Processing trauma, and your body’s response to it


March 27, 2023

Learn how you can process trauma — and how working through your feelings helps you move forward after a stressful event.

“Trauma” has quickly become a mental health buzzword, akin to “self-care” and “mindfulness.” But even though we use it often, we may not understand the depth of what the word can mean, said Natalie Durda, a social worker at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. Processing trauma can take a toll on the body and the natural triggers that follow.

For Durda, the foundation of trauma is any stressful event that continues to disrupt your day-to-day life. “That could be years and years of abuse, a car accident, going to the hospital and seeing a loved one in the bed — all of those things,” she said. “It’s almost like our brains have a habit of storing these events somewhere in the back of the mind, and then we have these trauma triggers that pop up and bring those feelings back.”

When faced with a trigger, your body goes back into that trauma response, Durda explained. Suddenly, you’re in overdrive. Your heart starts to race, your energy level increases, you may start sweating — your body will react as it typically reacts to stress. “We call this fight-or-flight response our animal instinct because it takes place in our brain stem, right where our brain started developing,” Durda said. “Our critical thinking goes away and we go into reaction mode. When we’re stuck in trauma, or when we have a trauma response, we’re stuck in that reaction place: fight, flight or freeze.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to avoid these trauma triggers. For a car accident survivor, passing a certain intersection or hearing the screech of tires might elicit a trauma response. Another example: For those of us who dealt with the trauma of the pandemic — which is likely all of us, but certainly frontline workers and those who’ve been ill or had a loved one who’s been infected — it might be the sight of a mask or even an empty parking lot.

“It’s not like we can go about our lives and avoid those things — they’re going to be inevitable,” Durda said. The only thing we can control is how we react — how we process our trauma in a way that allows us to free ourselves from that overdrive response. Here, Durda walks us through some strategies that will encourage us to do just that.

“Sit down and take a few deep breaths and give yourself a moment to feel the feeling and let it pass. If we ignore the feeling, it’s just going to sit and fester.”

Give yourself space to work through your feelings.

“In a moment when you’re feeling that trauma response, rather than ‘numbing out’ with a coping mechanism like sugary food or a glass of wine, just sit down and take a few deep breaths and give yourself a moment to feel the feeling and let it pass,” Durda said. “If we ignore the feeling, it’s just going to sit and fester. That’s what trauma does: It just sits and lies dormant if we don’t work through it.”

Talk about it.

“We tend to put those really scary things that caused us to be fearful in that dark place in our mind,” Durda said. “Just being aware of that is shining a little bit of light in there — opening the door to that dark place. Talk about those feelings that bubble up with your coworkers, with your friends. Connection is so key in terms of getting through something like this. We are very social naturally — there’s a reason we feel better when we are in a community.”

Get some perspective.

“Remind yourself that we will not always be in this disaster mode, feeling all these feelings,” Durda recommended. “History tells us that we’ll get through this — we don’t know the end, but we know that it will end. You may feel personally alone right now, but you’re not. Knowing that everyone’s dealing with something difficult might help you feel more connected.”

Closeup of hands, a man and woman clasping hands outdoors.

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