Two days after Christmas my relationship ended, due in large part to domestic violence. We both had struggled for many months with navigating his severe PTSD and anxiety and my anger (at being the regular subject of his anxious thoughts) and resentment (at how much time and attention his mental health issues demanded while my own issues weren’t tended to.) We regularly tried to work through things, but in the end the tools we were using weren’t working and the tools that could work weren’t being used. Our individual issues seemed to exacerbate the other’s issues and our methods of communication were the opposite of what the other needed. We seemed to be pushing each other at the times we needed more care. But, understanding and empathizing with him and our situation doesn’t negate the fact that there were several interactions last December that were extremely traumatic for me, and for the first time in my life, I intimately understood what it felt like to be triggered at a random moment and pushed into a panic attack.
Thankfully, there was a wealth of resources available to me. Close friends and family provided care or gave me space, depending on what I needed at any given time. Co-workers didn’t pry but made it known they were there for me. When I had a panic attack in the parking lot at Whole Foods, I called my friend Sarah, who has battled anxiety for years. She was able to calm me down in minutes. Several people who I barely know stepped up to show support, making sure I wasn’t alone during the remainder of the holiday season and offering me places to stay if I didn’t feel emotionally safe in my house alone. I was able to call upon people I met through work and activism, at Solace Crisis Treatment Center and Esperanza Shelter, who have training in trauma-informed care. My sister, knowing she could not step into a role of objective supporter in this situation, smartly and lovingly connected me to her friend and colleague who works with survivors in Oregon and who generously gave me hours of their time. They, along with my therapist, helped me see myself not as a victim but as a strong, intelligent, resilient woman who was already well-equipped to ultimately navigate this in a healthy way. For many weeks, every single day provided an opportunity to process and heal through safe, supportive, empowering, grounding, and judgment-free conversations with a diverse group of people, located in my home town and across the country. I still have emotions stemming from my traumatic experience, but I was able to to prevent it from turning into severe, life-altering issues.
I recognize that my post-trauma experience was a blessing. The majority of the 1 in 3 women who experience domestic violence don’t have a phone filled with numbers of supportive friends and skilled professionals, and they don’t know how to find the many resources that are available to them. And, so, their trauma often goes unaddressed and can become debilitating.
This paper on trauma-informed care explains that the “initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion… more severe responses include continuous distress without periods of relative calm or rest, severe dissociation symptoms, and intense intrusive recollections that continue despite a return to safety. Delayed responses to trauma can include persistent fatigue, sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, anxiety focused on flashbacks, depression, and avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities that are associated with the trauma, even remotely.” Heavy shit.
I also had the benefit of spending the previous year and a half collecting tools to deal with depression, on-going anxiety, and anxiety attacks. Today, I will be sharing a collection of strategies for self-soothing given to me by Beckie Child, MSW. These are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (meaning we can copy, redistribute, and adapt the content as long as we credit her.) Click here to print her strategies. I also shared her strategies below, but I have augmented the list and descriptions.
These are tools and strategies I use to help me get grounded when I’m having difficulty when my trauma has been activated. The order they are in is unimportant. Some of them work better than others for me. None of them work all the time. Some are easy to do and some require a bit of thought or planning. Some, all, or none of these may work for you. These are only suggestions.
Sit in a straight-back chair; clasp arms behind your back.
This helps you breathe from your abdomen rather than your chest. When people experience anxiety or panic attacks, they often are breathing from their chest. Clasping your arms behind your back can help you shift your breathing from your chest to your abdomen, causing you to take deeper breathes.
Breathe in and out on counts of 4 or 5. Repeat as needed.
If you don’t have a chair handy, simply stand or sit and clasp your hands behind your back.
Your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions like heart rate and digestion, is split into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls your fight-or-flight response. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls your rest and relax response. These two parts of your nervous system can’t be turned on at the same time, which means if you work to activate one, the other will be suppressed.
Here are three deep breathing techniques that help in almost any situation where there’s a heightened / intense emotion: anxiety, panic, sadness, grief, frustration, anger, fear. Choose which ever cycle feels the most comfortable to you. Repeat it until you are more relaxed and calm.
