In this episode, I share another chapter of my book, Think Unbroken Understanding and Overcoming Childhood Trauma. I will read about “Understanding Panic attack, Flashbacks, and Triggers as a trauma survivor.”
See show notes at : https://www.thinkunbrokenpodcast.com/e132-understanding-panic-attack-flashbacks-and-triggers-as-a-trauma-survivor-cptsd-and-trauma-healing-podcast/#show-notes
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All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination. – Earl Nightingale
Your mindset is quite literally the most powerful tool in your arsenal, as you begin to heal from trauma. Your mindset can help you navigate, even the most torturous thoughts and actions by being a safety valve.
Once, you know, how to tap into working with and understanding your thoughts, you take a huge step forward. The practice of mindfulness is a daily practice for a reason, especially in the scope of trauma recovery.
One morning, you may wake up feeling amazing and be ready to take on the world. The next morning, you may wake up feeling depressed for seemingly no reason and want to end it all. I know these thoughts firsthand. The key determining factor in how your day’s, weeks’ months, and ultimately your life plays out is the way that you utilize your mind.
As with other parts of healing trauma, you have to give yourself the space to take a deep dive into words. You have to allow yourself the permission to use your mind for good. Many Trauma Warriors, myself included, have brains and bodies that store and process trauma on a daily basis while being triggered by the outside world and ricocheted between C-PTSD varying, mental health, disorders, and the general chaos of life. The pressure that we fill is tenfold as the thoughts and imagery of our past often sit with us.
Have you ever had a panic attack the moment that you found yourself alone, undistracted, and not shifting your attention anywhere else in particular?
Your mind is the most powerful tool you have because when you learn to work with it, you can control how you respond to everything that happens in your life.
Imagine that the next time a thought that would normally send you to the floor in a panic attack instead did not. A panic attack could easily be the definition of loss of control, especially in those moments when it feels like the world is caving in on you.
Here's a scenario:
You are sitting at the beach and the sun is setting, the sky is a beautiful fiery, red in the breezes sweeping over your body as you drink a coconut, suddenly a child playing with a sibling screams for help as her brother's bearing, her in the sand. The children are playing but that scream warps you back to a moment in which you screamed for help.
Now, you are trapped in memory and the vortex has you again. In a moment, you have gone from having the time of your life to shaking in the sand. It may seem far-fetched but this is the exact moment in which you can use your mindset to totally control the outcome of the scenario. This is how you can use your mind to control panic at that moment.
Do not fight the incoming thoughts, the harder you fight, the imagery coming into your present moment, the more that it wants to get in instead sit with the thoughts and simply allow them to exist.
Begin to scan your body, the mind and body become disassociated during a panic attack. When that happens, start at your toes and work your way to the top of your head identifying every body part along the way. This is not only a meditative practice, but it will also help you calm your mind.
Remind yourself that you are not dying. This is key and the place where your mind control will show its true strength. Gently tell yourself allowed. I am not dying. This will pass. I am safe. By speaking to yourself you're interrupting the panic, not by getting rid of it but by instead, reminding yourself that you are safe.
Finding your breath will help you calm your central nervous system or CNS. Studies have shown that by implementing a breathing practice into your daily life, you will be able to call upon it during moments of panic.
I recommend that you find whatever breathing method works best for you. In the meantime, I'm going to share the breathing method that works best for me. There are many different breathing practices and I have found that while some have benefits I could never find one that truly calmed me. So I took the pieces that seem to work the best and stuff them together into my open exist control breathing or OEC. (O) is for OPEN, breath in, for a count of four. (E) is EXIST, hold that breath for a five-count. This is a place that mindfulness comes into play, breathing is an autonomic system that is heightened. Especially when we are triggered and fight-flight or freeze or FFF kicks in but in controlling it you can get yourself back to the center.
(C) is CONTROL. Exhale Your breath for a seven-count. The exhale is when our bodies become less tense and relaxation begins. Control the release of your breath and a slow methodical manner. Being able to control your mind and pivotal moments of your day-to-day life is a critical step in healing. I wish that I would have had access to this practice when I was having multiple panic attacks a day.
Now, I know how to handle them when they arise, I no longer constantly fear experiencing an unpredictable attack. I still experience attacks and I don't know that they will ever go away but with these steps and breathing practices that I have created, I feel confident that I will be able to continue to keep them at bay or to allow them to pass.
