This blog looks more closely at how to find calm when we have been pulled into fight, flight or freeze states. My last few blogs looked at Stephen Porge’s Polyvagal Theory which I would very often explain to my clients. The polyvagal theory is useful firstly because it allows people with trauma to understand what our body does to protect us. With this knowledge, people with PTSD can understand why they continue to get pulled into fight/flight and freeze states and/or dissociation so easily (and not be too hard on themselves that this is happening). Secondly, they realise that they CAN assert control over their nervous system, helping themselves complete defensive cycles and move back into their ventral, social state.
Focus on the physical body
One of the most powerful ways to calm ourselves down and not get pulled unnecessarily into fight, flight or freeze states when we are triggered is to quickly turn our attention to our physical body.
We might do a quick run through the following checklist:
- What does my posture feel like? Am I slumped, rigid, or have a flexibility to my stance?
- What’s my heart rate doing? Has it speeded up or slowed down?
- Is there tension in my body? Such as a knot in my stomach, neck/back pain, a headache, a tingling in my fingers or twitching of my eye?
Now that we have that information, what would help us NOW, in the moment? What external or internal elements might offer us a sense of calm? Of course it depends where we are when we are going through this – but some suggestions might be: Do I need to call a good friend for a chat? Do I need to leave this situation as calmly as I can and simply sit and regroup with a few calming breaths?
A six step calming exercise
The following exercise in how to find calm can be practiced over a few times when we are feeling pretty, so that when we recognise we have become dysregulated, we can quickly jump into it automatically:
1. Notice I’ve been triggered
Inhale and exhale. Notice what I feel on, in and around my body. Notice the speed of breath, heart rate and body temperature.
2.Think back to safety
Think back to at a recent moment I felt most calm, safe and most like my “self”.
Identify at what point in time and/or which part of my body began experiencing disturbance or stress.
Replay the scenario from calm state to stressed state, in slow motion (as if watching a slow movie). Identify people, conversations, objects or behaviours that may have made me stressed, uncomfortable or that stand out to me as I’m replaying the recent event(s).
5. Tune in
Tune in to your body sensations as you recall the event(s) and slow down and notice if there is any shift in your body, a sensation of tingling, tensing, warming, numbing or cooling in your chest, arms, legs, face or an overall change in body temperature.
6. Healing hands
Place your hand on the area that has experienced a shift or change, and breathe deeply. If it’s an overall feeling, you can simply place your hands on your heart.
Going through this sequence, step by step, allows the body to process the experience, and creates a passageway to release the tension. Notice if something comes up, an image, sensation, awareness or understanding that offers clarity to the situation. If nothing comes up, that’s ok. Simply slowing down, pacing your breath and raising awareness is progress and helpful in itself.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541
Book a counselling session today!
See also: Fight, flight and freeze