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Fight, Flight, Freeze or Appease

By Christina Gerdes

MON JUN 21, 2021

My Relationship with Trauma

*Note to Reader: This Blog Post is about Trauma and may Trigger a Trauma Memory or Trauma Response.

Recently, three seemingly unrelated incidents happened and each time I had a physical and emotional reaction that I now recognize as my Trauma Memory Response. Before I get too deep into this Blog, I feel I should let you know, I have NO FORMAL TRAUMA TRAINING and I am not a psychiatrist or Psychologist. This is just my life with Trauma and how I have learned how to manage it through Yoga, Mental Health Therapy, other Tools and even unhealthy habit patterns. So, I apologize if I do not use the correct words to talk about trauma.

According to Matthew Tull, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder, in What is Trauma? “Trauma is any type of distressing event or experience that can have an impact on a person's ability to cope and function. Trauma can result in emotional, physical, and psychological harm. Many people will experience some kind of traumatic event—from the unexpected death of a loved one to a motor vehicle accident—at some point in their lifetime.”

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. And Psychguides.com, an American Addiction Centers Resource site states, “Trauma can be caused by an overwhelmingly negative event that causes a lasting impact on the victim's mental and emotional stability.” According to Medicine Net, there are 3 Types of trauma: Acute, Chronic and Complex. Acute trauma: mainly results from a single distressing event. Chronic trauma happens when a person is exposed to multiple, long-term, and/or prolonged distressing, traumatic events over an extended period. And Complex trauma is the result of exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events or experiences. The events are generally within the context of an interpersonal (between people) relationship.

I feel like societies thoughts and feelings about trauma has changed over the years and I feel like the slightly varying degrees of defining it above show that change. When I was growing up in the 80’s, I thought of trauma more like the APA’s definition. Something Terrible and Big that there is no way I could forget it or overlook it as anything but trauma. But 30 years later, I now believe it is more like Matthew Tull’s definition potentially falling under the 3 Types of trauma within an individual spectrum based on the individual’s life experiences, learned and taught coping methods and support systems. With my current belief, I understand that many, if not most of us, will have some kind of trauma and how we manage, cope or ignore it can affect us in varying ways. Not one Right or Wrong way, but an Individual Way.

Of the three traumatic events that recently occurred to me, two of them I was directly involved in because I was witnessing or directly experiencing it and the third was a close friend’s experience that brought back a past personal trauma of my own. The commonalities were that all three were, to me, traumas and all three had actually happened in my past and what I was currently experiencing was not the initial trauma, but more like the memory of the original trauma. Yet my body and feelings felt them in present time as if they were the original trauma. The difference was, now I had tools to recognize what was happening as it was happening, and I felt like I had tools to process the emotional aftereffects. The trauma that happened isn’t important to this Blog because it is something personal and though you may have experienced the same or similar trauma, everyone doesn’t experience everything the same. But here is what I noticed and am still noticing. None of these traumas are “cured” or out of my system and I may, for the rest of my life, re-experience these traumas, but I can tell you, they feel different and affect me differently than the original. They affect me less and feel less intense.

The moment each one happened I felt something physical in my body. Internal and even external shaking was one feeling. Often, I felt the internal shaking or vibration first. Like an increase in adrenaline, fight or flight. Then it seeped out to actual physical shaking. The inability to hold my hands still, unconscious flicking of my feet and the strong desire to keep moving. I also felt a physical reaction to my emotions. I felt a tightening sensation in my stomach and then a closing of my throat that felt a bit like pain or the inability to swallow. I also noticed my breath quickening and moving up into my chest mostly. And I was having flashes of the past trauma pop up in my mind like slides being projected in my brain.

In these three moments, I knew what was happening only because of having been taught from Mental Health Therapists and other healers what to look for during a trauma response. But also, because practicing yoga has given me the ability to get still, when there is no trauma, and to process and wade through the multiple layers of each experience when I was ready. As a Real Life Yoga Practice, the more you put in to your personal practice, the more you get out of it and there starts to be a cumulative effect. For example, I can practice once a month, once a week, once a day or try once a minute. If I can practice once a day, through the ups and downs of life, I can start to witness patterns in myself of how I act and react. I can decide, during life’s calmer moments, if I want to tackle some past traumas or work on creating new habits of reacting. Then when life is heavy or I am feeling down, I can use what I learned during the calm to potentially change how the trauma affects me in that moment and after.

