November 25, 2015

How I made Trauma my B*tch.

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“Just like there’s always time for pain, there’s always time for healing.” ~ Jennifer Brown

When we experience something traumatic, it changes how we look at the world.

When I was 20 years old, I found my fitness-crazed, healthy-eating Dad dead. He was 48.

I was 11 weeks pregnant with my first child, and I’d decided to surprise him by going over to have dinner with him. He’d died of a heart attack, seemingly in his sleep (although to this day, I’m not sure he was asleep, and I’ll admit that still bothers me). I was the one who got the surprise.

A traumatic, life-altering surprise.

Not only did I have to deal with the grieving process, but because his father also died of heart disease (at 54), my mind started linking every single physical sensation with the idea that something horrific was happening to me. I was constantly worried that I was dying, too.

The traumatic experience left me with two impressions: 1. Surprises are bad. 2. I needed to be aware of every little physical sensation because of family history and because if my health-fanatic Dad could miss the symptoms of an impending problem, I probably would.

This lasted for years—until I decided I’d had enough.

I decided to make trauma my b*tch.

In order to flip the trauma debris on its heels and make that trauma my b*tch, I had to shift my mindset about those two things. They were both based on fear. So I took action. This action will help you, too.

First, the emotional shift.

In order to get over the fear of surprises specifically, I made a list of all the positive surprises and unexpected things I’ve experienced. There were a lot. I had been so focused on surprises being negative or traumatic, I’d forgotten how many amazingly wonderful surprises my life had offered.

Next, I set an alarm on my phone that reads: “Unexpected things bring me joy, abundance, and happiness.” It goes off at the same time every day. I read it every day. I’m retraining my brain and emotions to recognize the good that occurs from unexpected things.

Second, the physical shift.

Next, I’d had enough with the adrenaline rush I would get every time I felt an unfamiliar sensation, bump or anything physically related. No more with the panic attacks. No more.

So on the advice of a trusted friend, I started taking cold showers.

Cold showers do two things to help.

One, they help us overcome the fear of overcoming a fear. Yes, you read that right. Just thinking about overcoming any kind of fear can be debilitating in and of itself. Jumping into a cold shower is scary! You know it’s going to suck. But once you just do it a few times, you start training your brain that you can handle fear. As Joel Runyon of ImpossibleHQ says: “… [S]omething sucking doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it. Something being hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Being afraid of something doesn’t mean you have to stay afraid.”

Two, cold showers dump the adrenaline from your adrenal glands. In a 2014 article published on PsychologyToday, Dr. Peter Bongiorno, co-medical director of InnerSource Natural Health and Acupuncture said: “ … exposure to cold has been shown to activate the sympathetic nervous system, (which) will increase the blood level as well as brain release of norepinephrine—an adrenal hormone that can help depressed people feel more ‘up’ naturally.” When you do it enough, your adrenal glands stop being over-reactive, flowing at any little thing that sets your fight-or-flight trigger off.

(*Note: If you have, suspect, or know you have a heart condition or blood pressure problems, check with your doctor before engaging in the cold shower therapy.)

Third, the physical shift helps the emotional shift.

Another technique that therapists use with trauma victims, specifically with veterans returning from war with PTSD, is re-learning how to breathe. As Dr. Emma Seppala writes: “One of the reasons why breathing can change how we feel is that emotions and breathing are closely connected. A revealing research study by Pierre Phillipot showed that different emotional states are associated with distinct respiration patterns.” Dr. Seppala goes on to describe how participants were told to breathe in distinct ways and they would then experience an emotion that corresponds to that breathing pattern.

Conversely, if you are feeling an emotion you want to stop feeling, you can make a concerted effort to breathe differently to experience a different emotion. The participants showed long-lasting effects of breathing to overcome trauma. One particular breathing technique to try is the alternate nostril technique, which Dr. Seppala describes on her website.

Our emotional and physical experiences are intimately tied together. Because trauma creates emotional and physical discomfort, using techniques to alter both the emotional and physical conditions is how I learned to make trauma my b*tch. It’s how I learned to control my life, rather than letting my life control me.

Now, when I experience something unexpected, even if it’s not something I particularly want to deal with, my mind is geared toward finding the best in the situation, and/or working toward solutions, rather than focusing on the problem aspect.

Also, I can have a physical sensation now and not freak the hell out and end up in the ER telling a nurse I think I’m having a heart attack.

No two of us experience trauma the same way. And while there may be certain experiences that society deems worthy of the descriptor “traumatic,” what is trauma-filled for one may not be for another. The experience of trauma is unique.

And so is what you make out of it.



Elephant Journal’s Mindful Thanksgiving Guide.


Author: Melissa Harrison

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Tiffany Krumpack/Flickr

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