One of the things going on in Childhood PTSD is disregulation of our brains.
When we’re calm, brain activity is even and it’s driving emotions and body responses (like heart rate variability, shown in the very badly drawn illustration above) in an even and predictable way.
With disregulation, our thinking, behavior, heart rate and breathing can become erratic.
We might feel panic or depression out of nowhere, or our emotions can suddenly explode and flood us with adrenaline (the fight/flight response). Or we might feel physically numb, clumsy, forgetful or scattered. It can be hard in these states to read reality correctly, seeing danger where we are actually safe, or safety where there is danger. We might drive off from the gas pump without detaching the nozzle, or believe a sexual hookup is true love, or say cruel things to a loved one, that for the moment, we think we mean. Just when we need good judgment most, it can fail us. And so we may find ourselves making the same mistakes over and over.
Once we are disregulated, it can take hours or even days for our brains to become re-regulated. We may have picked up semi-effective strategies to speed it along, such as overeating on carbs, smoking cigarettes, drinking or doing drugs, or jolting ourselves with adrenaline through risky acts like reckless driving or sex or spending. These disregulated periods are not always overtly self-destructive, but they always impair our ability to be present, productive, responsible and connected with people. They also leave us exceptionally vulnerable to re-traumatization.
Key signs your brain is disregulated:
- You feel spaced out, at a loss for words, can’t remember where you are
- You feel scattered, trying to do a lot of things at once and finishing nothing
- You are tripping over things, dropping things, losing things
- Your voice and facial expression are flat
- You are in a rage
- You can’t feel parts of your body — hands, mouth, face, nose, feet
The good news is, you can re-regulate your own brain. This is one of the key ways to self-treat PTSD. It takes practice, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice when it’s happening and begin to identify the triggers. Then you can take steps to re-regulate your brain:
Quick fixes to re-regulate your brain:
- Stop: Disregulation can be emotionally and physically dangerous. Refrain from driving, making decisions, and even discussions with others (if possible) until you can take a few minutes to re-regulate.
- Stamp your feet on the floor, and say aloud “right” “left” “right” “left” as each foot strikes.
- Take deep breaths, focusing particularly on the out breath.
- Eat something. Protein is good in the long run. Carbs help in the short run.
- press your tongue to the back of your teeth.
- Sit down, and feel the weight of your butt in the chair.
- Wash your hands, and feel the water and soap.
- Get a good, squeezing hug. If no one is around, press your back into a corner and wrap your arms around yourself so you can feel pressure all around your torso
There are other, longer-term strategies to re-regulate your brain, including meditation, neurofeedback, yoga, group exercise/dancing and EMDR. I talk about these and many more strategies for recovery in my new online course, “Healing Childhood PTSD” . It’s a self-paced course with 32 videos about how PTSD happens, what it does to us, and how ordinary people can begin healing and connecting again, whether or not they have access to professional help. You can learn more and register here.