Avoiding the people, places and situations that trigger these memories can seem helpful at times but using avoidance as your sole strategy will cause more problems than it tries to solve. These symptoms can’t always be avoided, and trying to do so may shut yourself off to promising opportunities, create anxiety or make you feel all the more restrained by your traumatic experience.
It may also be harmful to only have one way of coping because it may not help you every time. Instead, you need several tools at the ready for when you’re feeling the scary reach of traumatic stress.
7 Effective Trauma-Coping Methods
- Use The “Window Of Tolerance.” The “Window of Tolerance” (WoT) concept is how to identify and discuss your current mental state. Being inside your window means that you’re doing fine and can function effectively. When you’re outside of the window, it means you have been triggered and are experiencing a traumatic-stress response. Initially, you might have a small window which means you have a limited capacity to process and stabilize when presented with tough reminders of traumatic events. You are easily triggered to flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, high anxiety, emotional shut down/numbing, panic/anxiety attacks, dissociation and overwhelmed. Your window expands as you develop tools to stabilize your feelings, which boosts your capacity to handle tougher information, emotions and physical stimuli/sensations. “Handle” means staying in the present moment, you know where you are, who you are with, what date and time it is, and are aware of your five senses. This is coupled with being able to feel emotions and not becoming overwhelmed by them. You are present in the moment, you can think and feel at the same time. Having the awareness of both positive and negative states can help you identify and practice the tools necessary to either stay in your WoT, or return to your WoT if you find yourself outside of it. Being able to notify others of the size of your window, your triggers and tools will allow for realistic expectations of what you can handle and what you must do to stay present and engaged.
- Breathe Slowly And Deeply. This free, portable tool can be used anywhere. Make sure you inhale through your nose and exhale for longer than you inhale, either through your nose or your pursed lips. Suggested rhythm: Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 2, exhale for 6 to 8 counts. By so doing, you activate the part of your nervous system that helps your body calm itself. This lets you think more clearly and return to the present moment.
- Validate Your Experience. What you have experienced is real and hurtful. Having the name or context of traumatic stress/PTSD lets you know you that how you feel is not your fault. Nothing is “wrong” with you! What you are undergoing is a normal response to abnormal experiences. So, tell yourself this as you go through challenging symptoms. After all, self-validation is crucial to your healing.
- Focus On Your Five Senses (5-4-3-2-1). Start with five different things you see (trees outside the window), hear (buzzing of the air conditioner), sense with your skin (your collar on your neck or a warm breeze on your arms), taste (the lingering of coffee on your tongue), and smell (stale air or perfume). Then notice four of each, then three of each, and so on. Be as specific about these items as you can to make you really focus on external factors and get out of your head. Pay attention to things like shape, scent, texture and color. You will likely be back to the present moment before you even realize it.
- Think Positively For 12 Seconds. Imagine something positive like a lovely flower, orange sunset, warm smile on a loved one’s face or a treasured compliment from a friend. And really focus on it for 12 seconds. Breathe and feel its impact on your body and emotions. According to neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, it only takes 12 seconds to create new neuronal connections. These positive experiences can replace fear based-thinking and coping.
- Use A Gravity Or Weighted Blanket. A symptom of PTSD is sleep disturbances (which includes insomnia), nightmares, flashbacks and high anxiety. Not getting enough of the type of sleep you need can cause you to have problems concentrating, leading to difficulties at work and/or school. It can lead to irritability, negatively impacting important relationships. Research shows that using a weighted blanket, which simulates being held or hugged safely and firmly, helps reduce anxiety and insomnia.
- Laugh. According to recent research laughter is real medicine, and is being commonly used now as a therapeutic tool. It is proven to reduce stress by releasing specific hormones to boost your immune system and rewire your brain. So, find a funny video to watch when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Or, spend time with a genuinely funny, good-natured friend or loved one who knows how to make you feel safe and comfortable. You have a right to feel calm and in the present moment. Practicing these tools is an ideal first step to managing your traumatic stress and getting on the road to recovery.