This article was written by Lynette Danylchuk, PhD. This original article contained diagrams that will be included in my forthcoming book for survivors, caregivers, clinicians and caregivers. It is extremely well written and comes from her own experience working with heavy trauma survivors.
Survivors are quite aware of the intensity of the cycles of flashbacks and numbing characteristic of PTSD. It can be exhausting to fall into flashbacks or to feel like everything, all feelings, are shut down and inaccessible. In working with trauma, it’s critical to develop a healing zone, a space in between flashback and dissociation where memories can be felt and also known to be in the past.
Creating a healing zone takes practice and conscious intention. In the beginning, a person may be in the zone for only a few seconds, but those seconds are a huge step forward. Over time, tolerance for emotion grows and it’s possible to stay with feelings longer and talk about what happened while connected with appropriate affect – anger, grief, or pain.
Over time, the Healing Zone is expanded, allowing more intense processing of trauma. Emotional health is represented by a large tolerance of intense feeling, exceeding the healing zone only temporarily at times of extreme crises, coming back within the zone in balance with the intensity of the crises.
So, how does a person move from out of control flashbacks and dissociation into a workable healing zone?
All of this is best done with another person present. When you are alone, and dealing with intense emotions, you’re likely to replicate how it felt when you were traumatized. There may have been people there with you, but they weren’t there for you, and that’s extremely lonely. Do this with a therapist, if at all possible. That said, it is possible to do this alone, especially the beginning part. Just be extra careful, and go slowly.
First, learn to put on the brakes. When you are not in flashback or completely dissociated, practice tapping into emotions and moving back out. Start small, with an emotion that is tolerable. For instance, replay someone cutting in front of you in traffic. Feel the frustration, let yourself say what you felt like saying. Notice how your body feels the feeling of frustration. Breathe into it and be curious about it. Something that small will probably dissipate on its own. A larger emotion may be in relation to a friend or partner, some irritation or emotional slight. Talk about it while seeing it and feeling it. Take it slow and stay with the emotions. Stop if necessary. There are many ways to shift away from emotion on purpose – grounding techniques of all kinds are useful. Change the subject, take a few deep breaths, talk to your therapist. If you’re trying this at home, talk to a friend, play music, pet the cat, sing, dance, draw, write, take a walk, make a salad, get a drink of water, etc. When you’ve removed yourself from an emotion on purpose, see if you can tap back into it and experience the feelings again. When you feel fairly competent with mild emotions, practice with stronger ones. Stronger emotions are usually connected to more complex experiences, so see if you can take one part of the experience at a time, work it through, and then take another section of it.
Second, take note of any warning signs of an impending flashback or dissociative episode. Some of these occur without warning, but often survivors learn to sense when things are about to go above or below the line. With the first awareness of either flashback or dissociation, hit ‘pause’ – that means, use whatever grounding technique works best for you. If there’s enough time, keep going, practice your list of grounding exercises while making note of the sense you have of the cause of your distress – were you triggered by something or someone? If so, notice it lightly, if possible. If the trigger is too strong, put on the brakes, calm your system, and then reflect on the trigger later.
If you start to go into flashback or dissociation, see if you can stay present for a second or two. If you can pause for that very brief amount of time, then, with practice, you can stretch that out, giving yourself more time to either calm your system or seek a safe place to ride out the episode.
Third, be curious about yourself. Your system makes sense and is the way it is for a good reason. Assume your psyche is trying to protect you and work with the trauma you’ve experienced – both at the same time. Treat yourself with patience and compassion, and be immensely proud of any step you manage to take.