How Trauma Survivors’ Hypervigilance Can Be Eased Through Mindful Noticing
Because many of my clients have experienced trauma survivors’ hypervigilance, a question often comes up: “Maria, how do I distinguish between a deliberate and mindful noticing that you encourage and the hyper-alert response that I’m having from my trauma? Can a practice of mindfulness help me calm my hypervigilance? I mean I’m already noticing every little thing! How can mindfully noticing more help me?”
These are great questions! I hope this article gives you some answers and strategies you can start using today to calm hypervigilance.
The moment you experience a terrible accident or act of violence a tidal wave of repercussions tears through your body, brain, emotions, and thoughts. If you’ve experienced it, you don’t need me to go on about the spiral of negative thoughts, emotions, and suspicions, the sleepless nights, exhaustion, tension and pain, the jumping at noises, the unrelenting need to be on guard against every real or perceived threat. The very fabric of your life has been torn apart.
You feel out of control. A general expectation of safety a moment before turns into a presumption of threat around any corner. You didn’t ask for it to happen. It will take time and baby steps to start taking back control, which is a heavy load to carry by yourself. That’s why it’s important to reach out to a professional who can help guide you through the healing process. Remember that a process takes time. So give yourself the gift of patience. As Dawn Serra said,
“There is no timestamp on trauma. There isn’t a formula that you can insert yourself into to get from horror to healed. Be patient. Take up space. Let your journey be the balm.”
Exercising patience is something you CAN control. Rebuilding your patience may be just as hard as rebuilding damaged muscles through physical therapy. It helps to think of it like an exercise — the next time you want to scream and cry out in pain and frustration, try this powerful exercise:
Take a deep breath, then mindfully and deliberately give yourself 10 seconds, saying “I choose patience for myself and others”. Reassure yourself that you’re safe. Connect yourself to the ground you inhabit. Keep trying to exercise 10 seconds of patience. Soon you’ll be up to 15 seconds, then 20. When you think of it as a building exercise, you can constructively view each situation as an opportunity to remaster your patience and self-love.
Foremost to recovering from trauma survivors’ hypervigilance is recognizing and accepting that you didn’t deserve this. Brené Brown kindly brings this to our attention: “What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.”
Once you experience trauma, take back your power and make a conscious decision that you’re not going to let it control the rest of your life.
“Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you do choose.”
– Michelle Rosenthal
Trauma takes control away from you. It overloads the brain, taking away its ability to function. Through mindful noticing, you take back control. Your brain is working overtime to keep you safe, so it sees everything from a negative aspect. Trauma-induced thinking makes you live in the dark. Mindful, intentional thinking will bring you back into the light. While we won’t delve into medical recommendations in this article, let’s explore some more coping skills …
- Acknowledge your feelings, including fear. Accept them, without judging yourself. If you don’t like how you’re feeling, take control of your thoughts until you shift your emotions to a more resourceful state.
- Give yourself comfort. Take control of your self-talk and make it comforting and positive, as you would speak to a close friend.
- Keep it real. Take control of your imagination, rather than overreacting or seeing the worst. See what is happening rather than what you think is happening. Mindfully focus on your senses, what you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
- Practice greater self-care. Take control by choosing to eat and drink things that nourish you. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and recreational drugs take control away from you.
- Relax tense body sensations. Control the amount of tension and stress you store in your body. You can practice progressive relaxation anytime, anywhere, and it will help you release it.
- Deepen your breathing. Controlling your breath — slowing it down and making the breaths deeper — will trigger a relaxation response within your body.
- Choose to move. Even if you’re mobility is limited, look for ways to exercise. It’s something you can do to release anxiety and stress.
- Look for ways to give. While recovering, you may become very dependent on others or become withdrawn. Staying at home feels safe, but as we heal, it’s important to expand outwardly and help where we can. It’s the fastest way to turn powerlessness into strength and optimism.
I am deeply honored that many of my clients ask me to be part of their recovery journey. I rejoice with each baby step you take. Please, never give up. You deserve to live a rich and joyful life.
Even if you’ve never experienced trauma, you can use these same coping skills to step out of your comfort zone. All of us are in the process of Stepping Forward in one way or another. I’m walking my clients through more coping skills in my soon-to-be-released Stepping Forward program. Will you be joining us? I invite you to download an Introduction to The Stepping Forward Program.
Thank you for the photo Frank Rolando Romero.