When We Don't Feel Safe In Our Body, We Live In Our Head
April 21, 2023 - Written by Maggie Osinski, LCSW
Trauma lives in our body. And when we don’t feel safe in our body, we tend to live in our heads.
This can look like many things, for example: hypervigilance is a common symptom of trauma that causes us to live in an increased state of alertness with high sensitivity to our surroundings. Our minds stay “on high alert” as a way of coping ahead with possible sources of danger. This is often an unconscious act, that is programmed into the mind and body as a protective mechanism. 🤯
Even when these perceived dangers do not actually have the capacity to cause immediate harm to one's wellbeing, our mind tells us to look out because our body remembers what it was like to experience true danger.
Therapy can help you learn coping skills, such as grounding techniques, to reduce hypervigilance and persistent feelings of fear, worry, anticipation, and anxiety. 🪨❕
There are many helpful skills to reduce the impact of traumatic experiences.
Starting out, learning when and how to implement Grounding Skills will help you to cope in moments of great difficulty. To put it scientifically - grounding skills engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the "fight, flight, freeze, & fawn" responses that is ignited by your sympathetic nervous system.
Grounding skills target your nervous system to promote regulation.
Grounding techniques are designed to help you find presence and calmness in the now. Hypervigilence and anxiety responses tend to exist outside of the present moment. What do I mean by this? It's not that the feeling or experience is not happening now, but the root cause of the intensity of the response is due to the mind and body experiencing a danger from the past.
Here are a two Grounding Techniques to get you started:
Self Soothing with the 5 Senses
5 steps to Self Regulation
This mindfulness, meditation exercise will bring you back to the present moment, when you notice your mind and body has traveled to a distressing place. Practice these sensory skills one at a time. If needed, repeat as many times as necessary to bring your mind and body back to a regulated state.
5 things you can See Look around & tune into objects in your environment. Take notice of colors, shapes, textures, dimensions.
4 things you can Feel Practice attunement with your physical body & take notice of physical sensations. For example: "I feel my feet firmly touching the ground," "I feel the sun on my shoulder," "I feel the warmth of my socks."
3 things you can Hear Listen to sounds within your environment - near & far. Pay close attention to any noises your mind has tuned out, such as a ticking clock, trees blowing in the wind, cars passing by in the distance, or your own breath.
2 things you can Smell Slowly, breathe in through your nose & out through your mouth. Notice aromas & odors that naturally occur, or grab a scented candle & some essential oils to create a calming sensory experience.
1 thing you can Taste Find presence with your palette & tune into any of the 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami. If you don't notice anything, you haven't done it wrong! The goal is to slow down and find presence in the moment.
4 steps to Self Regulation
Breathe in slowly, counting to four. Feel the air enter your lungs and flow through your body.
Gently hold your breath for 4 seconds. Feel the presence of air and oxygen within you.
Exhale slowly, counting to four. Feel the air exit your lungs, and body.
Gently hold for 4 seconds. Allow your body and mind to find peace in this moment before repeating the cycle of rhythmic breathing.
Repeat steps 1-4, at least four times, or until you feel "grounded."
Learning when and how to put these skills to use may take some practice.
As a general rule, apply grounding skills the moment you notice any sign of dysregulation. Signs of dysregulation include distressing thoughts (cognitions), feelings (emotions), and sensations (physiological effects).
Keep in mind that trauma is particularly complex, and grounding skills alone may not be enough to meet your needs.
My suggestion is to find yourself a trauma-informed therapist, who will be able to support you as you process your experiences, and simultaneously re-shape your internal narratives, while integrating coping skills to reduce the impact of traumatic memories, and other PTSD symptoms, in the moment.
Looking for a trauma-informed therapist?
Book a Therapy Session with Maggie to get started on your healing path!