In our last post, we talked about how trauma intrudes into our lives in spite of our futile attempts to avoid it. Another way we are held captive by trauma is trying to guard and protect ourselves from unknown sources of danger.
This constant watch of our surroundings is called "Hyper-arousal." It takes on many forms that create struggles in lots of ways.
The first thing we notice is that it's really hard to concentrate. In fact, many trauma survivors have had a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
For what it's worth, I think it's just the opposite. Instead of Attention Deficit, it's actually Attention SURPLUS. We try to pay attention to EVERYTHING in our environment. It’s way too much information. We can’t filter IN what's important enough to remember. It's not that we're not paying attention...it's that we are paying too much attention to everything.
The next thing to follow is "Irritability with Outbursts of Anger." When everything can be a threat, almost anything can be a trigger for our trauma, leading to anger in efforts to protect ourselves.
Often, this leads to believing we need "Anger Management." Managing anger never gets to the internal source. We can only externally manage anger for so long, if we never deal with the root of the emotion…which is usually fear in the long run.
Irritability can also be fueled by struggles to sleep. "Sleep Disturbance" is super common for survivors. Again, trying to stay alert creeps into how restfully we can sleep. If we are able to sleep, NIGHTMARES wreck that on a frequent basis.
This can lead to avoiding sleep at all costs. Sometimes, survivors can only sleep during daylight hours. This is especially true if traumas occurred at night.
“Hypervigilance” is the next sign of hyper-arousal. It’s paying attention to everything in our environment in every situation. We look for danger everywhere and rarely feel safe.
Along with, or maybe due to, hypervigilance, we are also “Easily Startled.” Someone saying our name while in deep thought, or gently touch us can lead to jumping and recoiling as if we are ready to fight or flee.
This can be embarrassing. It makes it really difficult to enjoy being around others. This may be one of the choosing isolation and staying in familiar environments.
Oddly enough, the very thing we need to combat these issues may be the hardest thing we can do. The “antidote” to hyper-arousal is learning how to RELAX and SELF-REGULATE.
It seems to be a struggle with almost every survivor to learn and practice skills and strategies to relax. Usually, these skills work. Survivors actually begin to notice a sense of relaxation. When this happens, they typically shut it down.
Why? Relaxing means letting our guards down. We feel vulnerable. We’re trapped between wanting to let go and needing to hold on for protection.
In spite of this discomfort, it’s important to find a space where we can work on contemplative practices, mindfulness, relaxation, and letting go. If you’ve tried to practice these skills and have struggled, keep searching for a place that feels safe to relax.
It might only be for a few moments at first. The payoffs in mental, emotional, and physical wellness are usually worth it.
Maybe it’s the bathroom, your bedroom, closet, or some other form of sanctuary for you. Usually, practicing alone in one of these spaces will allow you to experiment with calming and self-regulation.
As we get to the skills phase of trauma work, try practicing some of the recommended skills in different areas until you feel safe. Just a few minutes at first and then, gradually increase the time you spend until the sense of relaxation feels more natural. You’ll begin to notice your body and mind releasing in ways that are restorative and calming.