One of the most common concerns I hear from people – no matter where they’re at on their healing journey – is that the process itself can feel extremely intense and overwhelming, sometimes to the point of re-traumatization.
Yes, healing can be raw and challenging, especially when we’re working through painful or traumatic events and memories. But done right – it should not be re-traumatizing.
Which is why this is such an important topic to talk about! 😊
Whether we’re dealing with childhood, developmental, sexual trauma or a one off shock trauma (like a car accident) from our adult lives, there’s often a tendency among many people and practitioners to dive deep. To get to the root of the issue immediately.
While I completely understand this desire to “get there”, to not shy away from the “big stuff” – and I’m all for digging deep, 😉 we must pay close attention to is HOW we go about it.
When recovery work begins, first-responders don’t usually go straight for the epicenter.
They start at the periphery, clearing away debris and rubble, piece by careful piece. Making sure that the structures are safe and stable before digging deeper.
Our healing work is the same…
Instead of beginning with the most traumatic part, we start with the outer edges or layers of our traumas (around the green 6 or 7) and work gently and safely inwards towards the deeper, more traumatic layers (1 or 2 in the diagram).
Many times this is a natural process that evolves over time as we expand our resources and strengthen our capacity to tolerate the work.
If we delve straight into the most intense and traumatic events from our past, before enough preparation work has been done to bring safety, grounding and other resources to our body, mind and nervous system, we can end up feeling unable to tolerate or even continue the work.
This sadly, is what leads many people to quit their healing journey entirely. 😕
Let’s imagine for example that you’re in a session, talking to your practitioner about a recent Holiday party where you had a panic attack and had to leave. As you recount how the crowded, hot room made you feel, you notice, right there in the session, that your palms are beginning to sweat, your heart is racing and your chest and throat feel tight.
You also notice that a memory of an old trauma (likely the core memory that triggered your recent panic attack) is coming forwards.
You tell your coach about this old memory and now you have a choice to make.
While it might be tempting to dive straight in to whatever happened back then, doing so right away may exacerbate the panicky symptoms you’re feeling, making it difficult for you to stay present enough to safely process and release them.
One way that you (along with your practitioner, coach or therapist – if you have one) can support yourself during your healing journey is to learn to stay within your “window of tolerance.”
This window is a concept, first coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, that refers to the range of emotions and sensations we can comfortably tolerate without becoming too activated or overwhelmed.
Think of it like a thermostat in a house: if the temperature inside the house gets too hot or too cold, the thermostat kicks in to bring the temperature back within a more comfortable range.
In the same way, if we become overwhelmed or triggered by emotions or sensations during a session like the one described above, it can be really helpful to have some tools and techniques on hand to bring us safely back to a more comfortable state.
But before we discuss these tools and techniques, let’s take a second to notice what can happen when a person moves beyond their window of tolerance. Here are a few things you might notice:
1. Physical Symptoms:
These can include increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, agitation, racing thoughts, feeling tense or restless, panic attacks. A person may also feel out of control and show signs of a fight or flight response.
2. Emotional Symptoms:
A person may feel overwhelmed, anxious, tearful or angry. They may also appear confused, vague, disconnected, numb or dissociated from their emotions and/or the present moment.
3. Behavioral Symptoms:
When a person has moved beyond their window of tolerance, they may have a hard time concentrating, making decisions or being connected to their feelings, emotions or sensations. They may want to fight, flee or shut down completely. They may also exhibit partial or total dissociation.
Here’s an image to help you understand this a little bit more:
Now that we know how to spot when someone has moved outside their window of tolerance, what are some tools and techniques can we use to help if this happens to us or to a friend or loved-one?
Tip #1: Use Somatic Experiencing Mindfulness Practices.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-based technique that helps us pay attention to the physical sensations in our body as we process a traumatic event or memory. For example, we might feel angry and notice heat in our hands. As we sit with and observe this physical sensation, we might then notice a desire for a fight response. As we imagine making a fist and throwing a punch, the heat dissipates and the feeling of anger is safely released. By bringing awareness to these body sensations, you can begin to regulate your nervous system while staying within your window of tolerance.
Tip #2: Use EFT Tapping.
Tapping on specific meridian points on the body while focusing on a specific emotion, thought or memory, can help you safely process and release the charge or activation stored in your body and nervous system. Tapping is a great tool for rapidly bringing down the intensity of an emotion or sensation so that we can stay within or quickly return to your window of tolerance.
Tip #3: Take Breaks Whenever You Need Them…
The healing process can be intense and because of this, it’s really important to give yourself breaks either during a session or at any other time you need it. This might be a nap, a walk outside in nature, a cozy – do – nothing day at home in your pjs or really anything else that appeals to you. I know for me, any time I push too hard to heal, I can end up in exhaustion and frustration. So please, take care of you – it might sound cliche, but our healing journey really is a marathon, not a sprint.☺️
Top Tip #4: Seek Guidance and Support:
There’s so much we can accomplish by ourselves in our healing; so many emotions and old beliefs we can process. And, there are some memories, events and traumas that can that leave us needing some extra support. So, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, confused or simply alone, please do reach out for support. This might be a trusted friend, a loved-one or a healing professional.
Above all, this is your own unique healing journey and no two experiences are alike. Take things at your own pace and remember that healing, even from the deepest traumas, does not have to be re-traumatizing. There is a gentler, safer way that can be found when we stay within our window of tolerance.
I’m here for you and I’m cheering you on each step of the way. ❤️
Yours in healing,
P.S. If you frequently find yourself triggered and outside your window of tolerance because of past traumas you’ve experienced, try this quick burst of Tapping with me now: