When you have Childhood PTSD, there’s nothing worse than being in a crucial conversation, or some big moment where a relationship is at stake, and something happens that triggers your nervous system — a loud noise, having to hurry, or feeling left out, for example.
Your common sense knows it’s not worth getting upset about, but once the reaction begins, it’s hard to stop the surge of emotion. You can feel it spreading through your body — the feeling of adrenaline and discombobulation, feeling numb in your hands or your face, or having trouble expressing your thoughts. Or you might feel flooded with emotions like panic or rage. Next thing you know, you’re saying something or doing something that undermines anything good that was about to happen.
Has this ever happened to you? This used to happen to me several times a week, and I didn’t even know what it was.
There’s a word for this sudden kind of stress inside. It’s called dysregulation, and it’s really common for people who had trauma in childhood.
It involves your brain waves and some of your body systems getting irregular and out of sync when certain triggers happen. Some triggers you could probably control if you absolutely had to, but others you can’t — or not right away.
If you get dysregulated, you’ve probably figured out how to feel OK-ish while you’re dysregulated. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it can make it hard to think and focus and set boundaries and navigate your life. When you’re dysregulated, only part of your brain is working. (Doesn’t this explain so much about why it can be so hard to make a change that sticks, and why we sometimes make the same mistakes over and over?) It’s not our fault we’re like this. It’s an injury that comes from traumatic experiences. And the good news is, there are things we can do to heal and calm those triggers.
What Are Your Triggers?
For a lot of people, it can be a sudden shock or an experience of being vulnerable or nervous. It can also be an emotional hurt like being criticized, overlooked or rejected. And even when you know intellectually that the thing triggering you is no big deal, when you have Childhood PTSD, it doesn’t matter! Once it starts, it’s hard to do anything about it; you can sometimes feel this altered state creeping through your body. Do you get this? Where you’re thinking, Oh no, here it comes again, that feeling where I just say things that ruin everything, or where I blank out at crucial moments, or where I lose my ability to focus for three days, or where I make a total idiot of myself.
Once the feeling starts, it’s hard to stop. The good news is, you can learn to make it stop.
Everybody gets dysregulated sometimes. Babies get dysregulated. Athletes get dysregulated. Brilliant scientists get dysregulated, I get dysregulated… And most of us will eventually re-regulate again. But for those of us with CPTSD, it can happen more often and with more intensity, and it can be harder to return to a regulated state. It can make it hard to focus, hard to get things done, hard to speak and listen and connect, and sometimes, hard to control emotions. It’s a big reason why we struggle in relationships, and it also plays a role in why people who went through abuse and neglect in childhood have higher rates of chronic illness; dysregulation has long-term effects on your central nervous system, including your hormones and your immune system and your heart, lungs and circulation. So learning to calm your triggers could have a very important ripple effect not just on your mood and your mind, but on your overall health.
Here’s the thing to remember: It’s not your fault you have this! You didn’t do this to yourself. It’s an injury. It comes from trauma. Now that you’re an adult, it’s possible to make it worse, and it’s possible to make it better.
If you want to learn how to make it better, I hope you’ll check out the online courses I offer, but in the meantime, here are ten things you can do in the moment when you feel yourself getting dysregulated. I think you’ll find that you have the capacity to re-regulate better than you know.
Ten “Quick Steps to Calm Your Triggers
- Notice that you’re triggered! This is sometimes easier said than done, but as you start to study what sets off your dysregulation, you’ll start to notice that it’s happening sooner. When you know you’re triggered and dysregulated, it’s time to pause. Try not to jump in and confront anyone or solve big problems or make decisions until you have your whole brain back online!
- Say to yourself: “I’m having an emotional reaction,” or “I’m feeling triggered.” just saying this to yourself helps you separate out the part of you that’s getting overwhelmed, from the part of you that knows what to do about it.
- Make sure you’re safe. If you’re driving, pull over. If you’re in the middle of an argument, put that discussion on hold in the nicest, most caring way you can, because you’re buying yourself a little time to get re-regulated. You can say something like “I want to continue this conversation, but I need to take a breather to calm down.” Or, if you don’t want to tell the other person that you’re triggered, tell them you need a bathroom break. If you’re on the phone, say you have a call on the other line. Don’t get into a big discussion about it — just find a way to put the conversation on pause. And then, actually take some time. If it feels urgent that you DO something, or SAY something or SOLVE this thing, it’s probably the CPTSD talking. If that’s the case, take even longer before you try to resolve anything.
- Stamp your feet on the floor. It really works! You’re just trying to help your body remember where you are — to locate itself in space, and to remember the left side of you, and the right side of you. Your dysregulated brain loves to feel the ground, and feel where you are in space. That’s a big way it comes back into regulation.
- (you probably thought I’d say this first) — breathing! Take ten slow, deep breaths. Deep breaths are genuinely powerful at activating your relaxation response. I know you know that, but sometimes we need our friends to remind us. And while you’re breathing, just to get a better sensation of your body and where to “locate” your consciousness, you can push your tongue to the back of your teeth. Your mouth is one part of the body where we locate our sense of self — usually somewhere between the head and the chest. So mouth sensations can kind of bring you back to center, and back in your body.
- For another way to get back in your body, sit down, and feel the weight of your butt in the chair. Feel all the surfaces of the chair and where it’s touching you.
- Eat something. Food helps you feel your body too. When you’re stressed, you’ll probably crave carbs and sugar, but it’s protein foods that will help you get grounded again.
- This is something my brother taught me: Wash your hands! While you’re washing, feel the water and soap on your hands. If the water is warm, that’s even better.
- When your dysregulation is extra strong, get a reset for your nervous system by taking a cold shower. It doesn’t have to be ice cold, but it needs to give you a bit of a shock. Cold is good for that. I love this one! It’s good for increasing your energy too, and it’s a cheap easy, powerful way to re-regulate.
- 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. We’re wired to calm down when we’re hugged, which is pretty intuitive, right?
You can use these techniques whether it’s a big emotional trigger that set you off or a smaller thing. The sooner you can notice it and turn it around, the sooner you can forget the thing that set it off. And then you can use your mind and your focus the way YOU want to use them, and feel more alert and open to the day. So try these quick techniques I just shared. If you want to learn the Daily Practice that I’ve used for 26 years work more consistently on re-regulation, you can take one of my advanced courses, or sign up for my Free Daily Practice course. If you take that course, you’re automatically invited to free calls that I offer several times each month, where we use the techniques together and I take questions.
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