We all experience scary events, some are traumatic, terrifying, and shake us to our core. If it was a traumatic event, it literally reshapes both body and brain. A small way to address this reaction is to change your relationship or the way that you think about the traumatic event.
Trauma can be treated a number of ways. One way is by talking. Talk with a professional, reconnecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us. Another way to treat trauma is by taking medications that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or y utilizing other technologies that change the way our brains organize information. A third way is by allowing our bodies to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.
Our bodies can physically carry the effects of trauma or fear of the event reoccurring, causing symptoms for years to come. It’s vital to seek treatment from a mental health professional who has experience working with trauma.
An incredibly helpful book to read about how trauma marks the brain, mind, and body is The Body Keeps the Score. The author, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., has over three decades of experience working with trauma survivors. He has done incredible work and this book is eye-opening.
“The title underscores the book’s central idea: Exposure the abuse and violence fosters the development of a hyperactive alarm system and molds a body that gets stuck in fight/flight, and freeze. Trauma interferes with the brain circuits that involve focusing, flexibility, and being able to stay in emotional control.
A constant sense of danger and helplessness promotes the continuous secretion of stress hormones, which wreaks havoc with the immune system and the functioning of the body’s organs. Only making it safe for trauma victims to inhabit their bodies, and to tolerate feeling what they feel, and knowing what they know, can lead to lasting healing. This may involve a range of therapeutic interventions (one size never fits all), including various forms of trauma processing, neurofeedback, theater, meditation, play, and yoga.
Readers will come away from this book with awe at human resilience and at the power of our relationships—whether in the intimacy of home or in our wider communities—to both hurt and heal.”The Body Keeps the Score
This article isn’t going to dive deep into the full topics of trauma or fear (read The Body Keeps the Score), I’m only going to cover this topic in general terms, focusing on one aspect, and that’s how I changed my relationship with something negative that happened to me. I’m going to share a traumatic experience that happened to me while trail running and how I’m striving towards changing my relationship with what happened, so that I can continue to do what I love without lugging around fear and physical symptoms.
My goal of sharing my story with you is that something will be relatable and something I say you can take with you. Everyone has had something scary happen to them, we need to have some understanding of our reaction, we need to know what to do with this information, how to process it, and how to grow from it.
This is not medical or mental health advice. This is my personal experience.
A few Fantastic resources to learn more about this topic
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma By Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox: 125 Worksheets and Exercises to Treat Trauma & Stress By Manuela Mischke-Reeds, MA, LMFT
Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists By Janina Fisher, PhD
— Cool fact: a while back, I took an online course on trauma taught by Janina.
WHAT MY BODY WAS EXPERIENCING DURING TRAIL RUNS (AND EXAMPLES)
- Racing heart.
- Hands slightly trembling.
- Jumpy at falling leaves and small critters rustling about.
- Hearing faint growling, but not noticing anything actually present.
- Imagining a mountain lion or bear, some times this was caused by seeing a log or shadow off in the distance before I my mind could make out what it was.
- Feeling paranoid. Occasionally, checking behind me to make sure I wasn’t being stalked by a mountain lion, sometimes I imagined the mountain lion coming up behind me.
- A large bird was startled in brush next to me, causing me to instinctively yell at it, my face became hot and tingled, my hands tingled, and my heart raced.
- I came across a few hundred black birds flying wildly from tree to tree and dive bombing towards the ground. It seemed odd, like something was off. You know how birds will stick together to protect a nest from a predator, this was what I was thinking. Of course, I was immediately looking for a predator.
- Stopping dead in my tracks, my arms and hands were shaking as I began examining the terrain for what was causing the birds behavior. No idea, I couldn’t find anything. I thought to myself, I’m about two miles away from the Jeep, I need to either get past these birds, or turn around and go all the way back to Eckert Bridge and call a ride.
- It was also getting dark, so it could possibly take longer if I turned back. I chose to continue towards the birds and the Jeep. I sang and talked to myself out loud, knowing that animals could hear me coming and can be scared off by the human voice. The last two miles seemed very long.
- A pile of Hawk feathers, meaning one might have been attacked by a predator, causing anxious thoughts.
- Strong odor of scat, causing anxious thoughts.
- Anxious thoughts catastrophized and made the situation seem worse.
