Change can be unsettling for all of us. But if you’ve experienced trauma (recently or many years ago), you may feel especially stressed when you experience changes in your life. In this guest post, psychotherapist Robyn Brickel explains how trauma affects our neurobiology and how we can learn to regain a sense of emotional safety and weather changes more effectively.
Coping with Change: Feeling Safe as a Trauma Survivor
by Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT
For many trauma survivors, adjusting to change is, above all else, stressful. A new job, an office move, or a change in a personal routine (even vacation time!) can be deeply troubling. Unwanted change can be especially challenging if facing the unknown usually triggers fear or a sense of danger, as it does for someone with a history of trauma.
The stress of change can trigger a sense of danger for someone with a trauma history. The unknown can re-activate a body memory, stored with the knowledge that something bad happened when your world changed before. A trauma survivor may appear to react with a fight, flight or freeze response, which may seem to some like an overreaction to something new.
Trauma survivors may have negative thoughts and feelings about change. Addressing them can build new strengths that allow new positive experiences to unfold.
Why Trauma Makes Change Seem Risky, Scary and Dangerous
It can be much more difficult for a trauma survivor to feel comfortable with a new place, person or situation when the body interprets change as danger. That’s because trauma is an experience that alters the way a person’s brain, emotional energy, and nervous system responds to an event, an action, a person or even a smell or a sound. After trauma, many people find they react much more strongly or quickly to a familiar awareness that something is dangerous or even different than it was before.
A traumatic event can be anything that triggers a sense of danger and a protective survival response. Trauma may result from experiences such as:
- An accident
- A hurtful relationship
- An illness
- A natural disaster
- Chronic sadness or despair
- Sexual abuse or assault
Trauma may occur with any situation that leaves a person feeling unsafe and unable to change or escape it. When something feels dangerous — and this danger seems overwhelming, or unavoidable — a person’s nervous system remains prepared for danger.
If the threat is not resolved, the body’s survival response becomes more reactive to the threat of danger going forward.
The threat-response system – led by the amygdala — becomes more highly sensitive after trauma, than for people who haven’t experienced trauma. A trauma survivor may have a much stronger or more sensitive reaction to a sense of danger. The amygdala is like the fire alarm of the brain; it is wired to alert the entire nervous system at the first inkling that a change may bring risk. If the mind and body can’t process what happened to feel safe afterward, it re-activates sooner or to slighter perceptions of change.
Recognizing Hyperarousal and Hypoarousal
Imagine having to live with a smoke alarm screeching in the room with you all day. What if your phone buzzed warnings at you all the time and you couldn’t get away from it? You could never settle down and feel safe and well in your own skin. Stress and exhaustion would build up. That’s a little bit of what it’s like to live with the altered state of the nervous system that trauma survivors experience.
The body adjusts to an over-active alarm system in one of two ways: hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
You may know someone who often seems “up”, extra sensitive, easily startled, or anxious. They may swing their legs, twitch a foot, or bounce a heel up and down, seemingly “vibrating” even when sitting or trying to relax. They may worry a lot. They may spring instantly into problem-solving mode in reaction to distress.
These are signs of hyperarousal.
At the other end of the spectrum, a trauma survivor may seem shut down, depressed, unresponsive, or burned out. A person may seem to not care or have collapsed, and appear unable to adapt or take change in stride. You may marvel at someone’s seeming low energy, inactivity, or long hours in bed. That state of numbness is hypoarousal.
The nervous system is attempting to work as nature intended – to protect life and keep a person safe by avoiding risk and danger. However, the impact of trauma often results in a lower level of tolerable emotional activity. When it takes very little stress to trigger unsafe thoughts, a trauma survivor may find it hard to tolerate new situations or experiences in life. They can miss out on relationships they want, or even simple pleasures that life has to offer. They are struggling just to get through the day without succumbing completely to their over-active nervous system.
Expanding the Window of Tolerance
Therapy can help trauma survivors understand why their nervous system reacts so strongly to protect them. We take time to safely recognize what has caused the amygdala to remain on high alert in the brain. We develop skills to determine whether it’s because of actual danger in the present, or a body memory of danger in the past.
Trauma-informed therapy helps trauma survivors learn to “ride the wave of emotions” and experience a wider range of feelings and feel safe. They can allow more experiences with new skills and confidence that they know they can not only survive but respond well. They learn they can widen their window of tolerance.
Therapy helps you manage emotional energy within your window of tolerance.
Therapy also allows trauma survivors to notice that they can experience change and the feelings it triggers, and realize they’re okay—even when it might feel risky or different. With every change, the window of tolerance grows until the person knows: whatever I’m feeling, whatever is happening, I can handle it.
Ways to Recognize that You’re Safe Amidst Change
These three practices can help you ground yourself and recognize that you’re safe in order to stay present in new situations and widen your window of tolerance.
- Notice the external. Take a few moments to pick out the things that are still the same even after a change has occurred and focus on them. For example, after I moved my office last year, my clients were able to notice the items on my coffee table were still the same. The items on my desk were the same. Most importantly, our relationship was still the same. In a new restaurant, notice the person you are with. In new company, notice something that feels familiar. Remember, even taking a sip of water helps to bring your pre-frontal cortex online and ground you!
- Anchor yourself. When you focus on the senses – what you see, what you hear, and the people around you, you begin to anchor yourself to the present moment and realize that you are safe. Sometimes a grounding object can be helpful. Objects can be a hairband on your wrist, a ring you always wear, a rock in your pocket. Something you can touch that grounds you to the present, safe moment. In my office, I have grounding rocks, Model Magic and Koosh balls, as some of the props we use to help you feel grounded.
- Notice the internal. Start to notice what you have inside of you. You’ll notice who you are, and recognize that you have wisdom, tools, and strength to experience change. I have the wisdom and ability to deal with being anxious. I can keep myself safe. I’m no longer experiencing the trauma of the past. I’m safe.
Adapting to Change Does Get Easier!
No matter what the change is, all the things you have learned and worked on are always with you. Ultimately that is what will help you keep changing, growing and expanding to a place of healing and enjoyment. Through our work together, my clients are eventually able to choose to experience change—which is obviously rewarding for them, but also immensely rewarding for me.
We have options when it comes to adapting to change. Taking positive steps toward change ultimately helps to broaden a person’s emotional window of tolerance, supports healing, and ultimately enhances a person’s life experience.
Know that you have the wisdom, courage, and strength to experience changes in positive ways — no matter what your experience before. Self-compassion and understanding are strengths you can use and strengthen, so new experiences can feel good, safe and comfortable to you.
- Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop? 3 Ways to Stop Worrying So Much
- 8 Ways to Feel Safe Right Now
- Using a Mind-Body Approach in Trauma Recovery
Robyn Brickel is the founding director of Brickel and Associates, LLC and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia and Connecticut, as well as an EMDRIA Certified therapist and Approved Consultant-in-Training. An avid proponent of professional education, she enjoys learning about advances especially in trauma-informed care, substance abuse treatment, and treating perinatal mood disorders. She presents workshops at the Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education on trauma-informed therapy, adolescent substance abuse, and other topics. Her insights for parents and teens appear in interviews in The Washington Post and Washington Parent magazine.