square bulletUnderstanding Our Bodies When We Are Activated

May 24, 2016

From Beckie Child, MSW, Adult Mental Health and Addictions Services Coordinator, Trauma Informed Oregon

What Happens to Our Bodies When We Are Activated?

As one of the newer members to the Trauma Informed Oregon team, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Beckie Child and I am the Adult Mental Health and Addictions Services Coordinator for Trauma Informed Oregon (TIO). I openly identify as someone with a psychiatric disability, who is a trauma survivor and who has lived experience of the mental health system. I also have been a mental health advocate for more than 20 years. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in our system. I’m currently completing my dissertation on health literacy and people diagnosed with mental illness at Portland State’s School of Social Work’s Doctoral Program.  I also am the former Executive Director of Mental Health America of Oregon and have started or helped start peer-run programs in Oregon.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending several of TIO’s trainings and forums around Oregon. Each time Mandy Davis or other trainers talk about the physiology or neurobiology of what is happening to a person’s mind or body when their trauma is activated; I have this recurring thought—people who are using services need this information more than the people providing services. As someone who has experienced trauma and had my trauma activated more times than I can count, knowing that the responses I am having are neurobiological and not so much evidence of my own weirdness is comforting and helps me be a little kinder towards me.

Recently I presented on Understanding Our Bodies When We Experience a Trigger and Strategies to Help Us Deal With It at the Peerpocalypse conference.  The room was filled to capacity. People were eager and hungry for this information. Having knowledge about what is happening in your body when trauma is activated is helpful and comforting. It may not stop the neurobiological reaction—but it helps make sense of what is often a disorienting experience. Many of the evaluations stated that this presentation was helpful to to the participants. Peerpocalpyse is a conference put on by people who use/have used mental health services and sponsored by Mental Health America of Oregon. Gayathri Rampashad from ASHA International filmed 3-4 minute versions of people’s recovery stories. If you need to remind yourself or convince someone that people do recover from mental health and addiction problems and trauma, take a look at the YouCanRecoverProject.

Helpful Tools to Use If You’ve Been Activated

There are a few tools that I use that help ground me when my trauma triggers have been activated. I share them as tools that may be helpful to others.  Please note that none of the tools work 100% of the time and that people may have their own preferences for helping ground themselves.

  • Breathing from abdomen—Sit or stand and clasp your hands behind your back while breathing. Clasping your hands behind your back forces you to breathe from your diaphragm rather than your chest.  Breathing from your chest produces anxiety.
  • 5 senses (this particularly helps when I feel frozen)—Name 5 things that you can see, 5 things that you can feel, 5 things that you hear or heard today, 5 things that you smelled today and 5 things that you tasted today. Repeat, if necessary. (There is no wrong way to do this. You can repeat things you’ve already said, if you get stuck.)
  • Koosh™ Balls—These help me with anxiety and nervous energy. Also, they are quiet and you can take them to meetings or other places and they aren’t intrusive to what is happening. They are hard to find in stores today. I recently found some on Amazon.
  • Rice or beans—Put some rice in a Ziploc™ bag. You can run your hands through the rice or beans. The texture is soothing.  This is also something that you can carry with you and can be used discretely.
  • Adult Coloring Books—I ordered mine from Amazon. I found some with swear words in them that sometimes help me deal with anger and rage.
  • Videos/pictures of mountains, waterfalls and the ocean—I keep pictures and videos of the Teton Mountains in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, waterfalls and the ocean on my phone. Many of my calm places use these areas as the setting to help me feel calm when I am overwhelmed.

Trauma Informed Oregon is committed to sharing information about the neurobiology of trauma and strategies for self-care with peer specialists and people who use services. Additionally, Oregon Family Support Network and Youth Move Oregon also have or are developing trainings that are focused on the needs of transition-age youth and families. We will be looking for opportunities to share this information with you soon. Stay tuned!