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Compassion through the healing journey of trauma

Carol Gray-Kelley, LCPC
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Acute experiences are heightened in memory

The brain is a generalist. It has to be. There is such a complexity of experience that enters our consciousness each day, and the brain has to make sense of it all. One way it does this is to categorize and streamline information. Yet because the brain is also wired for survival, it will make especially poignant any event that threatens the organism it manages. This means that traumatic and frightening experience will be acutely remembered, and the brain will send out a warning so that anything related to that experience can trigger an alarm in the body. Sometimes this pattern qualifies as diagnosable PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It does not, however, have to be at that level to significantly impact our lives as we navigate the days, weeks, and years post-trauma.

What is trauma?

To be clear, trauma is defined as everything from an injury or an upsetting event, to a life-threatening moment in time. For purposes of this article, I will be referring to a frightening life event that is remembered because of a trigger in the present moment. This trigger is an echo of the trauma felt before, and the brain has filed it under “life threatening.” The resulting reaction is commonly experienced as worry, dread, alarm, and a wide array of physical anxiety symptoms. Anxiety can affect every body system: cardiac, digestive, respiratory, etc. These bodily reactions can happen with or without a “story” to accompany them, but will be associated with an environmental trigger which the body interprets as threatening.

For example, a young woman is walking down the street when a train whistle sounds in the distance. Before her brain has had a chance to know “why,” she notices her heart racing, sweating, and a feeling of needing to run away. Not long after, she is aware that her mind is reviewing the day that her father died. It was a moment in time where the train near her family home sounded off not five minutes from her father’s last breath. Because of the proximity to a traumatic event, her brain now sends an alarm to the body when an association is made between this life event and the conditions under which it occurred.

Triggers and the sensory pathways

A trigger can come through any of the sensory pathways, so be aware that this includes sight, sound, smell, sensation, and taste. Since we are fully present with all of our senses when trauma happens, they will all be part of the recall patterns that bring us back to a moment in time. There is no limit to the kind of event which may become a repetitive source of intrusive fear, but certainly illness is a qualifying event.

Illness as a qualifying event

When a loved one suffers from ongoing illness, there becomes a complex web of associations made between the fear of loss and the surrounding environment of that time period. There is no predicting just how many triggers may develop during such a time, but one can become aware of the body and by being mindful, take good care to build resilience and skills around regulating the inevitable reactions.

Strategies for coping

One way to become familiar with such a cycle is to know one’s self and what the anxiety looks like for you. As mentioned previously, it is usually the body that responds first, and the “story” follows afterward, if at all.

Noticing a sudden shift in the realm of emotions can be a starting point from which one can ask oneself, “What is this that is coming up for me?” Even if the answer is uncertain, we can take steps to engage in relaxation practices to help stabilize the emotional storm that is brewing. Taking a moment to breathe deeply, hold a warm beverage between the hands, or get up and stretch the body are examples of how to send a message to the nervous system that we are, in fact, okay. Depending on our individual style, we may want to seek out the support of a friend, create art, run a mile, or meditate. Knowing yourself is the best way to create a plan that works.

Mind and body inter-reactivity

Keep in mind that not only does the mind dictate body reactions, but the body can create a mind reaction, as well. If we introduce relaxation responses (even while stressed), the mind will ease off its alarm signal and give in to calm. We want to increase “alpha” brain waves in the brain when over-excited, to create wakeful relaxation. We can do this via multiple ways. For example, in addition to breathing for relaxation, we can smell relaxing scents, like lavender or vanilla. We can listen to music, or make art. We can go on a walk for thirty minutes or more, take a hot bath or shower, or pet the dog – all of which can help increase alpha waves.

Additionally, moving blood and oxygen to other areas of the brain can facilitate a shift away from intense emotion, as well. There are many ways to do this, such as doing a puzzle or math, listening to music, playing a video game, drawing, enjoying exercise, and many others. The goal is simply to force some of that blood and oxygen to other areas of the brain to reduce the over-activity in the emotional center.


Self-talk, such as mantras and affirmations, will also become a helpful tool to use over time. In this scenario, one part of you will be reminding the other part of you that “You are Safe.” As the emotional brain reacts to alarm, the logical part of the brain will be scanning the environment and determining that the threat is not in the present, but an echo of the past. Let yourself coach the suffering part of the brain into the present moment through checking in with “what is,” as opposed to “what was.” Be compassionate with yourself. This is a real reaction, even if not based in the present. It will take time to realize the pattern of triggers and to trust that despite how the moment “feels” you are, in fact, safe.


Keeping a journal can be a highly useful tool for tracking what your particular triggers are and how you are responding to them. By keeping a record, you can also see what is useful to reducing distress. Writing has been proven to have benefits for the integration of traumatic memory and present moment. The physical act of writing is a powerful healer. Keep a journal where you sit so you can be visually reminded to record daily experience.

Building resilience

Despite the active engagement during times of stress, it will be very important to build resilience in times of non-distress. This means getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, and getting exercise. I would also add to this list to get outside. If these mechanisms are on board, you can bounce back more quickly from any triggering events.

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The take-away

  1. Know yourself:
    • How does anxiety feel in your body?
    • What works for you to calm you down?
  2. Keep a Diary.
    • If you track responses for just a short while, you will recognize the patterns and know your path to calm.
  3. Maintain good health for resilience to stressful events.

In the end, it’s up to each of us to notice, respond to, and heal those parts of our experience which have become alarming for us. It may seem endless but, in time, the brain will integrate the present into the whole story. Be patient with yourself and make the journey a compassionate one for your Self.

See Also

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