Have you ever had an experience of completely and inexplicably overreacting to a situation? Maybe exploding with anger, or feeling paralysed by fear, or spacing out completely, or getting uncontrollably upset – for no apparent reason?
One possibility is that a past traumatic experience has been triggered - this is a lot more common than you may think.
In this post, I give an example of a past traumatic experience that affected me... I explain how you can tell if you've been affected by trauma if you're not sure... then suggest how mindfulness and yoga can help... AND why mindfulness and yoga may NOT help... I then suggest options to explore, including trauma therapy, learning more about trauma, and activities that can support healing by self-soothing, or developing confidence and self-expression.
When I was learning to scuba dive in 2018, I experienced some major panic attacks. One in particular sticks in my memory.
I was practising the “CESA” - Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent. The task involved diving down to 6 metres and pretending I had run out of air. With only one breath, I had to swim up to the surface, exhaling the entire time. As I swum up, I had to look up, reach up with one hand towards the surface, all the while maintaining control of my speed. I practised it a couple of times and struggled to do it properly. Then finally, I got it right – I managed to breathe out the whole way up to the top, ticking all the boxes for my open water assessment.
Bizarrely, it was after the final, successful attempt that I suddenly started to have an intense panic attack. At that point I was perfectly safe, and buoyant on the surface. My scuba instructor (who also happens to be my husband), was right there with me. Yet I had this physically overwhelming, visceral sense of threat. My body was flooded with adrenalin and I struggled to breathe.
So what was going on?
After this incident I had flashbacks to an experience as a child, when I got out of my depth in a swimming pool, started to panic, and believed I was going to drown.
I’d had no idea how strongly that experience stayed with me.
This is an example of a traumatic experience held in the body. Most people will have had difficult and overwhelming experiences in their lives, and every individual will cope with these experiences differently. Another person might never have had any issues following the same childhood experience that I had.
Trauma is sometimes described as an injury that is held in the body’s nervous system. When it is triggered, our body is reminded of the trauma and it can have strong physical as well as psychological effects. So how can you tell if you have had a traumatic experience, and what can you do about it?
How do I know if I’ve experienced trauma?
All kinds of experiences can cause trauma. There are more major and obvious examples of trauma such as being abused, assaulted, harmed, physically endangered, or being involved in a serious accident. Dysfunctional parent-child relationships can have significant effects (look up 'attachment theory' if you're interested).
There are other experiences, however, which we may not realise can also result in trauma. Such as hearing about something that has happened to a loved one, a relationship breakdown, a medical intervention or operation, a bereavement, or any situation where we experience feeling overwhelmed or powerless.
Trauma can result in the debilitating and serious condition of post-traumatic stress disorder. But there may also be more minor, but still extremely challenging, symptoms and signs of trauma that can get triggered.
We have all had days where we are feeling run down, tired, had too much going on and have low tolerance for stress. On those days we might have a stronger reaction to difficult situations than on a different day. This is normal, most of us deal with varying degrees of stress and anxiety as part of day to day life.
On the other hand, if we have a reaction that is very extreme, inexplicable and far outweighs the situation itself, this gives us a clue that trauma might be involved. This extreme reaction may be a sign that something from a past experience is being triggered in the body. Especially if we are in a situation where we are actually safe, but we have a powerful, visceral feeling of threat in the body.
What can I do about it?
For some people, and in some circumstances, mindfulness and yoga can help. (Yay!)
In Mindful yoga, you are guided to bring awareness to the variety of sensations in the body through movement and stillness, in a way that is kind, gentle and caring. You are empowered to choose how to move and challenge your body, and to choose how to take care of yourself in the class. Mindful yoga can support you in becoming more at ease, more at home in your body, and help to soften areas of habitual tension. A good class will give you a sense of being in control and support you to respond in a caring way to any sensations of pain or discomfort you experience.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a meditation approach where you train yourself to access sensations in the body that feel steady and grounded. You learn to practise choosing where to place your attention. Acknowledging difficult sensations and thoughts, and gently disengaging from them, to focus on somewhere that feels “ok” in the body – such as the breath movement, feet on the floor, hands resting. Then, over time, and at your own pace, you might begin to gently explore difficult sensations and thoughts, and cultivate the ability to calmly “be with” those experiences in the body/mind, rather than feel overwhelmed by them. This then opens up the possibility of greater choice for how you might react in certain situations, and how you might best take care of yourself in challenging times.