OEC Breathing Method
Learning to control your breath can help you navigate anxiety, depression, panic, and fear. The breath as we know and as we continue to learn, is one of the most important human functions, for regulating the flow of chemicals released in the brain.
Now, as we head into this exercise, I want you to just pause for a moment and think about this. On a scale of one through five, one being that you are very calm and five being that you are very anxious or stressed out. What words come to mind about how you feel at this moment?
Now, what I want you to do is join me as we practice.
OEC or Open Exist Control breathing.
We're just going to go through this a couple of times. And one of the things that I've discovered in this practice is that there is a deep sense of calm and awareness that comes around when I step into this breathing because I still get triggered all the time, you probably relate, whether it's at work or home or school or on the street or on the bus or whatever it may be there something that may heighten us and send us into this hyper-vigilant mode, thus inciting a potential panic attack.
And I want you to be able to be equipped for when this moment comes, because if I've learned anything about this process though I've done so much work, sometimes we still have to rely on these tools. And this is a tool that I want you to take with you that you can carry with you and any time in your life.
Now after this, I want you to pause and do this ten times. So again on a scale of one to five one being very calm, five, being very stressed out or anxious right now. Where are you at this moment?
And after this, I'm going to have you ask yourself the same question.
I'm going to go through this once with you and then I want you to do it 10 times on your own and then ask yourself. How do I fill out this moment?
So first, we start with OPEN, we're going to breathe in for a count of four.
One, two, three, four and EXISTS as about the hold, so, you're going to hold this breath for a count of five, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
And then on the exhale, we CONTROL breathing out for a count of seven.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.
Now, I want you to PAUSE and REPEAT this practice 10 times and come back and see how you feel.
FLASHBACKS AND TRIGGERS
If you don't deal with your demons, they will deal with you and it's going to hurt. – Nikki Sixx.
The filling of terror from being thrown into an unassociated memory of the past not only fuels further disconnections from the self but also creates a dual reality through disassociation. Flashbacks are powerful as they are memories recalled, involuntarily.
The body experiences, the memory of a past event, as though, it was happening in the present, the brain loses the capacity to differentiate what is happening in real life and what occurred 20 years ago.
Flashbacks often occur more often in trauma, survivors, and people diagnosed with C-PTSD and PTSD. Before the term PTSD or complex and post-traumatic stress disorder was coined, many referred to survivors of traumatic experiences as shell-shocked or having been shell-shocked. These survivors were primarily war veterans, but as you are discovering war, can also take place in the home, child abuse is war.
In my experience, flashbacks are often triggered, meaning that there was an underlying reason in which a state of calm, suddenly becomes a state of life or death. Certain things that people say or do, streets, names, and even foods can cause the brain to flood with the feeling of being back in a traumatic moment.
Sometimes these moments are more kind-like – when the width of a familiar perfume, permeates the air and reminds you of a happy time with a partner or the taste of bacon cooked, a certain way, that reminds you of Saturday mornings at Grandma's house. Those moments tend to be fleeting and within seconds they are gone and we can move on. So why is it that when we are triggered negatively those fillings can stay with us for hours or even days?
Being triggered as the brain's response to memories that have not been associated and placed where they need to be in the psyche.
The memories in essence are incomplete stories that have not been cataloged by the brain, think of them like spirits or ghosts that are trapped in purgatory and must finish a mission before they can fully move into the afterlife, that is how I think about flashback memories. They have not been fully processed and thus cannot be stored instead they sit with us and come out of nowhere when triggered by our environment.
Understanding what triggers you and why those triggers cause you to have a flashback, will help you navigate moments in which a flashback occurs. I can understand as an adult in my current environment that I am safe. However, it is in the routine of daily life in which we find ourselves triggered.
For instance, if I reach into the kitchen cabinet, to take out a dish and it happens to be wet, I will instantly be transported into the night that my stepfather pulled my brothers, and me out of bed and beat us for putting away wet dishes. At that moment, I can feel fear and terror, sweep over me, I can feel my heart begins to race, my muscles tense, my ears ring, and the overwhelming feeling that I want to vomit. My subconscious makes this moment feel real because I experienced a chemical and physical reaction from this memory. Triggers can be everywhere when we are in a constant state of hyperarousal, literally, anything and everything can be a trigger and the worst part about that is that something totally unexpected can send you into a fit of panic or a full-blown flashback. Understanding your triggers and why they affect you can become paramount.
Here are some of the most common triggers;
My memory of being beaten in the middle of the night was just one of a litany of flashbacks that I would experience on a weekly basis.
