Heidi Hanson is the author of a top-rate blog site about recovery from trauma where she often focuses on the physiological aspects of trauma and trauma treatment. Her site is called “The Art of Trauma” She’s just released an excellent post including an illustrated guide about how to try to ground yourself when you’re feeling wracked by physiological over-arousal or under-arousal stemming from traumatic reactions. Her illustrated guide is available for purchase here.
The body-mind impact of trauma is poorly understood by most people in society, including some mental health professionals. As Heidi notes, people who look “normal” on the outside, may be under severe stress physiologically and only masking this because it’s what they’ve learned they have to do to survive. They may even appear to be functioning alright under certain circumstances, but in fact are only going through the motions, because their mind has been effectively hijacked by the alarm systems activated by trauma.
In fact, the physiological body-mind states of overarousal or underarousal are extremely painful to experience. Life can be severely limited by these conditions, trauma survivors becoming prisoners in their own bodies and minds. I know because I have experienced this.
Heidi’s post describes the impact of the physiological effects of trauma on survivors. She describes overarousal (“buzzing with stress”) and underarousal (a shutting down, “invisible to myself”, “checked out,” “overwhelmingly tired”) where effective functioning becomes difficult and sometimes impossible. She also describes what she calls the “resilient zone,” a physiological state of safety and relaxation and where more effective functioning returns.
As Heidi notes, many people who have been badly traumatized feel triggered and are thrown into overrarousal or underarousal for all or most of their days. I have also experienced this painful state in my life.
However, there is great cause for hope. Under effective conditions, the mind-body can be trained to return to the resilient zone — the zone of safety and relaxation — first for short periods of time and eventually for longer. I also know this to be true.
Getting into the resilient zone requires proper guidance, time, and practice of effective strategies. Heidi describes such strategies for getting into the resilient zone. Getting out of the over- or under- arousal zones and into the resilient zone is often also called “grounding”.
Over the years, I have practiced the strategies noted by Heidi, and they have provided some important relief. A visual cue such as her poster is helpful, because in times of high stress we can tend to forget what we know to try to relax in the absence of effective reminders.
In addition to the strategies described by Heidi, “stress innoculators”, such as a healthy diet high in vegetables and low in refined sugar, yoga, vigorous exercise and time spent in nature are also important aids to managing physiological reactivity triggered by trauma. Also, immersing oneself in an engaging activity, such as colouring a mandala or doing other art, can help relieve physiological stress and help the body return to normal. Similarly, self-soothing activities, like taking a bath can be helpful.
I have found that for me, the last year spent living in the quiet of nature has given my mind and body a break from some environmental triggers of my past trauma. Physiological safety and relaxation is becoming more of a norm. My functioning is improved. This is certainly not something I’m willing to give up.
Healing with you,