by Beth Cassel, M.A., MFT
Building resources helps set the foundation on which one can begin to process trauma. Trauma symptoms occur when an experience has not been resolved within a person’s psychology through use of available inner and outer resources. For example, if a person gets in a car accident that was scary and caused some minor injuries, the experience would be considered traumatic if it was too overwhelming to be processed and healed via time and by receiving support, for example, by talking to friends and family about the event. In other words, the event has overwhelmed a person’s normal ability to process through a very scary and dangerous experience, so that the trauma remains stuck inside the person (and usually causes some kind of emotional, psychological or physical trouble). On the other hand, another person could get in the same accident and find support internally and externally so that within several weeks the event is processed through. If there are no lingering negative effects from it – we would say that this event is not traumatic. It may appear so from the outside, but the person’s resources within and without were able to help them deal with it effectively to resolve it.
One of the determining factors that defines an experience as traumatic is that there is an overwhelming sense of fear and inability to effectively protect or defend oneself or a loved one against a threat. If we consider the situation discussed above, a person with this kind of trauma may feel an overwhelming fear and powerlessness whenever they are near people and or places where they believe that something similar could happen again. What is happening is that the trauma is being re-triggered by being in a similar situation (or at least a situation that makes the person feel similar in some way even if it's not similar or not at all dangerous). Once the trauma is triggered it overwhelms the person's ability to feel empowered, safe and secure. In other words, the individual’s resources get overwhelmed by the resurgence of the trauma that is still unprocessed inside, and they feel a loss of strength and power.
In order to be able to go back and process and resolve the trauma, a person needs to first build a sense of support and strength inside and outside, and this is what we call resources. There are many different kinds of resources and it's helpful for people to look at what has worked in the past to get them through hardships and difficult situations and build on those.
External and Internal Resources
External resources are anything outside of one’s self that provides a sense of calm, support, strength, and capability.
Building a support network of friends and family
Developing a spiritual practice/community
Getting exercise/playing sports
Developing healthy and consistent eating/sleeping habits
Getting engaged in any activity that strengthens sense of purpose/connectedness
Internal resources are anything internal that provides relaxation, pleasure, support, strength, and safety.
Self-care routines such as taking baths, being outdoors/hiking, swimming, being in the sun
Visualizing or remembering experiences of relaxation, strength, exhilaration, and pleasure
Meditation/Yoga - any activity/practice that helps you feel more relaxed and comfortable with experiencing sensations, emotions, or any internal experience
Exercises to improve your sense of grounding, containment, boundaries, and balance
For people working to heal trauma, it is good to come up with positive memories or images, such as being in a sunny meadow by a stream, in order to help feel resourced. Sometimes people will come up with a picture of a person from the past that provided safety and support for them. As a person comes up with a resourceful scene, a therapist or helper should strengthen the sense of the experience in their bodies in present time, so that they can remember it and recall that sense when they need it at another time.
Orienting helps establish our connection to our environment through the senses. It is one of the first phases of our instinctive fight or flight impulses in the body; scanning the environment when there is a stimulus to find its source and assess whether it is dangerous or not. It thereby helps dampen the fight/flight/freeze response and brings us into the here and now when we are in a relatively safe situation. It generally has a calming or comforting effect. It also develops the sense of an internal witness that can view the self and experience from a more of less neutral perspective. The more developed this internal witness is the more you can prevent yourself from getting pulled into feelings associated with the trauma.
For example, notice how you feel when you begin to look around, what draws your attention and is pleasurable to look at, listen to, feel, smell or taste. Without too actively searching, letting your eyes and other senses wander and see what they want to settle on. Sometimes it helps to imagine your eyes as weak magnets that can pull in what you see in the environment, and then notice how it affects you internally as you do this.
It can be helpful to think of the body as a container for all our experiences of sensations, emotions, attention, images, hearing, taste, smell, energy flow and movement. It can be very freeing to realize that how one experiences the world is through the body and the variety of ways that you can receive and process information. If our body is the container for all that we experience, think of the skin as the external layer or outside edge of the vessel. The more a person works with this image of the skin as the external layer, the more simplistic and easier it is to manage and have healthy control of their experience during healing. In addition, one can strengthen this sense of containment by getting more in touch with the outer edges that create the container. For example, enhancing the sensation in the skin and outer muscles through brushing, rubbing or squeezing the skin in parts of the body such as the arms, legs, feet, or head can begin to strengthen the sense of containment.