Simone Biles by Jamie Squire Getty Images
Simone Biles by Jamie Squire Getty Images

In my mind I have imagined all this yoga pre-practice like practicing a sport for the Big Game of Life. With the summer Olympics coming, I would never assume I could just sub in for Simone Biles during the Gymnastics competitions and actually believe I had a chance in Hell of knowing what to do, let alone qualify or earn some medal. I would know, in order to get to where she is, I would have had to practice everyday and everything I did was to steer myself toward that end goal of being on the Gymnastics Olympic Team. With that analogy in mind, I also wouldn’t expect myself to know how to handle a traumatic event without having been taught or having taken the time to understand my traumas, trauma responses and even coping methods for trauma. This has been part of my Real Life Yoga Practice.

So, how did I move through those three most recent trauma moments?

After I noticed the physical response and had those flashes of memory, I stopped moving and felt my feet flat on the ground and focused my awareness on my breath. I felt three slow, full inhales and exhales and let my self still. In one instance, which was my friend’s story, I said out loud, “give me a moment, I am having a memory of a similar trauma and it is coming up right now.” In one, I had to physically extract myself from the room to be alone and I started to journal, with no judgment words, all the shit coming up. In the third instance, well, it just happened yesterday, and I don’t believe I have fully waded through it. So I had anxiety and nightmares most of the night and I still feel adrenaline in my body, as if I have had too much caffeine. And for me, this adrenaline seems to hold up around the front of my hips and pelvis and feels like buzzing, vibration, internal shaking. With the third, most recent event, I did happen to notice potentially unhealthy coping habits and I remembered older coping habits that I no longer use.

I was a cigarette smoker for almost 15 years, and this was one of those past coping habits that popped up. I remembered how I used to light up as soon as I felt something uncomfortable in my body, mind, or feelings. I remembered the feeling of the first smoky inhale and smoke going down my throat into my lungs and how when I exhaled it felt like a nicotine induced sigh of relief. ”Help is here. You are ok, Christina!” Ironically, I also realized how just inhaling and exhaling now brings me the same sensation as that first drag. I watched myself take that adrenaline and try to dissipate it through physically cleaning the kitchen, straightening up the house and just staying busy. I felt the fear come up like nausea and I pushed it down by mentally thinking through how to fix what was happening. What is happening and what do I know about what could be happening? Who do I need to call for help? What is the next step to take in order to help make things feel better? Once things felt “settled” inside of me and with the experience, I immediately poured a beer and sat down still thinking of how to keep this trauma in it’s “comfortable” place.

Unfortunately, this particular trauma is about the process of aging, caring for a parent with patience and grace and the inevitable reality of death. I have already lost one parent and so this trauma just feels like holding back a starving tiger with tiny scraps of meat. Eventually, this trauma is going to overtake me if I don’t take more time to sit with it when I am not in a heightened adrenaline-driven fear state.

I don’t know if outside of my "Yoga Life" bubble there is a stigma around trauma, but I have noticed all the awareness of trauma in health and wellness circles and trauma sensitive yoga teacher trainings available to register for in my Inbox. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s even talks about trauma, in “his” own words relative to that time and place. So I know it is on people's minds. I believe 2020 and COVID created a collective trauma in the world as well as bringing to the surface our own individual pre-COVID traumas. And I believe, wholeheartedly, that learning tools or seeking help to recognize, possibly identify and process past traumas as well as, potential future traumas could ease much of our own personal suffering and possibly prevent the creation of more suffering.

Beyond sharing my own, most recent, personal experiences with trauma and how I navigated, and am navigating, through it, there isn’t much more to share. The tools I use with trauma are quite personal because I know what works for me and I understand that they may not work for everyone. During private yoga sessions student’s have brought up their own traumas and together we create ways for them to work through it. This might be through guided meditation, journal prompts, self-inquiry or developing ways to self-regulate with breath. This might also mean seeking a mental health specialist or talking to their doctor about medication as part of their personal yoga practice.

What I would like to end with is, I don’t necessarily believe trauma has to be something big and terrible, though it definitely can be. Trauma might be a small moment in time when you experienced a heightened emotional state that internally set off chemical changes that affected your autonomic nervous system. You may not have even recognized the moment as a trauma at the time, but your body's sympathetic nervous system was still activated by the sudden release of hormones and later a seemingly innocuous event can recreate a trauma memory, or you may just slide right through none the wiser. What I hope to convey is, trauma can be experienced and show up for you in different ways than those around you. But it is still real and you can learn tools to help navigate it, get help from a therapist or medication or integrate it all with Your Real Life Yoga Practice.

I would love to share with you the tools I have learned to relate to my Traumas and discover new tools that work for you, to Embody Yoga Everyday, Throughout Your Whole Life. 💜

If you know someone who might be interested in what this Blog Post says or what I have to offer, Please Feel Free to Share it.