Coping with Hypoarousal as a Trauma Response
Many struggle with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including intrusive symptoms (flashbacks, nightmares, sense of panic), avoidance symptoms, and hyperarousal and hypoarousal symptoms. As explored in a previous blog on, when our bodies perceive an external threat, it may signal to the brain that there is a need to respond to potential danger.
Our bodies may then engage the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response system which may then promote a state of hyperarousal. Once the perceived threat is ameliorated or removed, our parasympathetic nervous system will then take over to relax our breathing, heart rate, muscle tension and emotional intensity. When we enter into a hypoarousal state, our symptoms can include physical numbness, difficulty in concentration, challenges with speaking, feelings of detachment, an inability to move or respond, and drowsiness.
While relaxation and a sense of calm is at times what we are striving for in our work to heal and recover, we may experience a negative impact from chronic hypoarousal. Signs that you are experiencing excessive symptoms of the ‘rest and digest’ response might include, feelings of numbness, shame, guardedness and feeling shut off, difficulties setting boundaries and saying no, reduced physical movement, passiveness, absence of feeling, disconnected, and diminished energy levels.
At times we may cope by avoiding emotions or numbing our emotional experiences. We may be avoiding situations and interactions in our lives that bring up certain feelings. We may even avoid thinking about a painful or traumatic event that we experienced in our lives.
Coping with Hyperarousal
As explored in the previous blog regarding ways of coping with hyperarousal, similar coping strategies can be used in managing chronic states of hypoarousal. The goal is to re-energize and re-activate the body so that there is a connection to the present moment and to present sensations.
The goal is to be able to shape the brain in such a way that one can manage reactions to perceived triggers by creating new experiences promoting safety and security. We want to reactivate ourselves enough so that we can re-enter and expand our window of tolerance to be able to experience stress and remain emotionally regulated.
Healthy Ways of Coping with Hypoarousal
Healthy ways of coping with hypoarousal symptoms of trauma:
- Grounding/Self-soothing exercises- engage in mental, physical and self-soothing techniques to bring your attention to the present moment (use sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound) and environment
- Loud Noise- Listen to loud music so that your attention is drawn towards the sound and cannot be easily ignored in the present moment
- Change in Temperature- Hold an ice pack or piece of ice and focus on the temperature and coldness on the area of your body that is in contact with the ice pack
- Rainbow- Use this grounding technique by naming all of the colors that you see in your immediate surroundings and use the acronym ‘ROYGBIV’ as you go through each of the colors of the rainbow to guide you
- Get physically active and avoid remaining still for too long
- Mental Stimulation- Counting by 5, 10, counting backwards, count a certain number of red cars that pass by or count a certain number of shapes in a pattern on the rug
- Addressing Numbness- ask yourself if there is a part of you that is willing to share some emotion
- Body Scan Meditation- Scan your body as a way to notice where you are holding tension and stiffness in different parts of your body and begin to connect to your emotions through this focus on
Using these coping skills can take practice and it is helpful to engage in these skills when you are inside your window of tolerance so that they become easier to utilize when you are in a state where it is more difficult to try something new or unfamiliar.
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