When the Amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, is triggered before we know it, as adults, we’re curled up having an anxiety/panic attack that seemingly arrived out of nowhere for no rational reason. I’ve been at the gym, having a wonderful day, happy as with every part of my day and life, and before I know it I’m having a response that resembles a petit mal seizure. My arm will jerk, I get a shock, and I have to begin to take stock of what’s happening around me.
I’ve no doubt if Complex PTSD is part of your life you can relate. That the anxiety/panic attack literally arrives out of nowhere. If you’d like to know more about how our brain is processing at this time this video will give you that information. In quick and easy terms our Amygdala hasn’t filed away our childhood trauma, so when any of our senses are overwhelmed we literally get triggered into the anxiety attack. Our prefrontal cortex (our cognitive functions, thought processing, order) disconnect from the Amygdala and ready’s us with the fight/flight/freeze response. Essentially all the chemicals prepare us to take on the “enemy.”
Hence why gaining greater understanding, for us, needs to be about the actions we take from here on in. Greater understanding of the trauma or how to manage our behaviour in response to childhood trauma won’t work. We need practical actions we can use consistently to lessen the length of time of the triggers and reduce the triggers.
The first practical exercise to teach yourself is an awareness of your breathing. When we’re triggered our breathing is short and shallow. Practice breathing in and out for 5 seconds each. Practice when you’re not triggered so that this change in your breathing doesn’t trigger your brain into a deeper anxiety. I go to bed and practice this breathing for 2 reasons. One, it helps me feel the breath going into and out of my body and as I do this I slow down my thoughts, emotions and begin to feel the breath going through my body. Secondly, it helps me relax enough to sleep. It does take time for this to happen, but it does happen.
We have to deepen our awareness of breathing to help the brain break free from the flight/fight/freeze response. Otherwise, the anxiety attack continues, and they are very tiring on our brain and body. Rest is a must after an anxiety attack as is drinking water. If you can grab a drink of water during an anxiety attack it will help you begin to re-engage your brain into the present.
The second practical exercise is dual in its understanding. When the Amgydala is triggered we may not be able to be conscious of this immediately, but we can know that one or more of our senses has triggered our brain alarm, signalling we aren’t safe. I can be happy training at the gym and the first thing I know of my senses tripping my “I’m not safe” is an anxiety attack.
The first thing I do is repeat “I am safe” over and over until I can FEEL I’m safe. I do this by engaging each of my senses. I look around and tell my brain I’m safe, I’m in a safe place that I come often, that if I’m not safe I can leave, I’m safe as I can ring my family or friends and so on. It’s disputing the thoughts I can’t hear, I’m engaging my prefrontal cortex with thoughts, and I’m willing to take action.
During this process, I also feel the area around my heart by doing the breathing exercise 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. I can literally feel how tight my chest/lung area is as getting breath into that area is hard work. Developing this deeper awareness helps us experience how shallow our breathing is during the “I’m not safe” trigger and then gives us the tools to build the deeper awareness to break free from the “I’m not safe” trigger.
I want to encourage you. Whilst this process does take time, it does work. When I first began implementing this process I’d have to leave the gym as the feeling of not being safe was just too overwhelming. Tear inducing, feeling like an idiot, fear inducing I’ve got to run home now. So I honoured my process, got in the car and went home to recover.
If you feel dizzy stop whatever you’re doing and focus on the exercises and more importantly feeling your breath and how far it’s going into your body. Doing this as a feeling exercise also helps retrain the brain that you’re the adult and you can now choose your feelings and the direction they will be going.
However, I’ve reached the point now where I can stay on the bike at the gym and do this process. I’m more determined than ever to retrain my brain. Always be proud of you no matter what stage of the process you are going through. This is hard work, tiring, but worth the effort.
Another practical exercise is using Pete Walkers 13 Steps for Flashback Management This will help you become increasingly aware of when a flashback is happening, what to do and how to work with the flashback so that you can minimize the time frames and length of time the flashback takes out of your day. I made a video based on this work with analogies from my life and it can be watched here. Pete also has a pdf document you can print out at the bottom of his page and it’s a good idea to print it out and have it handy.
Developing your awareness even a little each day will help you break free over time. One step once a day will make for a whole different experience this time next month, and then this time in 6 months, a Year and so on. Yes, retraining our brain to our current circumstance, not our childhood trauma, takes time, but I guarantee you it is completely worth the process.
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A recent article on Psychology Today blog by Myra Altman Ph.D. discusses the peer-reviewed study just accepted for publication at the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science.
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