There were even days that I would have multiple flashbacks leaving me in a state of unrest and complete dissociation. Those days would be particularly difficult because I could not seem to get back to the center.
Other moments, could lead to weeks of manic, depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-medication as ways to numb my reaction. You may relate to the feeling of hating the experience of the pain manifested from flashbacks.
How do you navigate flashbacks when you can't control when they happen?
The simple answer is to mitigate the risk by getting ahead of them through associating memories instilling healthy practices and identifying what triggers you.
I began to reassociate the memories of my past through writing, talk therapy, yoga, bodywork, and meditation. Each memory that would expose itself through a flashback, was one I knew was incomplete and needed to be pieced together. Connecting a filling to the flashback memory, was the only way to process and store it so that it could become fully integrated.
There are many ways to assign filling to memory and like most of your healing journey, you will discover through trying different modalities of understanding yourself and piecing the memories together what works best for you. I have found that writing has been my best resource for processing my dissociated memories. It has been through writing that I have been able to release the impact of flashbacks. I have also found a great sense of peace in my life through the process of writing. I began writing about my past the true unadulterated and unedited version in a leather-bound journal.
The first stages of this methodology were extremely difficult for me and at times the process of putting pen to paper would trigger me and send me into a bounce of rage or a complete emotional breakdown.
I was willing to step into whatever came from this practice because I was desperate for something to work while I welcome the tears and the anger that came with writing, I did not understand what was happening internally until one of the men in my group therapy pointed something profound. He told me I was afraid to be angry, as I sat with this idea, I argued his point being invalid, stating that I wasn't angry about my past. Eventually, the truth, from that conversation emerged. I was not only angry but fucking enraged. His prompt gave me the power to begin to attach feelings of rage and anger to my past experiences. Experiences I was entirely disconnected from in childhood and adolescence.
The power of finding a way to reconnect the emotions of past events with the appropriate feelings is like finding the right pieces of the puzzle and putting them where they belong. I felt like I could have opened Pandora's Box in the process of this practice, and because of that, it was important that I had the support of the men's group and the weekly sessions with my therapist along, with my coach, to navigate this new arena of emotional understanding. Through writing, I was able to associate my memories with fillings of frustration, sadness, morning sorrow, regret, anger, fear, hopelessness, and abandonment.
Giving yourself the space to acknowledge those feelings and understand the impact is your superpower.
I highly suggest that you begin the process of associating with the guidance of a coach, trained proctor or professional, who can help you process, give you the appropriate feedback, and can support your journey.
There is no question that having the support of multiple therapists and an amazing community was a huge piece of my puzzle in conjunction with writing, meditation, yoga, and educating myself about trauma. It is important to understand how to navigate triggers as they arise, especially, if you do not have the access or resources to seek environmental supports, like a therapist or trauma mentor. Being able to stop a trigger in its tracks may keep flashbacks at bay.
Here are three steps to managing being triggered.
You will have to be able to figure out what the hell is going on. You're going to have to take a deep dive into yourself, which will require a lot of vulnerability and honesty. Are you upset, because of what someone said or did? Is it really their words that have hurt you or are it your perception of yourself? Maybe it's the way that someone touched you or an old photo that brought the past.
Once you can identify why you have been triggered, you will be able to shift to the other side of the trigger. When triggered, the first thing you must ask is what has affected me enough to change my mental state.
Being triggered can throw you into a further dissociative state. In a moment, you can go from being present to having a complete out-of-body experience, flashback, or panic attack.
Take notice of what is happening in your body. Did your heart rate change? Are your ears ringing? Has it become hard to breathe? Are your fists clenched or is it hard to think clearly? Being triggered has put you into fight-flight or freeze. What emotional response are you having? Is it anger, fear, loathing, hate, sadness, or anxiety? Is that a motion unfounded or is it serving you?
The outcome of being triggered is a choice. Are you fucking crazy? How is that a choice? I know what you are thinking but stay with me. When you are triggered, you have the ability to decipher what happened, and the emotional, and physical response that you are currently having.
Once you are able to understand why you have been impacted, you have the ability to continue to be triggered or to accept that you must move through that moment and choose to get back to the center.
You are the only person responsible for your emotional state. Is the response that you're experiencing bringing you any real value or is it in your way?
The impact of flashbacks and being triggered can be mitigated by taking steps to become reassociated, seeking environmental supports, and becoming intensely vulnerable with yourself.