Lately, I've had a lot of conversations with my clients surrounding emotion regulation and managing triggers and those conversations have inspired this particular post.
Emotion regulation is hard in and of itself. If you have depression or anxiety you may sometimes feel yourself spiraling and feel powerless to turn your emotions around. If you are living with triggers from past traumas, managing your emotions and that fight/flight/freeze response may feel entirely impossible. These are certainly the feelings that I've encountered in my practice working with trauma survivors.
The more traumas you've experienced, the harder it may feel to manage or regulate when you are triggered. This dilemma has inspired me to scour every resource I can find out regulation for the trauma survivor. I vowed to leave no stone left un-turned. And ultimately, my clients have taught me the most valuable lessons in emotion regulation, especially in the context of trauma and complex trauma. Today, I'm sharing that with you.
There are some basics that it's really important to start with; foundational things, if you will. If you are familiar with DBT, you'll recognize this acronym: PLEASE Master. I think of this as the foundation on which you build regulation. It is as follows:
treat Physicall iLlness
Eat a balanced diet
Avoid mood altering substances
get good Sleep
Engage in activities that bring you a sense of MASTERy. These are things that feel good and remind you that you are good at something. I like to think like writing or art but it can also be working with your hands, building a website, cleaning, singing, or anything else that makes you feel good.
Just a little bit on this: this skill speaks to taking care of your body. If you fall behind in one of these areas, you put yourself at a disadvantage for being able to regulate your emotions. Think about it: Hangry is a real thing. Have you ever noticed that you feel more snappy or sad if you haven't gotten enough sleep throughout the week? If you live on ramen noodles, your blood sugar may be wreaking havoc on your emotions. And we all know what too much coffee and sugar can do to a person ;)
The Top skill
Even though this was covered in the foundational principals of emotion regulation, it deserves it's own discussion. In my work with trauma survivors, the most common resource or coping skill that has had the greatest impact on helping those that I've worked with regulate their emotions and triggers has been exercise.
I've worked with clients who came to me extremely disregulated, feeling untethered by their emotions, suicidal, and in a constant fight/flight/freeze response. When those clients implemented regular exercise, they reported the greatest impact on their ability to feel grounded and regulate triggers and emotions. Many of them reported an equal or greater benefit from regular exercise than from their psychiatric medications.
A note about exercise: any kind of exercise is great for your body and it takes some experimentation to find out what works best for you. Commonly, I've found with my clients, the best exercises for regulation tend to be more intense exercises, or at least, those that feel intense to you. Many who report walking every day, for instance, haven't reported as great of an impact on their emotions. Some even reported that with walking, they couldn't shut their mind off. Those who engaged in weight lifting or more intense cardio reported to me the greatest emotional benefit. Think Strength training or HIIT.
I was so astounded by the positive results my clients have experienced with exercise that I decided to give it a try in my own life and it's proven to be true. Walking still feels nice but if I'm having an emotionally challenging or anxious day, the weight room it is.
For a more "in the moment" skill that doesn't require an EMDR knowledge (because honestly, EMDR resources are kick ass), belly breathing is the way to go. Think the phrase "low and slow" to get an idea of the kind of breathing that helps calm your body. Breathe low into your belly, trying not to move your chest as you breath but seeing your belly rise and fall. Breathe slow; so slow that if you were blowing the world's biggest bubble, your exhale wouldn't pop it. This helps regulate the amount of oxygen verses carbon dioxide that your body is getting, which helps calm down the limbic system. While you breathe, focus your attention on the breath. If you struggle to breath into your belly, lie on a couch with a plastic cup on your tummy, while noticing that it rises with your in breath and falls with the out-breath.
A final note
These skills will not cure you of your triggers or your emotions. All the do is help you regulate in the moment. Trauma therapy is ultimately what helps rid you of your triggers and bring a more lasting sense of calm. These skills will not replace a good trauma treatment, they will only help you manage while you engage the process of healing.
Ready to get started healing from your past? Call or email me to set up a free consultation!
As always, questions and comments are encouraged ;)