Melting the Effects of Trauma through Everyday Self-Assertion

By Tony Madril, LCSW, BCD

Making a conscious choice to assert
yourself in a stressful situation may help you to reprocess past psychological
trauma and counteract its long-term effects on the body and mind. We know from
scientific research that most people automatically respond to traumatic
experiences by preparing to fight a potential perpetrator, by fleeing
a dangerous situation, or by physically freezing in the moment. If your
body reacted to past trauma with some form of freezing, it is possible that you
are unusually sensitive to situations that are reminiscent of past traumatic
events and that you may respond to minor threats in your daily life by momentarily
regressing to a state of immobility, especially if you have not processed your injury
with a trauma specialist. For instance, while being confronted by a demanding
co-worker, alone, would not qualify as a traumatic event, this minor threat can
nevertheless activate the brain’s release of stress hormones in your body if
the trauma you experienced involved some sort of intimidation against you. The “post-trauma
brain” is wired to notice and quickly respond to situations that appear similar
to the traumatic event of the past. This is its primary form of defense, of
keeping you safe from further harm.

While it may not have been humanly
possible for you to have taken action to escape the traumatic event of your
past, it is now possible for you to take action by asserting your needs when
faced with situations that threaten your sense of integrity or emotional
wellbeing. How? I have written a set of three questions that, in conjunction
with therapy, you can ask yourself during moments of distress to help clarify: (1)
whether the situation you’re in may be linked to past trauma; (2) how
practicing self-assertion may help to counteract the feeling of immobility.

The first question: What am I
feeling in my body?
By using your concentration to quickly scan the body
from head-to-toe like a copy scanner, you can gather important information
about how the body is physiologically reacting to your immediate situation. Whereas
uncomfortable or unusual body sensations such as a rapid heartbeat, shallow
breathing, or a sense that you cannot move (or act as you would like) may
suggest that something about your situation may be linked to past trauma,
neutral or pleasant body sensations may suggest that you are experiencing an
ordinary day-to-day stressor with no particular ties to past critical events.

The second question: Does this
situation threaten my sense of safety or cause me fear?
Defining what makes
you feel unsafe or fearful is something only you can determine. Simply put, if you
answer “yes” to this question, it would be important for you to determine a clear
course of action to take care of yourself in the moment; answering the next
question may help you do this.

The third question: Would
asserting myself help restore my sense of safety?
If you answer yes, you might
consider the choices you have to assert yourself in your moment of distress. Returning
to the example of the demanding co-worker, asserting yourself may come in the
form of taking any of the following actions: making a request, saying no,
resisting pressure from the person, or maintaining a particular position or
personal point-of-view. On the other hand, if you notice that you are feeling oddly
frozen to act, self-assertiveness may be that you walk away from the situation
or simply acknowledge that “feeling frozen is happening” and soothe yourself with
kind words of self-compassion such as: “I’ve got you sweetheart” “This is
temporary” “Don’t worry, you will have more chances to assert yourself in the
future.”

Over time, this ongoing practice of
asserting yourself in challenging situations may improve the effects of past
trauma by helping you develop new core beliefs about your ability to take care
of yourself in the world. Gradually, you may begin to think (and believe): “I
can do this!” “I can learn to do whatever it is necessary to take care of
myself.” Feeling frozen to act may, therefore, become less and less of a
problem as your ability to assert yourself and your sense of personal safety
increase. When you feel safe, there is little need to fight, to flee, or to freeze.

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