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CW: Brief descriptions of childhood trauma.
I sat in my therapist’s office at 16, soft spa music lilting in the background.
Breathe in, 2…3…4…, Breathe out, 2…3…4…
I followed her directions, but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I had been assaulted a year prior, my parents were in the process of a messy divorce, and I had lost almost all of my friends in a short period.
And this woman wanted to solve that with breathing?
I hated going to therapy. It was a waste of time. I was tired of BS tactics to try to “regulate” or whatever.
Another therapist had erroneously suggested I had BPD. Queue the big book of worksheets and attempt to “fix” me instead of the traumatic environment I was in.
I saw another therapist that told me I was too dysregulated to do EMDR. She presented the “window of tolerance,” this imaginary window of emotions that you can realistically regulate, and extremes on either end of extreme dysregulation. The next 6 months of therapy with her consisted of chastising me for not being in my “window of tolerance” and any progress squashed by her enormous case-load resulting in her not remembering what we had done session to session.
And that’s not even getting into my traumatic inpatient experience.
I began to think I was the problem. Therapist after therapist failed to help me. I was an “extreme case.” A case no one wanted to take because I had a severe mental illness, something many therapists are not truly equipped to handle.
With an industry that was supposed to help me, why was I struggling so hard to find a therapist? I was told that was the solution. But none of their “tricks” worked on me.
Eventually, I met my current therapist. I had never understood people telling me I just had to “find the right therapist” before I had met her.
I saw progress in a short period that exceeded all of my therapy combined. She used many of the same techniques as the other therapists (breathing exercises, trauma-focused CBT, etc.), but suddenly they were successful.
How can the same technique that didn’t work be successful? I didn’t understand until I got further in my psychology courses.
Therapeutic Rapport > Therapy Technique
One of the most significant concepts I learned in my Bachelor’s program was The Three C’s of Resilience presented in Change 101 by Bill O’ Hanlon.
Resilience to psychologically damaging events requires connection, contribution, and compassion.
In short, you have to feel connected to your community, feel like you can contribute to the world, and be in relationships that allow you to fully express yourself and be met with compassion for your experiences.
This rang true for my own journey to resilience, and I quickly saw how my therapist played a crucial role in that.
Therapeutic rapport, building a relationship with a client through unconditional positive regard, is key to success in therapy. And it’s one of the biggest reasons (in my humble opinion) to do the work to find a therapist if you have the means.
The techniques themselves (the grounding exercises, cognitive techniques, or other mindfulness practices) can be helpful, but don’t do much when your problems extend beyond “cognitive distortions.” Unlike Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) would lead you to believe, your problems aren’t all in your head. There’re real problems in the world you’re dealing with.
My favorite philosophy book by Susan Brison discusses how the violent sexual assault she went through left her with a broken sense of self. She discusses how having a narrative of trauma and telling it allows for a re-integration of that fractured self. A supportive therapist that you connect with can be the audience to that challenging event, mitigating any risk and helping you heal yourself.
It’s also why a bad relationship with a therapist can be so damaging. If your self-narrative is met with judgment, coldness, or indifference, you internalize that. It makes it difficult to heal. You lose connection and compassion.
In a perfect world, all therapists would be helpful, open-minded, and compassionate. Unfortunately, we don’t live in one.
Doing the Work on My Own (and you can too!)
Luckily, most techniques therapists use can be found on Google or in a library. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to apply them with the same skill as a therapist, but ultimately therapy is only successful if you can find a way to make the techniques work for you.
Since everyone is different and many therapies take a one-size-fits-all approach, my experience hating all mentions of “mindfulness” is not unique.
For a while, I was without insurance and couldn’t afford housing, much less a therapist. It was a luxury, something only people who already have their life together could do. Mental illness makes it hard to work, not working makes it hard to afford basic life necessities, and not having basic life necessities aggravates mental illness. And so, the vicious cycle continues.
During this time, I made progress without a therapist. I figured that I had all the tools at my disposal, why not therapize myself?
(Note: I am not saying do this INSTEAD of therapy. This is meant to be a guide only if a therapist is unavailable to you or as supplemental to therapy. There are some risks of doing therapy homework by yourself, like no barriers stopping you from pushing yourself too far or not having someone present if you’re at risk of harming yourself. Exercise extreme caution and keep someone close to you in the loop with what you’re doing.)
I delved into self-help books and autobiographies, examining how someone with extreme trauma went from completely falling apart to a functional human being.
