Written by Cristina Smugala, LPC
When a person experiences trauma, their body decrease the ability to control their emotions. As Mollon’s research suggested, the experience of trauma deregulates the individual’s ability to regulate emotional experience and manage physical arousal (Mollon, 2005). This process may leave the trauma survivor very attune and vulnerable to any emotional, physical, and sensory cues that remind the individual of the trauma. When a trauma cue is present, the mind and the body become activated similarly to being exposed to the actual threat (Van der Kolk, 2002). This experience of hyperarousal makes it important for trauma survivors to build skills that will strengthen their ability to not only regulate emotions, but increase their ability to experience safety in the present moment.
Grounding techniques can be utilized to anchor the mind and the body in the present moment. Building grounding skills assists with differentiating between sensations and emotional reactions triggered from past traumatic experiences. Grounding skills increase awareness that there is safety in the present moment. An individual can anchor themselves in the present moment through the utilization of their senses such as sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound. By utilizing the senses an individual can attempt to identify factual objects in the environment that shift one’s focus to the present moment such as counting all of the blue objects in the room (Lee & James, 2011). It is important to focus the attention outward or on external experience.
Enhancing a Calm State
It is also important to practice daily exercises that enhance experiences of calm and safety while promoting the individual’s ability to recover from hyperarousal (Shapiro, 2001). An individual may construct an image in the mind that signifies peace and tranquility (Shapiro, 2001, Miller, 1994). This place can be a real or imaginary. The most important part of this exercise is to utilize the senses to enhance the experience by noticing sights, sounds, and smells you would expect to experience in this hypothetical location while paying particular attention to how the body feels when it is calm. The positive associations created during the exercise can be cued throughout the day by the use of cue words, objects, and scents. Lee et al., 2011 suggests carrying objects associated with safe memories or utilizing scents that signify safety and compassion as reminders throughout the day. If negative associations begin to develop during the use of the guided safe place imagery, distancing techniques may be utilized to regain safety during this meditation (Rothschild, 2003). It is important to focus on one’s breath during this exercise to facilitate centering and relaxation. A person may imagine stressors being released during exhalation and the enhancement of good sensations when he or she is breathing in. For some individuals listening to soothing music during this exercise can enhance a calm state and disrupt distracting thoughts from interfering.
Containment exercises provide a way to separate one’s self from painful, intense emotions until they can be processed in the safety of the therapeutic relationship. The purpose of containment is to help an individual regain control of emotions by creating the freedom to choose when and where these emotions will be processed. Containment can be achieved by thinking of an actual container that is large and strong enough to hold painful emotions and memories. This exercise is enhanced by remembering that the container can only be opened when it is safe to do so. The container is then sealed and a person may choose to add negative emotions to hold throughout the day until they are ready to be examined further and processed.
It is equally important to utilize mindfulness, grounding, containment, and guided imagery/relaxation techniques when distressing emotions are experienced and to practice these skills daily even when unhappy emotions is not present. Continued practice will lessen the frequency and severity of the negative emotions experienced overtime while providing an avenue to sooth difficult emotions when they are experienced.
Lee, D., & James, S. (2011). The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Recovering from Trauma and PTSD: Using compassion-focused therapy to overcome flashbacks, shame, guilt, and fear. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Miller, E. (1994) Letting go of stress. Menlo Park, CA: Source Cassette Tapes. In Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols and procedures. (2nd ed) ed., pp. 125-126). New York: Guilford Press.
Mollon, P. (2005). EMDR and the Energy Therapies: Psychoanalytic Perspectives (pp. 36-37). London: H. Karnac (Books).
Rothschild, B. (2003). The Body Remembers Casebook: Unifying Methods and Models in the Treatment of Trauma and PTSD. New York: W.W. Norton.
Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols and procedures (2nd ed). New York: Guilford Press.
Van der Kolk, B.A. (2002). Beyond the talking cue: Somatic experience and subcortical imprints in the treatment of trauma. In F. Shapiro (Ed.), EMDR as an integrative treatment approach: Experts of diverse orientations explore the paradigm prism, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Books.
Cristina is a full time therapist at McCallum Place treating adults and adolescents, men and women with eating disorders. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a member of the American Counseling Association. Cristina earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Master of Arts in Human Growth and Development Counseling from St. Louis University. Cristina possesses training in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), the Trauma Recovery and Empowerment model, Trauma Informed Care, Experiential Therapies, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.