I am fortunate that I don’t witness traumatic events or find myself in real crisis on a regular basis. While none of us are immune, they certainly happen less frequently in my life than they do for others in many professions or parts of our world. And for that – I am thankful.
However, many are not as lucky and experiencing trauma much more frequently. And it’s important to understand what happens in that moment and what follows it so you know how your body will respond and you can prepare yourself mentally and physically for the after-effects of a traumatic experience.
Use this post to guide you through what happens in trauma and four ways to help ease the tension following a crisis.
A few years ago, I had a mini-trauma that allowed me to observe how my brain works during and after a time of crisis. Further, I could see why traumatic events can have such an impact on our self-esteem, health, and well being if we allow them to.
My friend who is recovering from surgery momentarily blacked out in my arms. When I realized that she had gone unconscious, my fight or flight responses took over. What I know was seconds felt like minutes and a bit of panic set in.
I began acting more quickly than I even knew how to think – tapping her cheeks and calling her name, checking for breathing, and unblocking her airway. Thankfully, she resumed consciousness right then, and I quickly shifted to helping her relax and breathe until she could be moved safely to a reclined position and her doctor’s office could be contacted.
During a real or imagined trauma, our bodies go into fight or flight mode and hyper-focus on the event going on in front of us. Time seems to slow down. All of our attention is focused and several areas of our brain shut down to direct more energy into the parts of our brain needed to react in a split second. Adrenaline rushes to our arms and legs so we can act in an instant.
Our bodies are truly amazing! This is how people are able to do crazy things like lift cars off babies. We become almost superhuman in crisis mode.
You’d think that once the crisis is over and all is well, your body would resume to a state of peace. But that’s not the case. This is where the part of your brain that controls your more primitive brain functions starts “beating you up” and where the real drama begins.
When my friend was comfortably resting and the scare was over, I found myself alone with my mind – and I was under attack.
What were you thinking? Why would you even consider X? What were you trying to accomplish by X? You know this is your fault. If you had just done, X, X, X better – this would never have happened.
On – and on – and on.
In coaching, we call these voices Saboteurs. They are the inner critics whose voices developed at an early age to keep you safe.
They remind you of what pleased your mother and father when you were young and what kept you out of trouble. They have been strengthened by years of experiences, as well as teachers and bosses whose approval you sought. Their goal is to berate you so you don’t feel unsafe again.
The problem is, they always tell you that whatever happens is YOUR fault. They tell you what YOU could have done differently to put the situation in your control.
Having learned to identify Saboteur voices in my clients, I am much more able to hear and observe my own. And so, while my friend was resting, I listened and observed from a distance.
My “Judge” – the Saboteur inner critic who often has the strongest voice – was leading the “discussion.” From letting me “have it” for not being more “prepared” to telling me what I should have done instead, to making me feel guilty and responsible for the whole event – my judge was replaying the whole day and how it could have played out differently if I had just been more “in control.”
In his book and assessment tool, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine tells us that the “Judge is the master Saboteur and the original cause of much of our anxiety, distress, and suffering. It is also the cause of much of our relationship conflicts.”
I’m fortunate to be a coach and to have been coached quite a bit myself, so I know what to expect pop up during a trauma or crisis. In this recent situation, I knew its game, so I only allowed it to impact me for a short time before I refocused and could stop taking what it was saying to heart.
In other traumas, like when my dad passed, I didn’t know about my Saboteurs. I didn’t understand how my brain could fool me into believing I was wrong, guilty, and in more control than I actually ever could be.
So, when my dad’s trauma was over and he was left in a coma, my brain told me it was MY fault. I should have done X, I should have done Y, if I had only done Z…
My mind would play the event over and over and try to figure out how I could have controlled the matter, prevented the outcome, and how I needed to get back at the people who were preventing me from being in control.
Here’s the thing – the Judge will come out full force in the midst of a crisis, but it is judging you all day long about the little things. From what you could have done better at work to what you should have done for your mom at home, your judge is almost always in charge of how you feel about yourself and others – if you aren’t paying attention.
So then, what can you do?
In coaching, we have a number of ways to help you recognize your Saboteurs and to dampen their power. While some of these tools are more powerful in a coach – client relationship, others are available to you immediately. Here is how you can catch onto your Saboteur and not let them hijack you after a trauma occurs.
It’s usually easier to find things when you know what you’re looking for. We all have a Judge, so you can begin looking for that one now. But the Judge has accomplice saboteurs that influence your behavior, and how you approach situations.
One of mine is the “Stickler” – aka the Perfectionist. The Stickler tells me that getting things done perfectly will prevent other people from judging me or making me feel bad. And I’ve been falling for its agenda – and falling short of its expectations – for most of my life.
If you want to learn more about your primary Saboteurs, check out Shirzad’s assessment at www.positiveintelligence.com
Once you know your Saboteurs are in control of your thoughts, you can kindly or assertively ask them to take a vacation to Yellowstone Park while you deal with what’s in front of you. It’s worth a try and sometimes it works!
Notice a time today when you hear those Saboteur voices. Like Liz Gilbert says about fears, they will come along for the ride, but they can’t give directions or play with the radio. Ask them to leave or be quiet – those are their only two options. See what happens. Practice this now so you can be prepared and in command when a trauma occurs.
If you find your Judge beating you up from inside, you can always shift your focus to the things you value and what you are trying to accomplish.
If one of your values is compassion, you will quickly see that you aren’t honoring that value by berating yourself. Or if you value friends and family, you can stop the chatter by reconfirming your love of your friends and family so the judging of their imperfections loses its appeal. If you are trying to accomplish a vision, focusing on it often makes the Judge go away.
Underneath the inner voices telling you what you could have done more, better, or differently in a trauma or crisis situation is the voice of your Wise Self. Your Wise Self knows the real truth about your actions, intentions, and worth, and it isn’t what you are hearing from your Saboteurs.
One way to connect with your Wise Self is to stop for a moment and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and allow your body and mind to relax. When you relax, you dampen the power of the Saboteurs and strengthen the Wise Self. From this place, you can then ask yourself what’s true and what’s important to know now.
By far, the most powerful thing you can do to stop the chatter about a traumatic event is to FORGIVE. While this may not be a standard coaching technique, it is certainly a powerful, proven method for disabling anger, guilt, shame, anxiety, etc.
A basic framework for forgiveness looks like this (and you can read a full description of the practice in this post on forgiveness mindset here).
As I am writing this, I realize that the last real trauma I recall experiencing in my life was just over 20 years ago. On that day in June, my father suffocated in his hospital bed from fluid surrounding his heart and lungs that had developed as a result of lung cancer. I won’t go into details about the event (I’ve already written about it in this post on forgiveness) – but watching someone suffocate is traumatic.
Whether you have had a large trauma in your life or experience microaggressions throughout your day that leads to a collective traumatic feeling and like you’re always operating in fight or flight mode, I hope these techniques will be helpful.
This work can be challenging, and sometimes requires help from others. In most cases, I am qualified to help you. In some cases, I am not, but can refer you to a number of other individuals who can. So, don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions about this topic or coaching in general. I’d love to connect with you!