Jonathan Flier, LMFT
Past President, LA-CAMFT
CAMFT Board Directors
This article is designed to give you skills for a rapid response to being triggered. There is no way to avoid emotional triggers, but there are effective ways to counteract their debilitating effects. For those of you who are facing your licensing exams, these techniques are also excellent for test anxiety.
Anxiety is a somatic response physically hardwired to ensure our survival as a species.
Buried inside our brain is a small part called the Amygdalae. Its job is to remember emotional or physically painful experiences in order to avoid them in the future. When triggered, that part of our brain will send a message throughout your body that prepares for Fight, Flight or Freeze Responses.
When a life threatening event is experienced or anticipated, the stress hormones including adrenaline and epinephrine, increase the heart rate, focus your attention and sends energy to your muscles, giving you a surge of energy to run away from or fight off a dangerous situation. This state also quiets or dampens down the relatively slow cognitive brain responses. This body-based response is instantaneous and triggers before the reasoning part of our brain has the time to get online. Recovering from this flood of hormones can take 20 minutes to several days. Chronic stress produces overdoses of the cortisol hormone that can suppress the immune system, create chronic high blood pressure, decrease libido, and contribute to obesity and more.
When the body goes back to its “calm” parasympathetic state, other hormones are released that causes your heart rates and blood pressure to drop to appropriate levels, your skin temperature, breathing and muscles all respond and relax. This natural recovery process can be speeded up and enhanced with these 4 easy skills taken from the Trauma Resiliency Model.
- Tracking: Taking the time to consciously tune in to the sensations inside your body is called “Tracking.” We’re hardwired to notice pain sensations, but it takes some practice to learn how to shift our focus to neutral or pleasant sensations. Examples include, noticing your stomach is comfortably full signaling your appetite is sated or noticing your muscles relax as you feel the spray of a morning shower.
- Shift and Stay: You can consciously choose to shift your focus away from the part of your body that is responding to stress to a place, as large as your chest or leg to as small as the top of your nose, that is sensed as a neutral or calm location. While focusing on this spot, notice how your body responds to this new focus. This will trigger the parasympathetic response to begin.
- Grounding: Grounding is the sensation of your feet being supported by the ground or your back and bottom being softly but firmly held by a couch or chair. Feeling the “safe” feelings of grounding produce endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin (also known as the love hormone).
- Resourcing: Resourcing is using our memories and/or imagination to recall and re-experience a situation of calm, peacefulness, or safety. It can be at a favorite location with a special someone, animal or human, or with family and/or friends. It can be in your bedroom or on your private beach on a far away planet. As you use your imagination and recall, notice the details surrounding this experience. What colors, shapes, images, sounds, smells, etc. Try to bring all your five senses to bear as you enjoy this safe, peaceful love-filled experience.
Any one of these techniques will begin the process of moving your nervous system out of the limbic system into the parasympathetic. As you engage them you will be bathed in the hormones that bring harmony and restoration, returning your cognitive skills and a state of calm.
Jonathan Flier, MFT is currently serving statewide on the Board of Directors of CAMFT. In 2008 he restarted the Los Angeles Chapter of CAMFT serving as President for 6 years. He has supervised interns for over 20 years at the Southern California Counseling Center. Jonathan has a thriving practice that specializes in working with men; treating trauma and anxiety with somatic based therapies including EMDR; high conflict couples and passionless couples; and consultations with licensed MFTs and LCSWs. Jonathan can be reached via email at email@example.com.