Tamara is a 23 year old female who came to see me after a robbery at her home. She remembers lying down in bed reading her book, when all of a sudden, she started to hear noises in her home. In particular, she recalls hearing footsteps in her hallway. Immediately, Tamara knew that this was a different noise from the typical noises she would hear from being in an old home. She knew she wasn’t alone. She felt her heart racing faster than ever and her breathing became more rapid. She got up quickly to try and escape her bedroom. She was fortunate to have ran outside, called the cops, and have the robber arrested. However, ever since this incident, Tamara has been having panic attacks at night, disturbing nightmares, and difficulty falling asleep.
There are three types of defense mechanisms used during trauma. The first one is flight, in which the person attempts to escape the situation at hand. Fight is when the person tries to defend themselves and fight. Lastly, freeze is when flight or fight responses are not possible and the body freezes. These responses are instinctive responses to a perceived threat. Tamara’s brain at the time of this incident perceived that she had enough time and space for flight– hence why she was able to ran outside of her house and call for help.
Tamara’s mind knew that she was safe, but her body was still in trauma mode. Since this incident, Tamara moved into a new apartment and installed an alarm system. Safety is a very important element of trauma work. It is not possible to resolve trauma when someone lives in a traumatizing environment. For Tamara, it was important for her to find herself a safer place to rest her head at night. This didn’t eliminate her nightmares, but decreased them dramatically.
A big portion of Tamara’s trauma therapy was to help her understand her body reactions and sensations. She couldn’t understand why she was still having nightmares and feeling on edge. The sensations she was having in her body were so intense that Tamara was unable to differentiate between the present moment and the past- she kept feeling like she was re-experiencing the same sensations over and over again. Whenever she heard footsteps at night, she would go into a panic.
As she described her trauma incident, my job was to observe her present-moment experiences (including: body languages, emotions, sensations, thoughts, movements- for indicators of trauma related tendencies). It was important for me to help Tamara shift her concentration from talking about the trauma to observing what is occurring in her internal experience. I would ask about emerging thoughts, emotions, body sensations, movements, five senses, etc. This would help remind her that this is a here-and-now experience of the traumatic past, “old-stuff” coming back up.
I also helped Tamara get into her body by building muscle tone- the idea here was to help build a positive experience of being in her body. Tamara began to build tone in her arms and chest by light weight lifting. She did not respond well to aerobic exercise (note: aerobic exercise can actually be re-triggering for some clients. The accelerated heart rate and respiration could have been part of their trauma experience). The muscle tone was very helpful to Tamara and made her feel more confident in her body. Her panic attacks started to decrease as she became aware of what was going on in her body.
Tamara’s healing is a work in progress. She has acquired coping skills that allow her to stay in the present moment, but also grounding techniques to help her stay connect when trauma triggers come up for her. Connecting to her body and body sensations has been key.