Very related to this sense of containment is the concept of boundaries. As the skin is the outer edge of our physical container, it also creates the physical boundary that separates us from other human beings. It can be very empowering to see that if our skin is our physical boundary then no one can actually get into "our space". There is also an energetic or psychic boundary that surrounds us out a short distance from our body, perhaps two or three feet out (for some people it can be more). This is more commonly where the work of strengthening boundaries begins. This work can be done by drawing or using a rope or string to create a boundary around yourself that delineates how far out your energetic boundary goes. Once this feels "intact", clear and strong after working with it for a time, you can begin picturing bringing in other people or situations to determine where and how it holds up, or weakens, and how to start to change it or improve it. You can also bring in images, use of containment or grounding exercises to help shore up your boundaries in instances where they might be weakened.
Grounding is another way to strengthen your sense of foundation on the earth, in the world, and in your body. In our culture our attention and energy tends to be centered in the head or more in the front of the body, so bringing our attention more into our feet, legs, back and spine can help to bring us back into balance. Taking in the support of the ground or the chair that you sit on can help you to feel your inner support and strength. Feeling your feet firmly planted on the earth and then feeling how your feet and legs support your torso can provide a sense of physical support that keeps you upright and able to move around in the world. For some, this can be a completely new experience. It can also help create a real sense of safety, and even though terrible things may have happened to you, you are still able to stand and physically support yourself. As you learn to take in the support of the ground and your environment, you can extend that out to learning how to take in the support of others in your community. With trauma people are often focused more in the future or the past. Grounding helps put you in the "here and now", which is where growth occurs and where your strength is.
One problem in working with trauma through the body is that the body is also a container of the trauma. And when it is containing a trauma, the trauma can get in the way of some of the other positive things that are contained there. However, since trauma symptoms are rooted in the body, working through the body is the most effective way to unravel and heal it. With people where it is frightening to sense the body, I work very slowly and carefully, often starting with images or memories that help them begin to feel safe to access sensations in the body.
Example: Using titration to resolve trauma
Titration is a chemical term used to describe the progressive addition of an acid solution, often one drop at a time, to a base solution slowly enough so that the chemicals stay in solution rather than precipitate out as a salt. If you add the acid too quickly without stirring, then a salt is formed. This is a metaphor to describe how we slowly and progressively "add" a small piece of the trauma to a resource so that it "dissolves" and is integrated into the system. You need to make sure the resource is stable and strong enough so that bringing up the traumatic experience doesn't shoot you right back into the trauma.
I recently worked with a client who had been mugged several times. She often felt anxious getting out of her car at night and walking to her house. So we came up with a resource together – a situation which made her feel confident and strong. She remembered a time she had shot a winning basket when she was on the basketball team in high school. So I had her go back to that memory, bringing her more vividly into that memory by having her picture details of the situation like seeing the hoop before she shot and her opponent trying to get around her, and remembering what foot she pushed off of and what arm she used to make the shot, and so forth. As she did that, she could feel the power, excitement, and determination in her body. Then we "titrated" that feeling with beginning to imagine thinking of the time a strange man approached her as she was walking to her car. As her anxiety started to rise as she thought about that, I suggested she go back to the memory of making the basketball shot. Once the resource felt strong in her body I had her go back to the memory of the assault. I helped her weave the resource with the activating event back and forth like that until the resource held strong in her body and the anxiety stopped arising. Then I had her go back to the memory of the mugging and had her rework the incident with this sense of power. For example, as she remembered sensing danger, I had her look around, sensing her body for an impulse to defend herself, ie. grabbing her pepper spray or looking for an escape route. Then I had her imagine using the pepper spray and running to complete the defensive response. In addition, I had her more thoroughly integrate these images by having her feel the impulses and sensations in her body associated with spraying the man and running. In many cases, this may have to be done several times to let the experience settle in a person’s system before it becomes fully integrated.