List of Coping Skills and Why They Work
Mindfulness is beaten like a drum for coping skills. It’s often accompanied by images of uncomfortable chairs, gurus, and boredom. Mindfulness is often a rigid process, and it seems like there’s a “right” way to do it.
The truth is, mindfulness can be many things you wouldn’t even think of. We naturally turn towards mindfulness in our lives to help us calm down.
Mindfulness works by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxes the body and helps essential processes. It doesn’t matter how you’re mindful, just as long as you are fully aware in the moment. It also works well for dissociation.
Mindfulness techniques you might not think of:
- Eating a fine meal and really savoring the flavor
- Sucking on sour candy (my favorite are jolly ranchers for this) – can also be done with spicy or minty foods
- Riding a roller coaster and being aware of how you feel
- Writing in a journal or typing in a notes app
- Creating a piece of art
- Listening intently to a new (or favorite) song
- Holding your breath
- Ecstatic dance or dance that makes you aware of your body
- Metacognition (e.g., I am on the couch, reading an article, I feel thirsty)
- Self-hypnosis (youtube videos)
- Driving in silence
- Stimming breaks
- Stepping outside
- Blowing bubbles
- Small amounts of pain – pinch your forearm and observe the sensation (don’t do this if you think it will be a self-harm trigger)
- Pet an animal
- Walk barefoot
- Holding instant hot or cold packs
- Scream in your car or isolated place
- Build a lego set
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
This is one of my new hyperfixations because it is SO COOL. The vagus nerve is a nerve that runs through your body that controls your heartbeat and has a part in the autonomic nervous system.
You stimulate this nerve subconsciously every day by completing different activities. It can also be a handy trick for reducing anxiety because it reduces your heart rate and can help kick the parasympathetic nervous system in gear.
It is important to note that if you’re prone to heart attacks, manual stimulation (particularly the modified Valsalva) of the vagus nerve can be risky without a doctor present.
Things that stimulate the vagus nerve:
- Modified Valsalva Maneuver – a maneuver used in medicine to slow down the heart
- Cold showers, putting your face or hands in ice water
- Pooping (no, really)
- Meditation or prayer
- Singing or chanting (this is part of why “om” is chanted during meditation)
- Massage (here’s how to give yourself a massage)
- Hugging (yourself, a stuffed animal, or a loved one)
If you’re in an unsafe environment, it can feel like life is hopeless. While completely changing your life situation takes a long effort, small things can help you feel safer.
One of the protective factors for people in difficult situations is a sense of control and a sense of purpose. You can control the smallest things and see positive psychological benefits.
- Create a YOU space. Wherever you can go to make a safe space, create it. It may be your room, your closet, the local coffee shop, Mcdonalds, a friend’s house, a park, a classroom, a car, or anything else where you can get away. Having a safe destination can make a big difference in maintaining some level of stability.
- Purchase a non-lethal weapon
- Get a pet, even something as small as an ant farm
- Get a plant
- Volunteer for a cause you care about (think mutual aid, what would you want help with?)
- Create a portable coping kit
- Set a goal and create a to-do list to accomplish it (can be silly like learning to do the splits)
- Create a safety plan (who you would call, what you need to grab, and things that help you calm down)
- Dye your hair (even one strand or the bottom with help from a friend)
- Donate something
- Make an eco-system
Sometimes nothing works. You’ve tried all the coping mechanisms you can think of and you’re still overwhelmed. It’s okay to distract yourself in a healthy way before you can get to a place to confront the experience or emotion.
Distraction is good when you’ve tried other things and they haven’t worked or your experience is so distressing you need to buy yourself time to calm down.
- Video games
- TV or a movie
- Watching cartoons (be aware this can trigger littles if you’re a system)
- Talking with a friend
- Going for a walk
- Making art
- Watching comedy
- Baking or cooking
- Go to the library
- Do something outside the house
- Wreck this journal
- The Neurodivergent Friendly DBT workbook
- The Diagnostic Criteria for Complex PTSD (C-PTSD): A Beginner’s Guide
- A list of a bunch more ideas for “nontraditional mindfulness”: 101 grounding techniques
- A free Acceptance and Commitment therapy resource: ACT lessons
- A book you can buy: Art therapy workbook
- A free list: 100 Art Therapy Exercises
- The complex PTSD workbook
- Autobiographies of people who have been through similar circumstances (I personally like A Teenager’s Journey, Scared Selfless, and The Glass Castle)
Let me know in the comments if there are any resources I missed!