One of the major problems with trauma is that treating it yourself can be difficult. It’s not usually like frustration or work stress, where you might be able to make a small life change or read a simple self-help book and get a lot of benefit. Getting over really bad events in your life is often a much more difficult process.
But even if you can’t treat the problem yourself, there are a few ways you can take the edge off and keep functioning.
One of the main indicators of trauma is the reaction of the body. When your mind goes back to a powerful event, the body will have a very definite reaction. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing changes, and your muscles become tense, among other reactions. The mind and body are linked.
But the bad news is also the good news.
Since mind and body are linked together, the body will often react to what the mind is dwelling on. This also means that the mind will react to what the body is doing.
So I’m going to help you use that to your advantage.
When you have a stress reaction, trauma or otherwise, there are a few things your body will tend to change. Breathing, posture, muscle tension, etc.
Notice that you can directly control all of these things. And one of the best things you can do is to change these back to their non-stressed state. When you take direct control of your body response, you can force your mind to reduce its reaction to almost any kind of stress, including post-traumatic stress.
Here are four areas to you can directly change:
- Posture: In a stressed state, your posture will tend to hunch over and you will draw in on yourself. To fix this, I suggest taking a “power posture”. Roll the shoulders up, back, and relax them down. Squeeze the shoulder blades together slightly. Bring the head back so that the nose is roughly in line with the breastbone. You’ll feel like you’re pushing the chest out. Straighten the spine so that your head feels like it is trying to reach the ceiling. If you’re standing, stand with the feet even and shoulder width apart. In this posture, the body primes the mind to feel relaxed and confident. This might feel uncomfortable at first, because many people have poor posture from years of sitting. You might have to practice a lot at first just to have the strength to maintain this for any length of time.
- Breathing: As you become stressed, your breathing will tend to be shallow and rapid. In your new posture, focus on taking deep, slow, even breaths. Slowing your breathing in this way will slow your heart rate if it is elevated. Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Take three breaths where you pull in as much air as you can, like you’re trying to inflate and stretch the lungs, hold for a few seconds, then breathe out. Breathing in a slow and deep way signals your brain to relax and let go of stress or anxiety.
- Muscle tension: Many people carry stress in their muscles, especially the shoulders and neck. Intentionally relax the shoulder and neck muscles. Some people might find this difficult. If you have trouble relaxing them, one way to force them to relax is to tense the muscles first. You can do this by lifting the shoulders and trying to touch them to your ears, tensing hard (if you have neck problems, be careful and use your own best judgment about doing this). Hold for between 10 and 60 seconds, just enough to get the muscles burning a little, then release. The muscles will generally release a lot of their tension.
- Facial expression: Yes, even your facial expression can cause stress on your mind. Most people are unaware of what their face is doing, so this might take some practice. Intentionally relax the muscles of the forehead, eyebrows, mouth, and jaw. Take both hands and rub some of the tension out of the muscles. In some cases, you can also get some good benefit by intentionally smiling (I know this may sound silly, but remember your mind reacts to what your body does).
You can now take control of some of your stress. When you find yourself having a bodily response to stress, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder related or otherwise, take control of these four areas of your physiology. On a tough day you might have to do it over and over again. Doing so won’t always fix everything, but it will definitely take the edge off and make it much easier to get through the day.