Breathing along with this gif helps to slow your breathes and let’s you time each one. Start to breathe in deeply as the horizontal line begins to form, and continue breathing in as the image expands into larger geometric shapes (each one adding a side). It’s as if your breathe is filling the shape and making it expand. Breathe out as the process reverses. Try counting to yourself the number of sides in each shape as it appears or disappears.
With Box Breathing, it’s just four simple breath segments each done to a count of four. Inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, and hold for 4.
Another method is Five-Five-Seven. Breathe in for 5 slow counts, hold for 5, then breathe out for 7.
Name 5 things you see; Name 5 things you hear; Name 5 things you can touch; Name 5 things you can smell (or smelled recently); Name 5 things that you can taste (or tasted recently.)
This activity helps orient you to present time and place. If you are still struggling after naming 5 things for each sense, then repeat the process by naming 4 things for each sense, then 3, then 2, and finally 1 thing. It’s okay to repeat things. There’s no wrong way to do this exercise.
Sometimes, if you’re frozen, it’s difficult to move your eyes to look around the room. If that’s the case, describe the textures of the things that you can see, feel, or taste. Be patient with yourself. You will come out of the frozen state. It won’t last forever.
Click here to learn assorted tactics for using each of the 5 senses to relieve anxiety.
Video or Picture Memories
Have a selection of videos and photos on your phone that bring pleasant thoughts: your pets or kids being adorable, your favorite spots in nature, a concert you loved, places you’ve traveled to. Tell people you trust that if they notice you’re having a hard time they should ask you to show them an image and describe as many details as can be recalled from that day. Who was there? What was the weather like? How did you get there? Why were you there? How did you physically feel? What did you eat? Can you remember a particular scent or sound? What emotion(s) did you experience? What was your favorite moment or aspect of that day? Etc.
Koosh™ Balls or Other Stress Balls
This is a way to work off some of the energy from a panic or anxiety attack. You can play with them between your hands, pull on them, smash them, or whatever else you want to do with them. Koosh™ balls have gotten me through many meetings that I might not otherwise have been able to through. You can also rub worry stones or snap rubber bands.
Ziplock™ Bag of Rice
This is another great texture tool. Running your hands through grains of rice, sand, beans, or buttons can be calming to your over-stimulated body. This tool can also be taken to public places. You can leave the rice in your bag and no one needs to know that you are calming yourself.
Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a type of Meridian Tapping that combines ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology. Many people find tapping is helpful at calming and soothing themselves. Tapping also helps some people change negative thoughts into different, more positive thoughts. Your local library or bookstore may have several books on tapping. There are also many Youtube videos that demonstrate tapping.
Stretching / Changing Positions / Moving
Anxiety can cause us to freeze or feel stuck. In those moments in can be difficult to move or change positions. Start small, like just moving your fingers ½ an inch, or just lifting them up and down. Slowly increase the range/amount of motion. If your eyes are frozen, try moving your eyes from side to side and then up and down.
If someone is have difficulty staying grounded or focused, counting can be a useful tool. Have them repeat numbers you say, first a set in sequence, and then a set out of sequence. For example:
You say 7, they say 7; You say 8, they say 8; You say 9, they say 9.
You say 21, they say 21; You say 43, they say 43; You say 75, they say 75.
Repeat the process as many times as necessary, using different numbers that are in sequence and different numbers that are out of sequence.
Singing requires deep breathes and can divert your attention away from your thoughts. You can also have ready a play-list of songs that tend to calm you down or cheer you up.
Arts / Crafts / Puzzles / Coloring
Art can help you express things that are maybe not so easy to express verbally. Many crafts/artforms are tactile and so keep your hands and eyes busy, and the creativity keeps your focus outside of self. Crocheting, knitting, creating a collage, working with clay and ceramics, finger painting and coloring. Adult coloring books can be found in many stores. You can find some that contain swear words to help with anger and rage.
Here’s an Introduction to Color Therapy & Healing that tells about the emotions elicited by various colors and the meanings of different colors.
Some people find shredding paper (old newspapers, junk mail, and personal mail) to be stress relieving. Just double check to make sure that what you are shredding isn’t something that you will need later!
Tactile & Counting Games
There are plenty of games where you regularly touch and move pieces while also continually counting. Both of these things help refocus your thoughts and bring you back to the present. The dice games Yahtzee, Farkle, and 10,000 are excellent, as is the glass bead game Mancala. Dominoes may work for some, but it may be too slow.