- Avoiding trail running every once and a while due to anxiety or fear.
These are things I experienced during trail runs, but I also had a few reactions when I wasn’t on the trail. I was weary of the dark, even in my house. My mind pictured a cougar. If I heard a recording of a big cat, my body felt sick and tingly. I had nightmares. If there was a dark figure, my brain told me to freeze until it figured out that it was an inanimate object.
I FACED A PRETTY BIG FEAR [10/10/21]
I returned to where I came across the mountain lion back in June and I ran that section twice (because out and back).
My mind was on high alert, telling me that it was too dangerous to be out there. My heart raced, I experienced tingling and warmness on and off in my legs, hands and face. Anxious and catastrophizing thoughts occurred, but were well-managed. I replaced the thoughts with realistic ones and was mindful of my actual environment. – It was a beautiful day, I was blessed to be out there, hikers were enjoying the trail (not freaking out like I was), and keeping my goals in mind.
I knew I had to be out there, in that spot, facing my fears. I was doing it for myself and doing it for Oil Creek 100, which was the next Saturday. [This was helpful for Oil Creek, I wasn’t fearful of the dark and wild animals attacking me until about midnight or so, and that was just because I was tired.]
After being with my feelings and thoughts, I then took notes on my environment. I was present with it and noticed how pleasant it was. As I looked around, I searched for a mountain lion. Yes, terrifying, but I reminded myself that it would be an extremely small chance that I’d see one. My reasoning for not seeing one even though the last time I was there there was one?
It was not around 1:00 AM; there were a few hikers out and they were not concerned; I was wearing a bear bell and making other noise, which would help scare it off; I had trekking poles in case I needed a weapon or something to wave around and make myself look big. These were my facts and I was sticking to them.
The next thing was rewriting the story or script of what’s happening. The current story was that I could never return to that spot until Glacier Ridge Ultra (the race course covered the exact spot of the cougar, twice), which was almost a year away.
I could also never fully enjoy trail running as I once did because all trails equaled danger, since that’s where the wild things are. To go deeper into the story, I was almost beginning to believe that this was my new norm, being afraid. I needed to squash these beliefs that my mind was creating and recreate good memories at the spot where I ran into the mountain lion.
As I rewrote my story, I acknowledged my feelings and thoughts; managed my symptoms by saying positive affirmations out loud; I took deep breathes; kept running and slowed to look around to notice the environment better; I reframed the faulty thinking and replaced it with positivity; practiced mindfulness and gratitude; told myself how lovely it was to be on the trail.
Lastly, I told myself that back in June, I got to experience something very rare and powerful. I came across a mountain lion and it had a good ending. I was not hurt and now have the most ridiculous trail story. Heck yeah.
I sometimes think of my mind as a volume knob when I experience these symptoms or anxiety is too loud. The volume needs turned down. It is okay to experience the noise, but it doesn’t need to be loud. The reason that it is okay to experience the noise is because it is natural for our bodies to have a survival instinct and to be on the lookout for danger. The instinct keeps us safe and alive. It is also okay to sit with our emotions. We shouldn’t avoid them, they need addressed. As I faced my fears, I was able to be with these emotions. I processed them and noted anxious thoughts.
RESHAPING / FINDING HEALING
- Noticing my anxious thoughts and reframing them into more realistic ones.
- Steady, deep breathes
- Being in-tune with my body and try to develop understanding.
- Practicing mindfulness
- Reading trusted resources to learn more about trauma and stress-related events.
- Connecting with colleagues and getting resources from those who specialize in trauma and stress-related events.
- Hitting the trail, not avoiding them
- Sharing my story and experience with people I trust.
- Coping and distracting when appropriate (Like videoing the run made me feel safe and not alone.)
Doing all of this helped me practice coping, changing my thoughts, and recreate new, better memories. It was a lot of work, it was scary, but it was worth it. I might never fully recover, I might still experience stress symptoms when I trail run, but I know how to manage them and how to continually heal. I know that I can overcome anything in the future because I have overcome so much in the past.
This is what helped me, if you’ve experienced trauma and are showing symptoms of posttraumatic stress, don’t try what I do because it might not be right for you. We can all experience and heal from trauma differently, so keep this in mind. Meet with a professional and they will guide you based off of their expert knowledge, your needs and up-to-date research on trauma.
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