In walks in Monica, a 33 year old Caucasian woman. Monica has come to see me due to her sexual traumatic experiences she had endured throughout her childhood, particularly by her uncle.
Monica, now a successful broker, has begun to have flashbacks and nightmares come up for her. She came to my office very confused and horrified- confused as to why the flashbacks are coming up for her now, after all these years; but also very horrified at the memories that are presenting.
I had to explain to Monica that this is a very common experience- that most survivors of abuse need many years, and sometimes many therapists, before they can face the truth of their abuse. I explained to Monica that many survivors of abuse may be dealing with addictions, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, etc, before facing their abuse. Like many trauma survivors, Monica was going through the following:
1- Repeated/reliving of the event: Can be seen via flashbacks, repeated dreams/nightmares, or physical reactions to certain stimuli
2- Avoidance: Can be seen as feelings of detachment, inability to remember aspects of the trauma, withdrawing from people, places, or things that remind you of the event
3- Arousal: Hyper-arousal (i.e. tension, anxiety) or hypo-arousal (numbness, withdrawal)
Long after a trauma has occurred, many individuals find themselves anticipating and reacting to stimuli that directly or indirectly resemble the original trauma. They unconsciously narrow their field of consciousness to reminders of the trauma and neglect to see cues of safety.
Monica was experiencing this hyper-vigilance and needed to be grounded to the present moment. One way of getting Monica to focus on the present moment was to direct her to physically adjust her body towards new stimuli. This was done by asking her questions that helped focus attention when she got triggered (such as having her name all the objects in the room, naming the colors in the room, etc). Another way of helping Monica get grounded was to help her get connected to her sensory experiences (here-and-now experience of what she smells, sees, hears, and feels with her sense of touch).
Some other Grounding Techniques:
- Keep your eyes open and your feet on the ground
- Hold a stuffed animal or other comforting object
- Listen to calming music
- Breathe, focusing on each inhalation and each exhalation
- Do something that involves each of your senses, such as reading, watching TV, touching a stone, smelling a flower, or eating your favorite candy.
- Choose a grounding phrase that you can say to yourself such as “I’m an adult now and I’m safe.”
- Journal to help yourself understand what triggered you and how you might be able to handle it differently in the future
- Doing movements that feel soothing, such as wrapping arms around the body