Staying Present

Exposure to repeated stress and traumatic life experiences poses a challenge in staying present. Have a look at the questions below and see how often do you have these experiences? 

  1. Periods when you ‘zone out’ during the day 
  2. Experiencing intense emotions that often then is numbed out.
  3. Feeling like parts of your body don't carry any sensations or feelings
  4. Experiencing your body as a empty as if it belongs to someone else, looking at yourself from another physical location (out of body experiences) under stress. 
  5. Experiencing extreme emotions like rage and panic with a sense of losing control. 

Traumatic life experiences can compromise a person's ability to stay present in the moment. For some, these symptoms are mild but for others it may be severe. 

In most stressful circumstances, emotions are heightened but these are experienced within a persons 'window of tolerance'. If one has experienced, traumatic life events especially in childhood and these experiences were repeatededly negative, perceived as inescapable, subsequently as an adult, one may find it difficult to stay within their 'window of tolerance'.  Emotions are either intolerably heightened or numbed. These polarised emotional states are know as ‘hyperarousal’ and ‘hypoarousal’.

Hyperarousal is experienced as uncontrollable rage, severe anxiety, panic attack with a urge to running away, escape or attack. Hyperarousal state is a preparation phase for body to start preparing for a fight or to flee when there is a real or perceived threat. Muscles go tensed, body warms up, skin is flushed and heart rate goes up. In animals, this fight/flight is in response to real threat but in humans, this can be activated just with imagining threat even when there is no real threat. Triggers or reminders of old traumatic memories can activate this. 

On the other hand, hypoarousal is a state that follows hyperarousal if the threat continues and is seen as inescapable. When no flee or fight is possible, survival strategy is to shut down all types of pain (physical and emotional), disconnect from inner experiences in order to cope with the ongoing stress. By fighting back or fleeing, there is an added advantage that it prevents more severe harm from the predator. Muscles go lax, heart rate slows down and breathing becomes shallow. Feeling dizzy, foggy, collapse may be a part of this. 

Despite the experiences being in the past, the person continues to respond as if the threat is still active and ongoing. The past traumatic memories are unresolved so the threat is perceived as real. Mental images of these past memories or perhaps just a similar feeling can trigger the whole survival responses that was originally felt.

Firstly, learning about the link between these and past traumatic experiences are useful. Becoming aware of we are operating within our window of tolerance helps. There are many ways to track this processs. Once tracked, techniques like practising breathing (triangular, box, ocean) may help. Many types of grounding techniques and some others like light stream exercise can help. However, working through the original unresolved traumatic experiences helps naturally calm these emotions down for more satisfactory long term result. 

I am thankful to Dr Ruth Lanius for teaching me a lot on this subject matter.