Last month’s blog highlighted the ever more utilized term of trauma. As that post stated, trauma is used here to refer to an experience that is fear-inducing and shocks one’s experience of self and experience with the outside world.
An experience of trauma triggers the brain’s fight-flight-freeze response system (also known as the autonomic nervous system). This sends an automatic message to the body to move or immobilize, and to the mind with its thoughts and feelings.
This response is overwhelming and people feel out of control of their thoughts, feelings and actions. It throws people out of a feeling of safety and into feelings of mistrust and fear of the outside world. The body can feel foreign, as though it is being controlled by someone else. As a result of this, people often feel too much in their bodies (e.g., intense pain and discomfort) or too little (e.g., not being able to sense their body at all).
The changes to the brain’s response and the experience of the body changes the mind as well. After trauma, the mind has greater difficulty making decisions and problem solving because the mind is flooded with intense emotions and negative thoughts. These changes impact all aspects of human life, leaving people feeling as though their whole life has changed and fearing it will never be the same again.
Given that trauma is an occurrence for many, how do we address the brain-body-mind connection in counselling?
Six Ways to Support the Brain-Body-Mind Connection
1. Build Trust and Safety in Relationship
Consider a time when you felt very safe to share your feelings with someone. What did this person do to allow you to feel safe to share? Most often, people just want the space to share without critique or a push towards problem solving. Listening, asking questions, using open body language, making eye contact and validating one’s experience are all essential in establishing safety.
2. Model Calmness
It is important to create a space for sharing, but it is also important to model what it looks like to be calm and connected to the present moment. What are your practices of self care? How often do you practice what you teach to clients? In order to promote stability and calm, we must first achieve it ourselves. Developing and practicing a plan of self care is essential!
3. Talk About the Brain-Body-Mind Connection
Psycho-education is simply providing clients with information about how the brain functions during trauma and the function and names for emotions and thought processes. Often clients report feeling “crazy” or “alone” and as though no one else understands what they experience. While we want to value the individual experience of trauma, we also want to normalize the common impacts of trauma on one’s mind and body.
As I take new workshops, read books and talk to colleagues about new ideas, I consider how to disseminate this information to clients. Handouts or online resources are useful for psycho-education, but it is also important to discuss ideas with our clients to ensure their understanding. Clients report to me that it is reassuring to discuss trauma as an experience outside of themselves and as an experience lived by others as well.
4. Bring Awareness into the Body
Strategies focused on the body bring the mind’s awareness into the body. A slight tension, change in rate of breath or butterflies in the stomach are signs of something coming up in the body. Invite your client to notice these shifts so they can expand their ability to discern where the trauma is being held, since our bodies also hold the memory of traumatic experience.
A simple and useful approach is to do a body scan. Ask your client to place their feet on the ground, then bring their awareness from the top of their head all the way down to their toes while noticing their breath. The client should notice their bodily sensations from top to bottom, then bottom to top.
You can also ask your client to imagine that as they scan, their awareness is sending a healing light or warmth wherever their awareness is passing. This helps to connect the person’s mind and body, even when the brain’s alert system is sounding.
5. Deconstruct the Mind’s Processes
Often symptoms of trauma feel so overwhelming that thoughts and emotions cannot be separated. To help clients address this, consider using tools such as an emotion wheel or cognition list.
Emotion wheels list all types of emotions. They are helpful for clients who have difficulty identifying emotions because the emotions have been repressed or feel too overwhelming. Cognition lists are similar in that they list common negative thoughts to help clients identify the thoughts that emerge during stressful times in relation to their sense of self (e.g., I am unlovable) or the outside world (e.g., the world is not safe). Taking time to support clients in naming their thoughts and emotions can help them make sense of their experience.
6. Pendulate from Trauma to Safety
These strategies help people to create a sense of safety within themselves and come to know their experiences in new ways. When trauma emerges during conversation, consider using pendulation to shift awareness from concerning thoughts, emotions or sensations to calmness. The purpose of this is not to ignore the stress, but to teach self-regulation and the awareness of a sense of safety.
I ask clients to notice the distress that is occurring, take deep breaths, then imagine a pendulum (or swing) moving to a place within their body that feels calm, and move their awareness back and forth between these two experiences. The purpose of this is for the client to (1) become aware of a state of calm within stress and (2) utilize their own body and awareness to create self-regulation.
Using these six strategies, you will support clients’ brain-body-mind connection and help them learn skills to address trauma symptoms and begin to heal from trauma.
This blog is a sample from an upcoming book CTRI is publishing. The book will be released January 2018.