yoga, to taking slow, deep breaths. With breathwork, direct your awareness towards your legs and feet.  

Stress, Anxiety and the 'Fight' or 'Flight' Response

When stress escalates, many of us enter a state of heightened anxiety, often described by somatic psychotherapists as ‘hyper-arousal.’ This state is linked to the brain’s ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response, activated by the sympathetic nervous system. Like the ‘freeze’ response, it originates from an ancient, instinctual part of our brain, serving as a vital survival tool to confront or escape threats. In dysregulated nervous states, individuals in fight or flight mode either engage or flee from stimuli, unlike the freeze response’s withdrawal. Recognizing and understanding both responses is crucial in addressing our reactions to stress, anxiety, and overwhelm.

A man engaging in the flight and anxiety stress response, fleeing from danger

The fight or flight response can feel like an internal storm, dominating the body with overwhelming force. Hyper-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system typically manifests as increased stress, heightened anxiety, and physical discomfort. Symptoms can include a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sleep difficulties, focus challenges, irritability, and a feeling of being on-edge.

Interestingly, engagement in a ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’ response can paradoxically divert us from essential needs like connection, regulation, and emotional support. The common shifting between freeze, fight, and flight patterns highlights our nervous system’s complexity and the importance of personalized strategies for mental and physical health. In times of heightened stress and anxiety, healing begins by acknowledging and engaging with our body’s innate responses.

Somatic Therapy Practice: Reactivity

Body-centered observation is an essential first step in addressing and managing negative emotions and feelings. Consider the insights on the connection between anxiety, stress, and neurological dysregulation when reflecting on the following questions.

  • When you’re feeling stressed, do you often find yourself reacting quickly, either verbally or physically?
  • Upon experiencing a strong emotion, do you notice sensations arising in your body?
  • In situations without any immediate threat, do you still feel an impulsive urge to leave your environment?
  • Do you find yourself becoming quickly angered or emotional?
  • Do you find yourself turning to substances in an attempt to alleviate your pain or discomfort?

Notice any changes in your mood, or any overwhelming sensations. Pay attention to your breathing – is the pace quick or unevenly paced? Do you feel  heat in the body? Also focus on the sensations in your upper body, such as your chest, neck and shoulders. Do you feel any tightness there? A range of sensations may accompany symptoms of the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response.

Below are examples of expressions individuals might use when experiencing these states:

“My chest feels compressed”
“My shoulders feel tight”
“I feel hot”
“My skin is tingling”
“My head is buzzing”

Somatic Support Tip

For individuals who experience anxiety or physical symptoms in response to emotional challenges, engaging in energy-moving activities is essential. These practices can be diverse, including activities like walking, jogging, dancing, yoga, and specific breath exercises such as ‘Antara Kumbhaka’ (instructions provided below). 

Somatic awareness can significantly improve your ability to manage stress and anxiety, as well as avoidance and withdrawal behaviors often associated with the brain’s ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response patterns. Just as a Jedi’s journey to mastery requires more than occasional practice, enhancing our ability to regulate the nervous system calls for consistent dedication to self-care. As life presents us with unforeseen challenges, taking a moment to connect with our bodies can lead to transformative outcomes.

By identifying and naming our somatic experience, we reduce stress and cultivate a deep sense of belonging. This process is a crucial part of our journey towards healing and personal growth, especially in the context of managing mental health and trauma fatigue.

Embracing Wellness: Breathwork and Self-Care

Breathwork serves as a powerful method for regulating the nervous system. The traditional yogic breathing technique ‘Antara Kumbhaka’ involves a specific pattern of breath retention. It can aid in promoting relaxation, reducing stress, enhancing concentration, and boosting both physical and mental energy.

The classic format of Antara Kumbhaka typically involves three phases: inhalation, retention (kumbhaka), and exhalation. For beginners, a common ratio is often 1:1:2.

Antara Kumbhaka Breath Practice

Duration: Begin with 3 to 5 minutes, according to your capacity. I recommend setting a timer before starting.

    • Inhalation (Puraka): Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose for a count of four. If you’re congested, feel free to inhale slowly through your mouth.

    • Retention (Kumbhaka): After inhaling, hold your breath for the same duration of retention as inhalation – if you inhale for a count of of four, hold for a count of four.

    • Exhalation (Rechaka): Exhale slowly through the nose, typically for twice the duration of inhalation — if you inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of eight. If you’re congested, exhale slowly through your mouth.

Additional Self Care Activities

Self-care practices come in various forms, and it’s important to explore what resonates with you. If stress, overwhelm, or anxiety take hold of you in a way that prevents self-care being part of your routine, start with something simple, and consider engaging in activities that bring you joy.

  • Physical exercise
  • Somatic Therapy
  • Spending time in nature/ Camping
  • Meditation
  • Bodywork & Massage Therapy
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Nurturing connections with friends
  • Gardening
  • Yoga
  • Breathwork
  • Creative Writing
  • Cooking
  • Music (listening or playing)
  • Engaging in volunteer work
  • Reading
  • Journaling
  • Learning through books, podcasts, and educational videos
  • Relaxing in hot baths
  • Basking in natural sunlight
  • Allowing time to embrace emotions
  • Taking moments to rest and recharge

Despite the challenges we face today, a wealth of resources is at our fingertips. Each of these activities offers a unique way to nurture your well-being, and incorporating them into your daily routine can significantly alter how you experience and manage life. Remember, taking care of yourself is not just a necessary act for personal benefit, but an empowering one — it enables you to offer more to the people and causes you hold dear.

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