We have been getting calls from our Affiliate Trainers in Eastern Europe looking for tools to help volunteers and organizations that are trying to help people traumatized from the war in the Ukraine. We also have recently been working with a community of people who were affected by the Oxford High School shooting last year to help parents and families process that tragic and traumatic event. As I think through what we can share to be most helpful, I’m reminded of so many other traumatic events this year, from the tornadoes in Kentucky to the collapse of the Champlain towers in Florida as well as my own personal grief and loss. It gives me such a heavy heart to think of all the difficulties and hardships, and, yet, as a professional trainer, I know that the human brain is unlike anything else on earth in its astounding capacity to develop, learn, adapt and heal. Be encouraged. There ARE techniques that can help.
If you experienced a traumatic event or someone you love has, first of all, let me say how sorry I am. My heart and prayers go out to you and I hope something in the ideas below will help you and your family and community to heal.
A brief explanation of brain integration…
Let me start with a quick explanation. When we’re doing well, the different parts of our brain are integrated and work together harmoniously. When we experience a traumatic event, our brain survives by shutting down certain parts to divert energy to other areas that keep us alive. When the traumatic event is over, it can be hard to get things working harmoniously again. All of the stress and emotional energy can become compartmentalized from the rest of our brain and lodge the traumatic memory in the emotional center of our brain without it being integrated across our whole brain. While this is helpful in the moment, if it stays this way, we can suffer from anxiety, depression, memories that activate us, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here are a few ways to work through the pain of a traumatic event so the brain can integrate and work through the experience.
1. Talk about it right away and again and againWhen we talk about what happened during a traumatic event with a safe and trusted person, some of the emotional power is released and we begin the process of integrating the memory into the logical portion of our brain. This takes time and repetition and is ideally begun within 24 – 48 hours of the traumatic event. Journaling can also be a part of this process.
2. Pair logic and emotion
When you talk through memories, it can be helpful to use pairs of questions that reach both sides of the brain – the analytical/thinking side and the emotional side. If you are helping someone talk through a traumatic event or if you are journaling yourself, try asking or answering questions like these.
– What happened first? How did that feel?
– Where were you when it happened? Do you remember how you felt?
– Who was with or near you? Were you able to talk to each other? How did that feel?
– Then what happened? What did that feel like?
– What happened after that? What feelings came then?
Pairing a factual question with a feeling question helps integrate the logical and emotional centers of the brain.
Both adults and children need to process. Allowing someone to talk through things often can help them feel safe. While it is difficult to talk about tragedy or traumatic events, processing it with a love one can help people move beyond the trauma. If you have little people in your life, be sure you give them a chance to talk through something stressful. Even a pre-verbal child needs someone to help them process by talking it through for them and reminding them they are safe now.
3. Allow yourself to be emotional – don’t stuff it down!
Pay attention when emotions surface and LET. THEM. OUT. Stuffing negative emotions doesn’t help them dissipate. Emotions that are not expressed come out anyway. They come out in our physical body in the form of high blood pressure, increased heart rate, sweating, sickness, or other life threating illnesses. Crying is good for us. Barton Goldsmith, Ph. D., from Psychology Today reminds us that, “Expressing your pain is actually a good way to make it stop.”
Releasing emotional energy is physically exhausting. Don’t be surprised if you’re more tired than usual and give yourself space to rest when you need it. Practice deep breathing exercises. Deep breathing is calming and centering.
5. Listen to your body, but not your cravings
Movement can be very healing. If you feel antsy or are “all-in-your-head”, any kind of activity—walking, bike riding, basketball, anything you can do–can be an excellent outlet for emotional stress.
6. Shift your focus
If you find yourself being activated by a traumatic memory, take some deep breaths, and notice your surroundings. When we look at the world around us, it shifts our focus outward and brings down the emotional intensity we may be experiencing.
7. Practice gratitude, even while healing
Even though it seems counter-intuitive to be thankful in difficult circumstances, the act of looking for things to be thankful for is powerfully healing. It helps balance out the negativity our brain has experienced. It changes our brain structure in good ways and builds resilience.
Healing takes time and intentionality, and, as a good friend often reminds me, “It takes as long as it takes.” Be gentle with yourself and work towards healing. If you feel overwhelmed, seek professional help or reach out to a friend, your spiritual community or a mentor.
Additional Reading and Resources
- 7 Tools for Managing Traumatic Stress | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020)
- CDC. (2021). Coping with a Traumatic Event.
- Don’t Bury Your Feelings. (2014). Psychologytoday.com.
- Marketing Communications: Web // University of Notre Dame. (2021). Taking Care of Yourself after a Traumatic Event // University Counseling Center // University of Notre Dame. University Counseling Center.
- Recovering From Trauma. (2020, November 4). WebMD.Com.
- Soo Jeong Youn, PhD, And Raquel Halfond, PhD. (2019, October 30). How to cope with traumatic stress. Apa.org.