Feeling Numb? 3 Trauma-Informed Care Principles To Help You Cope
I started my mental health private practice in July of 2020. Though I was trained in expressive arts therapy, the context required me to quickly develop a secondary niche of supporting clients navigating life-transitions. It was the absolute thick of the pandemic.
Since then, I've observed how change on the individual level almost always mirrors greater social themes: At the start of the lockdown, we first sought comfort (banana bread and other hobbies). Then we rebelled against the grind (permanent work-from home and "quiet-quitting"). We tried out "a new normal" after rounds of vaccines made their way through our circles (shifting mask mandates and vaccination requirements). But what comes next?
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As much as our rugged individualist ideals may lead us to value independence, we are in fact connected by interwoven threads, experiences and contexts that none of us can escape. Three years after lock-down my clients tell me they are left with a general numbness:
"How am I supposed to make life decisions with the economy spiraling?"
"What can I possibly do to affect these wars and famines?"
"Will COVID ever really be "over"?"
Rising up from the depths of our separate but connected nervous systems, all of these questions have one underlying theme; a call from our bodies:
"Am I safe yet?"
If you do not have the tools to recognize and answer this call, your body will respond by doing the only thing it knows to do when faced with prolonged threat: it will shut down.
From a physiological standpoint, the pandemic was a shock to the system. People we loved, places and cues your body learned to identify as "safe" where instantly unavailable. Instead, a borage of horrifying news fed to us 24/7 provided an instant jolt of adrenaline to the system, triggering each of us into our own modes of survival.
For some it was fight or flight (desire to neutralize impending threat) and for others it was freeze (shutting down facing an unstoppable threat).
I know you are probably tired of reading about it, but the experience of lock-down was a once-in a lifetime event where almost the ENTIRE world stood still for a brief moment with one goal in mind: keep each other safe. I get chills thinking about it now.
But we did not evolve with an innate physiological capacity to extend our concern to nearly 8 billion people at once. I would argue it is impossible to make a single choice that honors every human being on this planet. But this moment awoke something in us, forcing those of us with the former privilege of "tuning out" to pay attention to our communities and our environment, seeing crucial details from a birds eye view.
For a period of time, we showed up for each other. It was a moment of empathy and compassion that was needed. We donated. We marched in the streets. We cultivated the hope necessary to tolerate our mutual experience of uncertainty and devastation. Years later, with never-ending political tension, international crises and environmental disasters, we've experienced an exponentially unfathomable amount of nervous system distress that we were simply never built to tolerate.
Where has all that stress gone?
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We know stress and trauma literally shows up in the body. So where did it all go? Some people have been able to shake off the shock, but I don't think any of us have come out unscathed. Instead, I think the low hum of fear and panic exacerbated by a now uncertain economic outlook has become tolerable only through numbness.
We numb ourselves because there is only so much we can stand.
Feeling numb is a crucial survival mechanism engaged by the wisdom of your body when there is not an immediate "solution" to life-threatening danger. Although helpful in the moment, staying here for a long time will impede your capacity to feel things like joy, pleasure, and connection longterm. Fortunately, following trauma informed care principles you can learn to respond to dissociation in a helpful way.
Here's what you can do:
1. Recognize you are in "freeze" or feeling numb.
Freeze is characterized by feeling lethargic, exhausted, and tuned-out. It can be situational (like certain contexts) or more prolonged (like depression). Can you identify sensations in your body and emotions fluctuating throughout the day? Do you find it difficult to care when engaging with others? Are things that used to bring you joy, dulled? If not, you may be in freeze. Learn to recognize the distinct thoughts and sensations that accompany the onset of this experience and tell yourself, "My body is in freeze right now because something doesn't' feel safe."
Why this works: By verbally recognizing that we are in a freeze response we bring the pre-frontal cortex back on line, activating our capacity to respond to the present moment.
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2. Do a five minute activity that requires physical movement when in freeze.
The stress cycle is a physiological process that can be triggered by external events as much as internal feelings and thoughts. It follows that regulation of stress cycle also occurs through the body. Freeze is a response to that cycle when your nervous system believes the threat cannot be "neutralized". Talk therapy tries to solve the problem by using our brain to "neutralize" the threat through logic, problem-solving and meaning-making. This takes a long time and sometimes your body doesn't believe you!
Through a somatic approach, you can go straight to completing the physical stress cycle toward feeling "safe" by working the hormones out of your bloodstream. Start with a five minute activity that is accessible and reasonable to you (a walk around the block, carrying your cat up and down the stairs). The key is to get your heart pumping and to do something that feels "safe enough".
Why this works: By completing an action that requires physical activity we meet the nervous system's goal of the "flight" response, completing the stress cycle.
3. Identify people/places/things that make you feel safe.
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Practicing completing your stress cycle on a regular basis will help you feel balanced and
grounded day to day. But to recognize safety, you must grow your awareness for what safety means to you in the first place. Think of it in the smallest and most immediate of terms involving sensations (taste, touch, smell, sound, sight):
I feel safe sitting on this couch right now, because the cushions feel soft and I feel supported.
I feel safe when I drink a warm beverage, because it tastes pleasant and warms my belly.
I feel safe sitting next to my friend, because their voice is soothing and their smile makes me feel understood.
Why this works: By identifying things that make us feel safe today we can rewire our neural pathways to respond to things that activated us in the past (triggers) with updated information.
Practice these three things on a consistent basis, and you will notice your experience of numbness easier to navigate. Know that it is completely normal to feel numb from time to time. If you need help navigating your mental health or feel you are in crisis please contact Lifeline Suicide and Crisis Line or dial 988 (US).
Learn More About Responding to Stress and Trauma:
Burnout by Amelia and Emily Nagoski,
Peter Levine on "Waking the Tiger"
"What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing From Complex Trauma" by Stephanie Foo