Processing Trauma So You Can Heal
Living with trauma is kind of like trying to play soccer on a field that was built on a landfill.
No one cleared out the discarded bags, recycled the plastic bottles, or installed pipes to release the methane gas festering up. Instead, they just flattened out the debris and piled dirt on top. They planted grass seed, expecting it to grow full and bright green, and started building bleachers.
Maybe the first few seasons went well, but after a while, the ground becomes bumpy, and players started to trip and hurt themselves. If you take a closer look, you’ll see the signs of debris popping up through the browning grass.
That’s trauma. Right when you’re in the middle of living the best life you can, it pops up completely unresolved, tripping you on your run. It scares you with flashbacks whenever you pass a dumpster.
Believe me when I say that you deserve happiness. You deserve to live your life undisturbed by decades-old feelings of fear. It all starts with processing trauma so that you can eventually heal from it.
Processing Trauma from The Top-Down
Trauma work is different for everyone, and it usually depends on the kind of therapist you work with. Traditional talk-based therapies are considered more of a top-down approach to processing trauma. It emphasizes using logic and reason to process emotionally disturbing memories.
In the brain, this looks like developing a stronger relationship between the prefrontal cortex (decision-making part of the brain) and the limbic system (emotional house of the brain).
The Limbic System
The amygdala and the hippocampus exist here, and are two parts of the brain mainly affected by trauma. They control our emotional responses, basic human desires, survival responses, and memories.
The Prefrontal Cortex
This part of the brain manages our ability to think things through, execute decisions, and control impulses. The stronger connection you have between your prefrontal cortex and your limbic system, the more emotional control you have over breaking down your trauma.
Strengthening this bond can help you perceive less relevance to emotional triggers in your environment. It can help you keep a steady head during conflict and stress, as well as help you identify which threats are real versus ones that feel real.
Acute stress, however, tends to compromise this relationship. Once the fight-or-flight response takes over, the executive functions in your prefrontal cortex go offline. Therefore, top-down processing should not be the only method you use to process your trauma.
Processing Trauma from The Bottom-Up
Bottom-up processing focuses on physical techniques you can use to regulate the limbic system directly. When emotional triggers enter the brain, the body responds. Our breathing quickens in case we need to run, our digestive system stalls, our heart rate spikes, and our muscles tense.
Somatic (body-related) techniques you can try to relieve these symptoms include…
- Deep belly-breathing. Hold one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Breathe slowly until the belly hand rises each time and the chest hand stays mostly still.
- Exercise and rhythmic movement. Artistic endeavors like dancing, playing an instrument, and painting can help here as well.
- Stimulating the vagus nerve. Pressing ice to your collarbone or neck is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve, telling your brain it’s time to calm down. Sleeping with a purring cat on your chest also achieves this!
Bottom-up processing can be powerful, especially in curated circumstances, like through trauma-sensitive yoga and neurofeedback.
Working with a therapist, trying medication, and building a life around healing is your best bet at processing trauma in a safe, healthy way. Interested in getting started? Schedule your first appointment today.