Alana Barlia, LMHC
Do you constantly find yourself reacting rather than acting? Do you find yourself acting impulsively, yelling, fighting, shutting down, or flying off the handle at the smallest inconvenience? It is possible that you’re not just a “short-tempered” or angry person. Actually, it is highly likely that you are traumatized. When clients’ hear the term traumatized, often the first response is, “But nothing’s happened to me” or, “Oh that’s ridiculous,” or my personal favorite, ‘But I love my parents.” I have come to understand that when there is a big, expressed wound such as abuse, domestic violence, addiction, or loss, people are willing to accept these experience as trauma.
However, when we grew up in invalidating environments, where little fires built up over time, it is more difficult for us to assess if we have been traumatized or not. An invalidating environment is one in where our emotional states were ignored, discredited, or inappropriately responded to. It is one where normal emotional experiences were met with erratic or extreme responses (eg. being hit for crying). This means that we did not learn the proper response to our own emotional needs – leading to erratic, impulsive behaviors to cope with our emotions.
Undealt-with emotional trauma often leads to physiological or body-held trauma. The autonomic nervous system is made up of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for emotional regulation and relaxation, while the sympathetic nervous system is our fight flight or freeze response. In an ideal environment, the two are working coherently together to effectively regulate our physiological states, which in turn regulates our behaviors. However, sometimes we find that when we have experienced trauma, invalidating environments, or have naturally sensitive nervous systems, our fight flight or freeze response becomes constantly activated. A persistently activated flight, fight, or freeze response means we are acting in a way to protect ourselves from threat or danger all the time (sounds exhausting, right?). For example, we may find ourselves yelling at our partners (fight), quitting jobs prematurely (flight), or shutting down in intimate moments (freeze).
Therapy, specifically Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, is suggested for working toward regulating one’s emotions and learning to tolerate distressing experiences. But there are also ways to self-heal. A little background – the Vagus nerve, the 12th cranial nerve, runs from the brain through the digestive system, sending signals between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems to and from the brain. This means that by calming the Vagus nerve we can actually calm our physiology – heart rate, digestion, etc. (pretty cool!!). A calmer body means a calmer us - and we can do this through coherent breathing. Coherent breathing is paced breathing at a rate of 5 breaths per minute, which helps to regulate the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. During most of my therapy sessions with clients I begin with 5 minutes of coherent breathing, which helps to reduce anxiety, stress, and other trauma related symptoms.
Here is a step-by-step on how to practice coherent breathing:
- Find yourself in a comfortable position either sitting or lying down. Loose limbs, legs, and hands. Or you can lay your hands on your diaphragm.
- Let a big, deep breath out.
- Breathe in for 6 seconds, pause, breathe out for 6 seconds.
- Repeat for 3-5 minutes or until you feel your body physically release.
- Work up to 10-30 minutes per/day of coherent breathing.
(if you need assistance with your breathing I find that Breathing Zone app is an efficient resource*)
If you are interested in learning more about how you can free yourself from a traumatized body and work toward emotional regulation, let’s chat! Therapywithab.com