When too many bad things happen at once, that’s what I call a “trauma storm.” It’s a pile-up of events that puts you in crisis mode.
If it were just one thing (for example, losing your job), then you’d be able to manage it. If one more bad thing happens (let’s say your car is stolen), you might hold it together. But then, one more thing happens…
In a trauma storm, you can’t function normally. Your routine falls apart and your mental stability is in jeopardy. You’re angry, you’re exhausted, you’re crying; in this state, you’re in danger of pushing people away — the same people who would normally be your support system. I don’t know why, but when it rains it pours.
I’ve had a few trauma storms in my life. Each one was terrifying. In that shaken state, old trauma wounds get stirred up and resurface. Emotionally and mentally, it feels as if you just can’t handle it. You either break down or — if you’re lucky and know what to do — you can break through.
During the hardest times in my life, I was miserable and would have done anything to get out of the suffering. But each time, my passage through the crises forced me to get honest and to really face what I still needed to heal. When I look back, these hard times were the beginning of the happiest periods of my life. If you can survive them, trauma storms can be powerful catalysts for growth in your life. If you can survive them.
This seems to be the timeline: You have a trauma storm, you experience transformation, you live on that higher level for a while, and then another trauma storm comes along to force you to change for the better.
What are the signs that a “storm” is coming?
Ironically, going through hard times is exactly when you’re likely to abandon the good, regulating practices that keep you physically balanced and away from self-defeating behaviors.
Here’s what can happen:
You get overwhelmed by ordinary stressors — in addition to the “official” traumas that caused the storm in the first place. Someone honks at you, you get a parking ticket, or you lose your keys. If you’re in a trauma storm, your reaction to these ordinary mishaps is out of proportion, sometimes scary to people. Even after you catch yourself, the emotional hangover goes on.
Your attention is scattered. You want to buy milk but you can’t find your purse and then you find your purse but you see there’s water on the wood floor and then the phone rings and then you forget the milk.… Even if you’re not consciously stressed, being in a trauma storm can show up as starting things but not being able to finish them, flitting from thing to thing but lacking the power to follow through. It’s not procrastination, but it looks like that because you can’t get anything done.
You’re preoccupied with the past and worrying about the future. You might be time-travelling to 1981 or to last week when someone offended you. Or you’ve already moved on to tomorrow when you’re going to see someone you have a crush on and you’re thinking about what you’ll say and what you’ll have for lunch. Meanwhile, here in today, you’re not dealing with anything at all. The things you’re responsible for are falling apart. The trauma storm keeps you from feeling a sense of priority about what needs your attention right now. This is probably one of the most direct ways that traumatic experiences generate more traumatic experiences — you can’t see them coming because you’re attention isn’t here.
You’re constantly dysregulated. You may feel spaced out, numb and sleepy by day and agitated by night. Your energy is dysregulated, too: When you’re not wired and talking all the time, you’re spun-out and exhausted.
Your normal self-care falls apart. You haven’t showered in days. You might be filling yourself with coffee or alcohol. The dishes are piling up. Eating gets dysregulated, too — grazing snacks and craving sweets but not eating meals; eating constantly, or not at all; or calling for delivery just to get something to eat.
You feel dread, grief or paralysis that seems unmanageable, and bigger than you.
It’s important to recognize when a trauma storm is happening so you can stop its effects. You can’t always stop the traumatic events themselves, but you can take care of your emotional health and nervous system, keeping it balanced and regulated while you recover.
The sooner you can change one or two self-defeating coping methods, the sooner you can get your emotional bearings and start making your way out of the trauma storm.
It’s OK to feel scared and upset about the stressful things that are happening. But it does no good to lose your daily rhythm and emotional equilibrium to the point of breakdown. It’s not good for you in the moment, it’s not good for you in the future, and it’s not good for the people who count on you.
Here are some things you can do to stop a trauma storm
- Get serious about sleeping. You know about not having caffeine in the afternoon and getting off screens before bed. Maybe you have the power to do that or maybe you’re not there yet. There are a few more things that can help you sleep even if your schedule is messed-up:
- Eat well: Normal meals with dinner foods, including protein. Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol. Avoid sugar and don’t overdo it on starchy foods.
- Go outside and move around. Take walks or run if you are able.
- Choose your companions wisely. Avoid critical people who focus on negatives, at least for now.
- Choose media wisely, avoiding things that you know will make you more dysregulated.
- Use your focus to perform simple, physical tasks. Here are a few ideas:
- Wash the dishes
- Organize your shoes
- Take out the trash
- Make a clean, orderly space where you put objects of beauty
- Make a cozy place to relax.
- Write a list of people who have helped you. Put it on the fridge. When you’re ready you can thank them.
- Let yourself do nothing. If you watch TV, take breaks and move around; don’t get hypnotized.
- Make a healing box: On a piece of paper, write down three to five parts of your life that need some healing. For example: getting to work on time, paying off credit card debt, and helping your kids with homework. Put your list in your healing box. You may not be sure how you’ll fix it, but you’re open to seeing a way. You can make a new list every day and add it.
- Think of a few ways you could use some help. Are you ready to ask?
- Speak about trauma selectively. Write about it instead. A great way to release the fearful and resentful thoughts, and to get clarity about what to do, is with my Daily Practice. You can learn it in my free course.
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