Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Here is a list of psychotherapy gems which you can do on your own. It seems as though these days, everyone and their grandmother are looking for ways to hack their stress overdrive. This is especially true for people with chronic illness, pain and environmental sensitivities. It's true. Our environment has become more toxic with molds and toxins but we’re all swimming in a soup of stress as well, which potentiates illness. Living in an environment where there is a felt-sense of danger affects our mood and the cells in our bodies.
There are many ways to work with stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective at reducing the symptoms associated with traumatic stress by way of changing and reappraising the negative associations you draw between the traumatic event itself, the thoughts about the traumatic event, and your current emotional state in the present moment. It can help you have more awareness and choice over your thoughts and behaviours. However, while it is a data-driven intervention for anxiety, CBT alone often does not create symptom resolution in patients. Cognitive behavioral therapies are standardly recommended for stress management and trauma recovery, but the latest studies show that trauma is held in the body, and cant be resolved with thought alone. Techniques which address how the body holds the burden are taking center stage. These therapies focus upon creating calm and flexibility in the nervous system, allowing you to manage your sympathetic (reactive) arousal and parasympathetic (rest and relax) calm.
10 Entry Points for Healing Trauma
Each of us experience the world through our senses and perceptions, and we each have differences in what we feel comforted by. It can be uncomfortable, for example, to sit still and breathe calmly if you’re jittery with emotion. Your entry point might be to shake your body if you’re jittery or if you're athletic what might be most calming might be to run and move that jittery energy. If you're a visual person and imagining scenes is easy for you, then positive visualization exercises might work best. Feeling your feelings can be overwhelming if you’re not used to the “language” and sensory experiences of your body, so the bottom line is - do what works for you and be gentle with yourself. Here are some of my favourite calming techniques for a wired up limbic arousal system.
Binaural beats refers to controlled auditory stimulation that is employed to change mood states. These stimuli are known to improve feelings of wellbeing while reducing feelings of depression. Audition’s ability to influence our conscious state is well documented, however, its effect on our unconscious emotional processes are still being investigated for their role in reducing traumatic stress.
Using the same logic as binaural beats, BioLateral Sounds as pioneered by Dr. David Grand, PhD, are optimized tonal stimuli that are meant to be used as guides for patients as they revisit traumatic memories, alternately exchanging information between one hemisphere of the brain and the other. They take advantage of the established effect of concentrated auditory stimuli on improving emotional well-being following an emotionally disturbing event & aid in processing the event.
Directing attention to our internal bodily sensations is an effective element of body mindfulness. Somatic techniques are important in helping unravel stressful or traumatic events, and can even help in a crisis situation. By attending to body sensations, old held patterns can be released. By directing focus onto regulating the nervous system, we bridge our emotional state, thoughts and memories to the physical sensation of our bodies and are able to revise old traumatic memory patterns.
Put one hand on your forehead and another hand on the back of your neck. Feel the warmth of your hand on your forehead touching that brain region which is there to plan, organize, strategize, understand and help you regulate yourself. Now put another compassionate hand on the back of your head near your neck just above your spine and rest it there. This is a part of the brain responsible for autonomic bodily functions, such as breathing and heart rate. With one hand on your forehead and one hand on the back of your neck imagine that the warmth from both hands is penetrating your head and also imagine the spot right in the middle where the energy from all ten fingers meet. Pause there and take some breaths, imagining that area lit up. Take in the feeling.
Trauma informed yoga
Trauma-informed yoga is rooted in the idea that trauma is not only a mental state, but a critical event that affects the mind and body as a pair. Pranaymic yoga and related breathing techniques are powerful tools for reducing stress on their own. By using yoga techniques to address specific aspects of past trauma, more effective movement coupled with emotional processing helps to mobilize feelings in the body.
Visualization techniques, also known as guided imagery, have been used in clinical practice for a very long time, and their effectiveness is well-known. For instance, stress inoculation training (SIT) is founded on the principles of using visualization, breathing, and coping techniques in order to revisit emotionally distressing events in measured ways. Much like how we inoculate ourselves against disease by allowing mild exposure to a weakened pathogen, such is the same logic behind visualizing traumatic experiences in a safe environment.
Future template imagination
Future templates are helpful ways of allowing patients to visualize their future endeavors with their new coping skills available to them. Imagining scenarios where we are successful helps us not only stay committed to maintaining therapeutic mindfulness techniques, but also lays a foundation for applying them in future situations. This helps with grounding the tools each patient develops as they navigate their stressful memories.
Finding an ally
We are social creatures, and finding an ally to assist us in our journey towards healing often helps us stay the course. Who might an ally be? A friend relative, deceased ancestor, an old pet? Who sticks up for you and would never let you down?
Finding a calm spot in your body
This adds to the idea of somatic focus, and helps direct attention away from extraneous thoughts and pinpoints inner attention onto a particular calm resource in the body. You can get quiet for a moment and notice which part of your body feels most calm and relaxed. It could be your belly, a leg and elbow or even a toe! You’ll know. Once you've found a calm (or even a relatively calm) spot, you can focus on it and notice what it feels like and looks like, with your mind's eye. Then simply allow yourself to return your attention to that spot. See if it grows or changes the feeling in an adjacent part of your body, or anywhere else.
Walking meditation, with each step releasing anger, shame, blame, or fear into the earth beneath you.
One of the basic methods for cultivating mindfulness is a “walking meditation,” which involves focusing closely on the physical experience of walking, and directing specific attention to the sensations rather than allowing your mind to wander. Think about the last time you walked outside and got lost in thought; it is almost second nature to allow our minds to drift as we move, and using this natural physical motor movement for the purposes of mindfulness has great potential.
Defining traumatic stress
Traumatic events are any shocking or emotionally overwhelming event that threatens the safety of the individual and that can be real or perceived safety. The key is that traumas are events; rather, they’re perceptions of events. It’s how our minds interpret the event which determines whether it’s a trauma or not. A characteristic of trauma is that the person experiences a sense of helplessness at the time of the event. Reactions to traumatic events can range from mild, to so severe that one’s quality of life suffers. There are typically two categories of traumatic stress acknowledged in the literature, but each of these is on a severity spectrum:
Acute stress disorder: usually immediately precedes a traumatic event, acute stress disorder (ASD) is the direct consequence of experiencing a traumatic event. ASD presents with symptoms ranging from heightened anxiety, to dissociative states that cause vivid recollection of the preceding traumatic event. ASD usually resolves within a month; if it persists, it typically progresses to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder: when ASD persists past a month, the patient is typically classified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include strong emotional dysregulation, dissociation, avoidance, and depression, with incidence especially high if the traumatic event was violent in nature.
The Cell Danger Response and Need for Safety
One of the long-term consequences of trauma might be hyper-vigilance but in the throes of trauma that could be a complete collapse response; much like how maltreatment causes extreme hyperawareness of threat in children when they age, our minds have trouble forgetting the threat’s impact on our internal balance long after it has passed. Our biology, in fact, operates with this principle in mind. The cell danger response (CDR) is a coordinated metabolic process that engages when our cells experience stress. Normally the CDR promotes rapid healing as our bodies correct the damage, but when it persists after the stressor has been removed, our whole body feels the strain. Gut microbiome becomes compromised; due to the close relationship between the gut and brain, we often feel the stress psychologically as well as physically. Chronic illness ensues, and we are left sick, stressed, and damaged even after our stressors have been removed.
This highlights the importance of creative avenues for healing traumatic stress, as while traditional therapies are powerful, each individual experiences trauma and stress uniquely. You can always find a few minutes to speckle one or two of these these gems into your day. Let me know which ones you like!