Melting the Effects of Trauma through Everyday Self-Assertion

By Tony Madril, LCSW, BCD

Making a conscious choice to assert yourself in a stressful situation may help you to reprocess past psychological trauma and counteract its long-term effects on the body and mind. We know from scientific research that most people automatically respond to traumatic experiences by preparing to fight a potential perpetrator, by fleeing a dangerous situation, or by physically freezing in the moment. If your body reacted to past trauma with some form of freezing, it is possible that you are unusually sensitive to situations that are reminiscent of past traumatic events and that you may respond to minor threats in your daily life by momentarily regressing to a state of immobility, especially if you have not processed your injury with a trauma specialist. For instance, while being confronted by a demanding co-worker, alone, would not qualify as a traumatic event, this minor threat can nevertheless activate the brain’s release of stress hormones in your body if the trauma you experienced involved some sort of intimidation against you. The “post-trauma brain” is wired to notice and quickly respond to situations that appear similar to the traumatic event of the past. This is its primary form of defense, of keeping you safe from further harm.

While it may not have been humanly possible for you to have taken action to escape the traumatic event of your past, it is now possible for you to take action by asserting your needs when faced with situations that threaten your sense of integrity or emotional wellbeing. How? I have written a set of three questions that, in conjunction with therapy, you can ask yourself during moments of distress to help clarify: (1) whether the situation you’re in may be linked to past trauma; (2) how practicing self-assertion may help to counteract the feeling of immobility.

The first question: What am I feeling in my body? By using your concentration to quickly scan the body from head-to-toe like a copy scanner, you can gather important information about how the body is physiologically reacting to your immediate situation. Whereas uncomfortable or unusual body sensations such as a rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, or a sense that you cannot move (or act as you would like) may suggest that something about your situation may be linked to past trauma, neutral or pleasant body sensations may suggest that you are experiencing an ordinary day-to-day stressor with no particular ties to past critical events.

The second question: Does this situation threaten my sense of safety or cause me fear? Defining what makes you feel unsafe or fearful is something only you can determine. Simply put, if you answer “yes” to this question, it would be important for you to determine a clear course of action to take care of yourself in the moment; answering the next question may help you do this.

The third question: Would asserting myself help restore my sense of safety? If you answer yes, you might consider the choices you have to assert yourself in your moment of distress. Returning to the example of the demanding co-worker, asserting yourself may come in the form of taking any of the following actions: making a request, saying no, resisting pressure from the person, or maintaining a particular position or personal point-of-view. On the other hand, if you notice that you are feeling oddly frozen to act, self-assertiveness may be that you walk away from the situation or simply acknowledge that “feeling frozen is happening” and soothe yourself with kind words of self-compassion such as: “I’ve got you sweetheart” “This is temporary” “Don’t worry, you will have more chances to assert yourself in the future.”

Over time, this ongoing practice of asserting yourself in challenging situations may improve the effects of past trauma by helping you develop new core beliefs about your ability to take care of yourself in the world. Gradually, you may begin to think (and believe): “I can do this!” “I can learn to do whatever it is necessary to take care of myself.” Feeling frozen to act may, therefore, become less and less of a problem as your ability to assert yourself and your sense of personal safety increase. When you feel safe, there is little need to fight, to flee, or to freeze.

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