Riding the Waves of Trauma Symptoms

Ocean stormTrauma 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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  • juan

    October 16th, 2013 at 12:34 AM

    amazing how you have put the waves example. I have fought my trauma in my past and it was not a good experience.the pain always seemed to return after temporary periods of relief. thankfully I have been able to get rid of it after all this time but it would have been better to follow this scientific technique anyway.

  • Lorna

    October 16th, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    How would I go about getting a recommendation for someone to work with in my community?

  • Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC

    October 16th, 2013 at 12:09 PM


    You can search for a therapist in your area by clicking on the “Find a Therapist” tab at the top of this page. You can also speak with your doctor or another health professional about a referral in your area. Make sure the therapist has specific training in treating trauma and make sure they are a licensed professional. I wish you the best of luck!

  • Lorna

    October 21st, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    Thanks Anastasia I will do that because… well, let’s just say I have had so much happen to me in my past that I think that it’s finally time to start letting some of that go. The waves kind of hit me that my trauma and the way I am processing all of that is kind of the same thing, it is always ebbing and flowing, never really getting any better but always there rolling around beneath the surface. I need some still and some quiet and the things that I have experienced in life? Well they aren’t letting me do that so that is what I am searching for, peace I guess for lack of a better word.

  • Gaynor Challingsworth

    October 21st, 2013 at 7:05 PM

    Sometimes you have to be aware also that riding the waves of symptoms opens doors in the mind of things or parts of the traumatic memory the mind has locked away, for a good reason. The mind blocks to protect. The mind holds a filing cabinet that stores memories, the cabinet has many files. When we start to face and ride the symtoms the filing cabinet often will throw hidden files, or a memory not remembered. It normal and part of the process, but one that needs to be stated as sometimes a person will think they are getting worse rather than better. There is much to learn about living and surviving trauma. It is crippling.and can consume one’s life. The first thing to.remember is the memory is a past experience, no longer lived today. You are dealing with the symtom that remains. The more the wave is rode or the rollercoaster that wont stop from total fear. Remember to get better you have to ride the wave that comes home, you are not locked in a car on a neverending rollercoaster that never ends. Its a choice and when ready to you will. Preparation and understanding is really important. Its a long road and I have personally experienced for over thirty years. But there is life and light on the road to getting better. Eventually you can feel it has actually enhanced and given an understanding with such depth to your life.

  • kerri

    October 31st, 2013 at 4:22 PM

    I was diagnosed with chronic complex ptsd, it is one of the disorders that accompanies a disease that has left me not just a member but president of the neurologically damned. I have improved with CBT and EMDR,I would fly into fight flight and have my muscles freeze making other health issues worse. I hate the physical struggle but when I got help it explained my whole life experience and behavior, I thought it had just been last 10 yrs. Oddly I felt relieved, treatment gave me more resources to manage my health and answered many unknowns to my other issues. Friends always told me I was strong for surviving my insanely chaotic life, I wasn’t strong I coped with avoidance since I can remember. Thought diverting focus was coping, finally I was talking to a guy friend and he said “I know you aren’t lying but your experiences are beyond Hollywood tragedy, but you have become a hot mess I want to date you but can’t.” At first I thought well you can’t keep up with my whiskey intake so you are a problem for me then said “you are absolutely right I am living like a rock star killing myself faster.” I thank him today, he said I would never successfully get sober and actually manage my health. Tendency to self destruct under pressure, not harm me or others but not prevent it either. That was 2 yrs ago haven’t drank since and am at a 160 almost a 180. Being a rebel impulse craving smartass ended up my blessing and my curse, I was lucky I had someone challenge my ability to preserver. I’m at peace for first time, still struggle physically daily but my mind had a massive garage sale so I can problem solve the negativity. It’s not just attraction either positivity manifests more positivity, I won’t lie though fight or flight is the worst thing to experience but they are fewer and farther between. Thanx for letting me vent my family and friends are no support, like being educated will mean they experienced the trauma and don’t follow Dr. orders. Good jujus to all, in my prayers

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