Coping with Hyperarousal as a Trauma Response
In the last blog post, we examined and defined states of dysregulation outside of our ‘Window of Tolerance’ known as hyperarousal and hypoarousal states. When we experience a traumatic event or interaction in which we are unable to remain balanced in our emotional response, we may enter into what we call a hyperarousal state. When activated into a hyperarousal state, we are often expecting or anticipating a threat or danger in which we have learned that the only ways to manage such a situation is by ‘fighting’ or ‘fleeing’.
How to Know When it’s Hyperarousal?
How do we know if we are entering into or are already in a state of hyperarousal? It is important that we make a conscious effort to connect with our bodily sensations and changes in body responses. These changes will often serve as messengers of significant emotional information.
We can recognize that we are entering into a state of hyperarousal by noticing any increase in our level of anxiety/panic, trembling, rapid heart rate, terror, rage, activation or agitation. When we experience heightened energy, our body becomes dominated by responses from our sympathetic nervous system. We may experience impulsive urges, heightened reactivity, emotional flooding, flashbacks, nightmares, urges to engage in risky behaviors, hypervigilance, and racing thoughts.
Our bodies can become overly stressed if a state of hyperarousal is maintained or if we frequently operate from this state of being. Often we may try to cope with these symptoms through behaviors that may seem effective in the short term, but may be maladaptive and harmful to us in the short and long term. These maladaptive coping behaviors might include engaging in self harm behaviors, skin picking, engaging in compulsive behaviors, such as cleaning or overworking, or engaging in substance use, particularly alcohol or opiates.
Healthy Ways to Cope
There are healthy ways to cope with symptoms of hyperarousal in order to bring down the intensity of an emotion so that you can then re-enter a state of emotional stability, or what we call our “window of tolerance”.
Here is a brief list of coping skills that can be effective in managing states of hyperarousal:
Focus your attention on something outside of your body with the intention of focusing your mind and attention on anything else, but what you are feeling, thinking and experiencing in your body. While sustained avoidance is not the long-term goal, it is helpful in reducing the intensity of our emotion by taking our attention away from it. Consider watching a tv show, listening to music, cooking, engaging in a puzzle, or completing a task at home, such as laundry, washing the dishes or organizing a closet.
When we think of containment, often we are able to visualize something holding something else, such as a box holding our valuables or a jar holding a liquid. Containment in a therapeutic context is the idea that we have the ability to manage and hold feelings in a safe way so that we can control their intensity and duration.
Containment is considered a regulatory skill and helps us in promoting resilience to face difficult situations and experiences without fear of suffering or unending emotional pain.
Ways of practicing containment include writing down thoughts, feelings, images or memories in a private journal, creating a containment box in which you can physically place items that you would like to store or keep safe/private relating to a particular experience or period of time, and visualization techniques in which you visualize in your mind a box or vault or door in which only you hold the key and can decide what goes within those containers and when they are opened.
Self-soothing is a way to bring about a sense of calm and comfort through the use of our senses. Consider activities that you can incorporate when experiencing symptoms of hyperarousal. What can you See? Smell? Taste? Touch? Hear? How is your body moving in space/what do you notice about your body’s movements?
Grounding is an important practice in bringing our body and mind together in the here and now of the moment. The purpose of grounding is to generate an awareness of what is uniqueling happening in a given moment by calling attention to what is being experienced through one’s sensations, bodily reactions, thoughts and actions. Consider activities that help you focus your mind, including puzzles, sudoku, crosswords, and other word games.
Consider physical ways of grounding, including the use of one or more of your senses to experience objects, textures, sounds and smells around you. You may choose to shift your body position while sitting so that your feet are planted on the floor or you may choose to touch the sides of your chair and notice the bumpy texture on the arm rest, or you may choose to chew on a piece of gum and notice how it feels in your mouth, tastes and smells.
It is common to seek some forms of reassurance when we are faced with a level of uncertainty or are unsure about a situation that is unfamiliar to us. While the goal is not to rely solely on external reassurance to help us manage difficult situations, it can be helpful to seek support from someone you trust to help calm any doubts or worries.
We can practice self-reassurance by reminding ourselves that we are currently experiencing a level of anxiety (feel free to even rate your anxiety on a scale from 1-10), but that the intensity of the emotion will change and that we are capable of riding this wave of emotion. The only thing constant is change and it is important for us to believe that our emotions can and do ebb and flow.
Finding What Works for You
While everyone may have different strategies that work for them, feel free to mix and match and add onto the suggestions that were explored in this blog post to meet your needs. In our next blog post, we will explore ways of managing and coping with states of hypoarousal.
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