Trauma brings with it flashbacks of memory and strong emotions, which are often uncomfortable and difficult to cope with. Typically these symptoms are followed by the fight-or-flight response. This is natural, as instinct tells us to do everything we can to avoid pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, avoiding trauma symptoms can be detrimental instead of helpful. Resisting and avoiding trauma symptoms often brings on more intense emotions as well as increased frustration, anger, and panic.
I often use this analogy to explain why this happens: Imagine you are out in the ocean, far from shore. Giant waves are coming, very intimidating and scary. The first instinct is to fight, to swim as hard as you can back to shore. However, unless you are a physical anomaly, you only end up exhausting yourself and don’t get closer to your goal of safety. When exhausted, you are at higher risk of drowning. Thus, survival experts advise that the best thing you can do in this type of situation is to allow your body to relax to conserve energy, floating instead of fighting. This gives you a better chance of getting through the ordeal and allows time to calm yourself so you can think clearly about what to do to in order to survive.
I advise clients to do the same thing when they are experiencing trauma symptoms. On many occasions, I have seen shock and confusion on their faces when I tell them to stop fighting their symptoms and to just go with them—not making them worse, but also not fighting or avoiding. It sounds absurd, I know, to advise against fighting panic, awful memories, intense emotion, and flashbacks. After all, don’t we want relief from those symptoms? Of course we do. It is natural to want to be without pain. I ask people to take a risk and try just riding the waves of their symptoms, experiencing and observing them without feeding into them and making them worse—all the while not trying to make them better, either.
When we try to make our symptoms better by fighting or avoiding, we are often fighting a losing battle. The body and brain are amazing. They know what they need to do to work through trauma, and we often get in the way of that process because it is uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. Healing often involves pain. Think about a time you had an injury of some sort (a broken bone, a sunburn, a cut, or any other physical ailment). Think about the healing process and how it wasn’t always comfortable. Often there are uncomfortable or painful sensations that come as a result of the body trying to heal itself. The same is true when we have experienced a traumatic event. Our brains need the chance to process what has happened. When we fight or avoid the discomfort, not only do the symptoms last longer and become more intense, but we become frustrated because we were not successful in getting rid of the symptoms as soon as we wanted to.The good news is this: I have seen the awe on the faces of people when they allow themselves to experience and observe their symptoms, and find that it does indeed work to decrease the intensity and duration of their emotions, flashbacks, and panic. They find that their symptoms have far less power over them and they are able to increase their ability to function in their lives. This is what riding the waves is all about. The goal is to decrease the suffering in a way that is conducive to healing.
To learn to do this, I would advise that someone experiencing trauma reach out for professional help for a few reasons. First, this process can be scary, and a professional can give you the support and monitoring necessary while you are developing this technique. Also, additional coping skills are helpful and necessary when one is learning to ride the waves of their symptoms. Lastly, a professional can help you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for trauma that will be tailored to your individual needs so you can get the best outcome possible.
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