But… mindfulness and yoga might NOT be the answer.
Some people find that mindfulness meditation and yoga make them feel worse. Many yoga teachers are not trauma-aware, and can actually trigger trauma, with invasive physical adjustments without consent, amongst other things… (I’m writing a whole other blog post about this). Some folks might go to yoga or mindfulness sessions and find that they actually feel worse, and then feel bad about it because everyone else seems to be having a good time and benefiting from it. For some people, just bringing mindful awareness to the body might be intolerable and provoke a trauma reaction. For me, as a yoga and mindfulness teacher, it is challenging to recognise and offer the right support to people in difficulty, so part of the reason for writing this post is to open up about this topic, both for me and my students, and anyone else out there who might find this useful.
So what else can I do about trauma?
Many people will benefit from specialist one-to-one trauma therapy, which addresses the body-based aspects of trauma. In 2017, amidst the explosion of the global #metoo movement, I had a series of flashbacks of past experiences triggered, and started to experience some problems in how I was functioning in daily life. I realised that mindfulness would not fix it, and I couldn’t deal with it on my own, and found a great trauma therapist who I had a number of sessions with (Peter Gill). After the scuba diving panic attack, I went back to my therapist and had a session where, after cultivating a felt sense of safety and feeling grounded in my body, I was able to revisit my childhood memory of feeling like I was going to drown, and offer comfort, reassurance and soothing to the frightened child within, then sense physical feelings of my strength and swimming ability, allowing my body to move in a way that expressed this strength and confidence.
Learning about trauma
Trauma can often bring with it powerful feelings of shame, inadequacy and failure. Gaining some understanding of trauma – and what is actually happening for you – can be very empowering (although – warning – reading into this stuff can be challenging too!). I have delved into some study of trauma, both to understand what’s going on for me and for people I work with. There are lots of great books out there. Here are some recommended books, some of the authors also have videos on YouTube:
The body keeps the score – mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk
In an unspoken voice – how the body releases trauma and restores goodness, by Peter Levine (I have this book but haven’t read yet - it’s been highly recommended to me, and the type of therapy I had, Somatic Experiencing, was developed by Peter Levine).
And if you're interested in trauma in relation to yoga and mindfulness, these books are great for teachers and practitioners:
Overcoming trauma through yoga – reclaiming your body, by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
Trauma-sensitive mindfulness, by David A. Treleaven
What else can I do?
The great news is, there are lots of things we can do that can help our frightened, injured inner selves to heal. Think of how babies and children are soothed with rocking - rhythmic body movements and sounds can be soothing. And think of how children can be supported to explore their world and grow in self confidence and self expression. Here are some examples of activities that you might find soothing or empowering.
Exercise – running, cycling, swimming, walking.
Music – playing an instrument, singing, dancing, drumming.
Time in nature – gardening, hiking, foraging, learning about flora and fauna.
Fun, social activities – with people you feel comfortable and safe with.
Altruistic activities – volunteering, or willingly helping other people in small ways is known to stimulate good things in the brain.
Challenging / empowering activities – self-defence class, climbing, Go Ape, martial arts, strength training, boot camp… maybe even scuba diving...!. Activities that give a sense of overcoming physical challenges and feeling physically powerful. Preferably in a friendly, supportive and encouraging environment, rather than a competitive / over-striving one!
Creative self expression – dance, acting, performance, improvisation, painting, drawing, writing poetry, sculpture, pottery, knitting, embroidery, crafts, cookery.
I am not an expert in this subject, and trauma is a HUGE topic to go into – I’ve barely scratched the surface here. But I have written this in the hope that it will reach someone who will gain some understanding, reassurance and hope.
If you’ve read this far, thank you! Feel free to send me your feedback.