Preventing an Alarming Event from Being Encoded As a Trauma

Young woman with anxiety and fears.

In my last blog I invited you to consider that not every dramatic incident is necessarily trauma. As was noted, we can prevent a dramatic event from becoming a traumatic one through trauma-sensitive responses in the moments before, during and after an event.  

Part of understanding the nature of trauma is to appreciate that the brain must encode something as being overwhelming, dangerous, life-threatening; in essence a situation of powerlessness. In a traumatic event, the brain is emotionally wounded and, unless immediate action is taken, a traumatic memory is born that can impact a person for a lifetime.

Peter Levine in his books, Trauma through a Child’s Eyes and Somatic Experiencingprovides us with a series of steps of the process where an event becomes a traumatic memory. Picture a parent or other trusted adult guiding a child through these after the child has experienced something potentially traumatic. Note that this is not a magic formula and a person might still have a traumatic memory to some extent, but the chances are greatly increased that that memory will be less intrusive.

  • Project gentle and compassionate attunement; be physically present while respecting a person’s personal space.
  • Acknowledge possible thoughts, feelings and sensations (“You are feeling shaky.”)
  • Encourage release of bodily energies: shaking, trembling, crying, pacing, moving limbs.
  • Encourage sipping cold water. This allows the body to be rhythmic and therefore calming. The cold water seems to help a person be aware of their current surroundings.
  • Listen but do NOT encourage or force re-telling of experience; take cues from the person as to how much he or she wants to share.
  • Gently affirm and normalize all reactions, especially somatic ones of the body’s movement.
  • Insist that the person not resume normal activities.
  • Watch and listen for cues that there has been adequate release of traumatic energy. Maybe the person takes a spontaneous deep breath, slumps, looks like they have released a lot of the traumatic energy from the event.
  • Check pulse for return to normal levels.
  • Predict possible recycling of sensations as the feelings might resurface.
  • Check your own responses and ask for help with your own sensory processing.

By having a list of the things to do when someone experiences a potentially traumatizing event provides anyone in a caregiver role the opportunity to help the brain and the mind quickly release the energy the event creates, regain power and a sense of control, reconnect with the body and overall return to a state of relative equilibrium.

mental health treatment concept as a sheet of torn crumpled white paper taped together shaped as a side profile of a human face as a symbol for neurology surgery and medicine or psychological help.

This is a really important list to hang on to. It’s a kind of emergency first aid response to help the mind and the brain not be traumatized in moments of extreme stress.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you have ever been in a situation where you have been overwhelmed by fear, terror, powerlessness, how might things have turned out if someone had guided you through this process? Can you imagine how this might have helped you more quickly regain your equilibrium and sense of power?
  2. Can you imagine yourself going through the steps when someone had experienced something overwhelming? How does it make you feel to know these steps? Does this prepare and equip you to change the outcome for someone in profoundly important ways?