I wrote a post a couple days ago to share suggestions on how to build resilience (“10 things you can do right now to calm yourself and regain clarity in the midst of chaos”) in the tumultuous aftermath of the election, but I now realize what I shared wasn’t substantive enough to help people whose lives have been shaken up by traumatizing events. As someone with firsthand experience healing from PTSD, I want to go deeper in sharing knowledge that might help people heal and move forward.
This past week, as I followed the news and social media feeds, I have been deeply saddened to learn that many people, in particular, young students, are feeling overcome by fear and experiencing panic attacks. Then my heart broke as I read about hate crimes against people of color and the LGBTQ community. Finally, this morning, I saw on the news that a white supremacist used a social media app to target almost every African American freshman student at the University of Pennsylvania with disgusting, terrorizing threats of lynching. I was further saddened to learn that investigators traced the cyber attack to a college student at the University of Oklahoma — it’s very disillusioning that the perpetrator is a young person targeting peers of his own generation.
For anyone who has been impacted by such events, directly or indirectly, I want to share that it is completely normal to have a fight-flight-freeze response when we are under threat of acute danger. Given the havoc that prolonged intense stress wreaks on our body and brain, it’s also very important to come out of that fight-flight-freeze state once the acute danger has passed. However, it’s very challenging to calm down and recover if we fear that our safety is still at risk.
How terrorism works is that it provokes a feeling of long-term fear and paranoia such that it feels like it is impossible to resume our normal lives and feel safe again. The human body was not designed to stay in this heightened state of arousal for long periods of time. Experiencing intense stress for more than short bursts of time (say 10 to 30 minutes) is often accompanied by growing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness associated with feeling trapped and cornered.
When there is no immediate relief or solution, the body may go into shock by turning on the freeze state. This is where the risk increases that the traumatic episode turns into PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as the sensory sensations and feelings of extreme danger and fear get seared together in the areas of the brain that correspond to the unconscious mind and “frozen” into the body.
With PTSD, each time we encounter similar sensory sensations again, it may cause memories of the trauma to surface and trigger feelings of extreme danger and fear, which automatically turns on the fight-flight-freeze response. This then reduces blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, causing many of our key cognitive functions to go offline. When that happens, our minds may become trapped in the past, replaying it like a broken record, because the parts of our brain that enable us to absorb and process new information and self-regulate aren’t getting enough blood flow to carry out these activities. A PTSD episode is like being trapped in a nightmare and forced to go through it on autopilot over and over, reacting to triggers rather than responding with conscious awareness and choice.
For people who have already experienced past traumas involving hatred and violence because of the color of their skin, their gender or sexual orientation, experiencing or witnessing acts of bigotry and discrimination will likely cause these past traumas to resurface. Past feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, regret and anger could re-emerge and distort our ability to perceive the present moment and impair our ability to see how aspects of the current situation are different from what happened to us in the past. Some of these feelings can be overwhelming, exacerbating the fight-flight freeze state and intensifying feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
Once you experience trauma, the most important thing that matters now is whether you see yourself as an agent or as a victim. Seeing oneself as an agent will enable people to activate the inner strength, energy and resources they need to move forward. Seeing oneself as a victim can cause people to collapse into paralyzing fear or become so infected with anger and hatred that they are spurred to retaliate in kind. I have learned the hard way that adding to the fear and hate in the world only prolongs the transmission of trauma and internal turmoil. It does not enable the body, mind or spirit to heal and recover. Nor does it generate safety.
I have also learned from personal adversity that no matter how terrible a situation we find ourselves in, no one can break our spirits or our will without our permission. No external force can disempower us when we have strength that comes from within. As I am about to share, no matter what happens in our external environment, the ability to regulate and stabilize our internal world lies within us.
Being able to move forward and rebuild requires coming out of the fight-flight-freeze state so that our brain can return to optimal functioning. What will be critical during this time is our ability to raise levels of oxytocin, a chemical also known as the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin helps break down cortisol and other stress hormones and activates the body’s mechanisms for healing and recovering physiologically, emotionally, and mentally. This will also help activate the myelinated portion of the vagus nerve, which is also called the smart vagus (this is a key part of the parasympathetic system, which controls our rest-and-digest functions, and connects vital internal organs like the heart, lungs, and gut to the brain). The smart vagus gets “shut down” by the fight-flight-freeze response. Conversely, bringing the smart vagus back “online” will tell the body it’s time to turn off the fight-flight-freeze cascade.
