You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” You might agree with it, love it or hate it. The idea is to act how you want to feel even when you really, really REALLY don’t feel like it. While I won’t go into the “science” of fake it ‘til you make it, I will share with you what I teach my client’s regularly and provide some insight regarding how it works.
The brain takes information in from your many senses and puts it all together to understand what is going on in the environment. Based on that information it determines what to release to the rest of your body. If the senses relay to the brain that danger is present, the brain secretes a powerful biological agent to the body in preparation to protect and defend you. If the senses relay to the brain that all is well and things are “chill”, then the brain will send powerful biological agents to help you calm down and rest.
When PTSD or trauma has been present in the self-system triggers can be known and unknown to you. It often feels like your stress, anxiety, or fear kicks in out of nowhere and can be overwhelming. This is normal in individuals with PTSD and likely stays that way until the individual learns skills to manage the symptoms and reprocesses the originating event(s) causing the disturbance.
If you feel triggered easily, give these five steps a try. The steps involve getting correct information to the brain to help it calm the body down.
First name it by saying something like, “I must’ve just been triggered by something” or “Something just happened and I think I was triggered by it.” Add to it how you feel. Perhaps, “I feel really scared” or “I am noticing a lot of fear in my body.” It is awful to be triggered so this is easier said than done, but you can do it so give it a try. When you name your emotion the upper brain releases neurotransmitters to the lower part of the brain (the emotion center) to help it calm down.
Second, see if you can take a deep breathe in and out, with an emphasis on the exhale and out-breath. Every time you inhale you activate the sympathetic nervous systems (connected to your ability to move, defend yourself, and get mad at the guy who cut you off in traffic). Every time you exhale it activates the para-sympathetic nervous system (connected to your ability to rest, digest, and binge watch Netflix). By working with the out-breath you are recruiting the part of your nervous system that helps calm you down. In through your nose, and out through your mouth. Blow it out (from deep down). Then, again, inhale through your nose, and exhale from your toes. Keep with it.
Third, check your surroundings. Using very slow movements, turn your head to the right and left - back and forth. This movement should be extremely slow (almost turtle slow). Turn that head all the way to the left and all the way to the right. Eyes up and down (sl-ow-ly) checking your environment. Name the things that you see. Name them out loud if you’re at liberty to do so. This is a way of grounding yourself to the present moment. Turning your head activates the social engagement part of the brain. This slow and intentional movement is sending information to the brain that you are okay. You are safe. It tells the brain, “we’re good.” Naming and describing things you see is a classic grounding technique used in many approaches. It activates the front part of the brain in charge of executive calculated thinking.
Fourth - assuming the environment is safe - tell yourself that you ARE safe. Something like, “I feel scared AND I am safe. Whatever is bothering me is old stuff; it’s over now and I am safe in this moment.” This is another feedback loop to the brain. Our ears hear what we say (outloud) and that information gets to the brain as new insight. Saying it to ourselves internally is not as effective because you aren’t using your sense of hearing to take the new information in.
Lastly, check in with your posture. Are you in a tense, restricted position or posture? Typically, when triggered, individuals are in a constricted position (muscles tight, eyes narrowed, and body in a protective position). This is actually the position you’d want to be in if you were in a dangerous scenario. The stress hormone is getting the body ready to fight, flee, or freeze. But, since you’ve determined there is nothing to be afraid of, the position of constriction is sending faulty information to your brain. So, again, assuming all is safe around you, try opening your posture up. Stand or sit with your chest open, shoulders rolled back, and head held level. Soften your face. This is sending more accurate information that the brain can use to help the body start to actually feel better. When the body relaxes the brain recognizes this and will stop sending so much of that (awful feeling) stress hormone.
Please keep in mind that this work will not be effective if you are in an unsafe or unstable environment. Get yourself somewhere safe first. If you need help, please contact the National Domestic Violence Crisis Hotline here or call them at 1-800-799-7233.
Give these steps a try for anxiety, panic, and any other overwhelming symptom. Feel free to reach out to us to learn more about trauma, adversity and how to resolve problems at their root(s).
Resilient Life Therapy is located at 1001 Twelve Oaks Center Drive, Wayzata, MN 55359.