Robyn Brickel from Brickel and Associates writes that accepting change can be especially challenging for trauma survivors. Since my office has recently moved upstairs in the same building – presenting change – it’s a great time to talk about it! Dealing with change can offer meaningful challenges and opportunities especially for trauma survivors.
We have options when it comes to adapting to change. Taking positive steps toward change ultimately helps to broaden a person’s emotional window of tolerance, supports healing, and ultimately enhances a person’s life experience.
Why Change Feels Risky, Scary and Dangerous
A person can be subject to trauma from past experiences in which they felt unsafe, overwhelmed and helpless. For many people the presence of trauma goes unrecognized and remains unresolved for years, if not forever. Later in life, stressful events can re-activate these unsafe feelings for a person with a trauma history. Reactivating old feelings can be what’s called a body memory.
Trauma changes the way the brain, emotional energy and nervous system responds to stress. Because their nervous system remains prepared for danger, a person with a trauma history can experience body sensations, flashbacks and a chronic state of hyperarousal. Alternatively, a new source of stress may trigger hypo-arousal, similar to a state of numbness. A person with hypo-arousal may seem to not care or have collapsed, and appear unable to adapt or take change in stride.
It can be much more difficult for a trauma survivor to feel comfortable with a new place, person or situation when the body interprets change as danger. A trauma survivor’s threat-response system – led by the amygdala — is more highly sensitive than for people who haven’t experienced trauma. A trauma survivor may have a much stronger reaction to a sense danger. The amygdala is like the fire alarm of the brain; it is wired to alert the entire nervous system at the first inkling that a change brings risk.
A trauma survivor may appear to react with a fight, flight or freeze response, which may seem to some like an overreaction to the current scenario.
The nervous system is attempting to work as nature intended – to protect life, and keep a person safe by avoiding risk and danger. However, the impact of trauma often results in a very narrow window of tolerable emotional activity. When it takes very little stress to trigger unsafe thoughts and a trauma survivor may find it hard to tolerate new situations or experiences in life. They can miss out on relationships they want, or even simple pleasures that life has to offer.
Broadening the Window of Tolerance
Work in therapy helps trauma survivors understand why their nervous system reacts so strongly to protect them. We take time to safely recognize what has caused the amygdala to remain on high alert in the brain. We develop skills to determine whether it’s because of actual danger in the present or a body memory of danger.
We help trauma survivors learn to “ride the wave of emotions” which helps them learn to experience a wider range feelings with greater tolerance and know they will survive. They learn they can widen their window of tolerance.
Therapy allows trauma survivors to notice that they can experience change and the feelings it triggers, and realize they’re okay—even when it might feel risky or different. With every change, the window of tolerance grows until the person knows: whatever I’m feeling, whatever is happening, I can handle it.
My Office Relocation
At Brickel and Associates, we have recently moved to a larger office space within the same building so that we can serve more clients. Although the move is for positive reasons – to work with more people — the physical change of the space is something I had to pay extra-careful attention to because I realized this might present new challenges for some of our clients.
Part of the therapeutic work I do with clients is to help them realize their own internal wisdom, strength and skill with which they can tolerate and handle change. Often that starts with remembering resources and tools we learn in therapy. Here are steps anyone can take to find positive ways to grow when facing change.
Ways to Recognize that You’re Safe Amidst Change
Whether it’s in my new office, or any new place or situation, here are three steps that will help you ground yourself and recognize that you’re safe in order to endure new situations and widen your window of tolerance.
- Notice the external. Take a few moments to pick out the things that are still the same and focus on them. When you’re in my office, you’ll notice the things on the coffee table are still the same. The items on my desk are the same. Most importantly, our relationship is the same. In a new restaurant, notice the person you are with. In new company, notice something that feels familiar. Remember, even taking a sip of waterhelps to bring your pre-frontal cortex online and ground you!
- Anchor yourself. When you focus on the senses – what you see, what you hear, and the people around you, you begin to anchor yourself to the present moment and realize that you are safe. Sometimes a grounding object can be helpful. A hairband on your wrist, a ring you always wear, a rock in your pocket. Something you can touch that grounds you to the present, safe moment. In my office, I have grounding rocks, Model Magic and Koosh balls, as some of the props we use to help you feel grounded.
- Notice the internal. Start to notice what you have inside of you. You’ll notice who you are, and recognize that you have wisdom, tools and strength to experience change. I have the wisdom and ability to deal with being anxious. I can keep myself safe. I’m no longer experiencing the trauma of the past. I’m safe.
Change as a Teacher
Understandably my office move isn’t easy…but the benefits will be worth it. We’ll be able to bring on new therapists in order to help more people, AND the move is providing a safe and positive change to help current clients expand their windows of tolerance.
Adapting to Change Does Get Easier!
No matter what the change is, all the things you have learned and worked on are always with you. Ultimately that is what will help you continue to experience change, grow and expand to a place of healing and enjoyment. Through our work together, my clients are eventually able to choose to experience change—which is obviously rewarding for them, but also immensely rewarding for me.
I know that you have it inside of you: the wisdom, courage and strength to experience change and get to a place where new things feel good, safe and comfortable.
- Flashback Halting Guide: 10 Tips to Halt Flashbacks for Yourself or a Loved One
- Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop? 3 Ways to Stop Worrying So Much
- 8 Ways to Feel Safe Right Now
- What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?
- Why We Practice Trauma Informed Recovery
- Working with a trauma informed therapist
- Trauma-Informed Care: Understanding the Many Challenges of Toxic Stress
- Using a mind-body approach in trauma recovery