There are several ways to increase oxytocin and turn on the smart vagus. The easiest way is called tending-and-befriending. This involves proactively gathering with friends and people who care and being open to giving and receiving hugs and gestures of kindness and affection. Surrounding ourselves with a social support network, especially after a traumatic event, is one of the most effective ways to reduce levels of stress hormones in our body. If you are concerned about safety, start a buddy system for traveling around so that you always have someone nearby looking out for you and vice versa.
Another way is to proactively direct unconditional compassion towards ourselves. Compassion is important because intense stress activates fear and worry, which fuels the inner critic — the trash-talking voice inside our head that beats up on ourselves and others and likes to point blame and go on the offense rather than open up to being vulnerable. Self-compassion (some people prefer to call it self-love) is the most powerful tool for turning down the volume of the inner critic. Our capacity for compassion is tied to neural circuits in the brain and can therefore be built up through exercise, just like a muscle. I have found that one of the most effective methods for exercising our compassion circuits and raising oxytocin levels is an ancient contemplative practice called metta meditation, often translated as compassion or loving-kindness meditation. You can try a 12-minute version I designed to increase levels of oxytocin and activate the vagus nerve here.
Often after trauma, we may find that we are sometimes so consumed by anger, resentment, and regret that it keeps us fixated on the trauma and unable to think clearly because these emotions impairs the full functioning of the prefrontal cortex. The most powerful way I’ve found to release / transform strong negative emotions is through a clinically tested 5-step forgiveness technique called REACH. You can try a meditation I created based on this technique here.
Another effective way to come out of a fight-flight-freeze state is to do physical exercises that consume the excess adrenaline and cortisol circulating through the body, such as jogging and taking long walks. That said, it’s important to recognize though that when we are emotionally agitated, intense work-outs can further stress the body and increase the risk of cardiac events (like a stroke or heart attack). Therefore, be mindful to moderate the intensity level. Rapid walking or jogging also helps increase production of growth factors in the brain that enable neurons to form new interconnections so our brain can regenerate and learn (these processes get disrupted by high stress levels). Staying active physically also counteracts the freeze response by warding off feelings of helplessness.
Activities that combine mindful movement with deep breathing and compassionate awareness, such as yoga, taichi and qigong, are also very effective because they stimulate the smart vagus and increase oxytocin. They not only restore the body to a state of homeostasis, they also increase our physiological and emotional resilience to stress when practiced on a regular basis.
I also recommend developing a mindfulness practice because it increases our capacity for metacognition, which refers to our awareness of and familiarity with how our mind works and our ability to regulate our mental processes. Furthermore, once we develop the circuits for metacognition in our brain, it enables us to acknowledge and process our feelings and emotions without getting swept away by them. Through mindfulness, we can become aware of our individual patterns for how sensations, memories, and emotions have fired and wired together in our brain. This will enable us to consciously identify and slowly neutralize triggers related to traumatic episodes we have experienced, so we can stop mindlessly re-enacting patterns that don’t serve us. For people with a tendency to eat when stressed (like I do), learning mindful eating can help us build a more healthy relationship with food by tuning into signals from our gut that tell us when we are full or have taken in enough sugar, fat or salt.
It’s very important to practice disciplined self-care during this period of time. That includes giving yourself a full night’s sleep, eating healthy foods, and doing regular exercise. You may also benefit by restricting your exposure to stimuli that throw your body out of balance or increase the amount of adrenaline and cortisol already circulating in your body. This would include caffeine, sugar, alcohol and junk food as well as fast-paced or violent video games, action movies and TV shows.
Finally, the key to shifting from post-traumatic stress disorder to post-traumatic growth is the story we weave about what happened. Being able to see how this event pushes us to become stronger people, deepen relationships, and connect with a greater purpose will allow us to integrate the episode into a larger narrative about life and our continued journey towards self-actualization.
I hope what I shared is helpful to anyone dealing with great adversity.
About the Author:
Due Quach is a social entrepreneur who grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, graduated from Harvard College and the Wharton School of Business, and built an international career in management consulting and private equity investments. Having started life in poverty as a refugee from Vietnam who suffered severe trauma, Due created Calm Clarity to share the powerful neuroscience-based techniques she developed to heal PTSD, master her mind, and become her best self. Her book, Calm Clarity: How to Use Science to Rewire Your Brain for Greater Wisdom, Fulfillment and Joy is one of Fast Company’s 7 Best Business Books of 2018.
Due also founded the Collective Success Network, a nonprofit that collaborates with the wider business community to increase socioeconomic inclusion by mentoring, supporting, and empowering low-income, first-generation college students to successfully navigate college and enter professional careers.
After living and traveling all around the world, Due is once again a proud resident of Philadelphia, her hometown.