Trauma is defined as an injury, either physical or emotional, which can lead a person to experience psychological, physiological, and emotional distress. This distress can manifest in our thoughts, emotional experiences, and body sensations. When these symptoms persist, this sometimes leads to the development of posttraumatic stress, also known as PTSD. Posttraumatic stress is a condition that can significantly affect a person’s ability to enjoy life, relate with others, and function normally.
Signs of Posttraumatic Stress
Posttraumatic stress can manifest as frequent fearfulness, persistent unwanted thoughts such as flashbacks and nightmares, and avoidance of certain people, situations, or stimuli. Individuals with PTSD often describe feeling outside of their body, “disconnected” from themselves and others and often experiencing a sense of “meaninglessness.”
PTSD can originate from a single traumatic incident or from chronic traumatic stressors experienced over the course of a lifetime. These traumas can include, among other things, abandonment or a lack of nurturance from key attachment figures. Commonly held beliefs by a person experiencing PTSD are “It was my fault” or “I am unsafe” to more defective beliefs, such as “I am unlovable” or “I am incapable.”
It is important to know that while these beliefs are deeply ingrained and painful, each of us holds the capacity to heal. With proper treatment, one can process through these traumatic memories, connect with
strengths and resources, and allow healing to take place.
Shifting a Negative Memory into a Positive One
Given that PTSD generally has to do with negative memories leading to negative emotional experiences, the best immediate antidote when experiencing emotional distress is to bring up or “install” a positive memory. Installing positive memories refers to a person’s ability to intentionally generate a positive memory and allow it to shift their present emotional state. When done correctly, doing so can effectively alter a negative emotion into a positive one.
To do this, think of a memory that brings up a feeling of warmth or safety. What image comes to mind? What can you see, smell, taste, hear, or feel? When you think about this positive memory, what do you believe about yourself? How does this memory make you feel? Where do you experience that positive feeling in your body? Bring up all of those details and allow yourself to experience the positive experiences related to this memory.
Other things to do when triggered:
- Sniff an aroma. Do you have a favorite aroma? Eucalyptus, rosemary, lavender, maybe one of your favorite herbs? Take a sniff. Notice any shift in your affect? Aromas are an easy and immediate way to shift negative affect. A pleasant aroma activates the limbic system, stimulating a deep-seated positive emotional response.
- Chew a candy. Have you ever noticed that your mouth gets dry when you get distressed? This has to do with the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the natural stress response. Sucking a candy is an effective way to generate saliva, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This can also be done by chewing gum, drinking water, or just by generating saliva.
- Notice two objects in the room. Have you ever noticed that when you get triggered, you respond disproportionately to the situation? When we get triggered, we are mentally and emotionally responding in a way that is more related to our past than our present. When you notice this start to happen, look around the room and bring your attention to two physical objects in the space. Just notice these two objects. Shifting your attention to the space will bring your awareness back to your present orientation. This is a hallmark of mindfulness.
- Carry an anchoring object. Do you have a person who represents a quality of nurturance, protectiveness, or wisdom? Do you have an object or symbol that represents something meaningful? A picture, a rosary, a favorite quote, or a piece of jewelry? These things are resources and strengths to utilize when overcoming PTSD. Carrying or holding an anchoring object can help bring the positive emotions related to these resources into your current emotional state.
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