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Self-care after trauma

Are there holistic things we can do to support self-care after trauma, and if so, what are they?

Trauma comes in all sorts of forms. Psychology Today describes it as 'a person's emotional response to a distressing experience'. Something that's traumatic for one person isn't necessarily so traumatic for another. Ultimately, this is a survival instinct in the mind and body, so are there holistic things we can do to support self-care after trauma, and if so, what are they? We did some digging.

Trauma and its effects

Almost no one goes through life without experiencing some form of trauma - some more obviously dramatic than others. However, one of the hallmarks of trauma is that 'events are traumatic to the degree that they undermine a person's sense of safety in the world and create a sense that catastrophe could strike at any time'.

This particular impact creates a bodily response where the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and other stress hormones. In the short term, responses are typically:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Shock
  • Anger/aggression

However, sometimes negative feelings linger, particularly with long-term trauma, which can result in feelings such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Survivor’s guilt
  • Disassociation
  • The inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia)
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)

This is because the amygdala becomes hyperactive and can over react to smaller situations with an overflow of stress hormones, meaning we're constantly living in defence mode.

Self-care after trauma

For some of the short- and long-term consequences of trauma it's best to seek out professional, medical advice. Even if you're unsure, it's always best to speak to a doctor so you know your options and can better understand what's happening and why (knowledge, after all, is power). Here are some of the top suggestions for nurturing your wellbeing and supporting self-care holistically after a traumatic situation.

Self-care starts with the basics

We all know that eating right, getting enough sleep, limiting our intake of stimulants like caffeine and alcohol and getting enough exercise are the foundations on which wellbeing is built. It's not that we have to be saintly about it - it's about minimising the things that put us off balance and maximising the things that help to keep us on an even keel.

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Nutrition after trauma

The gut has often been described as the 'second brain', such is its influence on our neurological wellbeing. More and more we are collectively realising the power of nutrition in supporting mental wellbeing and recovery, including after trauma.

Psychology Today wrote:

"Nutrition may be particularly important after a traumatic experience because our bodies have greater nutritional needs as we heal."

This is in part because while the git affects the brain, the brain also is thought to affect the gut - resulting in gastrointestinal effects, particularly causing damage to the cells that line the small intestine and absorb nutrients. That can lead to the condition “leaky gut”. It also disrupts the microbiome - the trillions of (good) bacteria in the intestines.

While we typically reach for so-called comfort foods that are high in fats, sugars and salts after a traumatic experience, or we tend not to eat at all. However, while they might help in the short-term they only compound negative effects.

Recommendations for nutrition after trauma include:

  • Limit inflammatory foods for a while (such as refined carbohydrates like white bread, pastries and sugar).
  • Boost gut bacteria with probiotics and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kombucha.
  • Take actions to limit stress, such as deep breathing and meditation.
  • Generally opt for a healthy diet - plenty of fruit and veg, and fish for example.
  • Speak to a professional about adding vitamins and supplements to your diet that could be impeded by trauma.
  • Remember, comfort food doesn’t have to be unhealthy - warm, nourishing soups, roasted vegetables and restorative stews are all warming and nourishing.
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Sleep after trauma

It won't come as a surprise to anyone that sleep can often become disrupted after a traumatic event, but we also know that sleep is essential for recovery - both physical and mental. In fact while some do struggle with sleep after trauma, others find that they sleep a lot afterwards, due to the draining impact of such an event. Because of the actions of the amygdala "memories of emotional significance become easier to retrieve in the future", says an article on the BBC.

It went on to quote Elaina Bolinger, who specialises in emotion and sleep at the University of Tuebingen, saying: “Sleep is particularly good at transforming emotional memory.” So in short, while sleep helps us to process emotion, it also helps us to control how it makes us feel. Importantly, it's not just sleep at night that can make a difference. The research reported by the BBC showed that naps can also help with emotional memory processing.

Our suggestions include:

  • Encourage sleep with a bedtime ritual.
  • If you need to have a nap in the day while you're recovering - that's ok.
  • Support sleep by limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
  • Incorporate aromatherapy into your daily routines to encourage calm - that might be an aromatherapy roller on your wrist, a few drops of essential oil on a tissue kept close by, or a diffuser in your home or workspace.
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Exercise after trauma

Through movement, burning adrenaline and releasing endorphins, exercise can help your nervous system restore balance after a traumatic event, helping to combat negative feelings and depression. A study into Exercise Intervention in PTSD from the National Library of Medicine concluded:

"There is growing evidence of the beneficial effects of exercise on mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. Our review of the literature suggests aerobic exercise may also reduce PTSD symptomatology across a variety of populations providing evidence for the clinical utility of exercise as a form of treatment."

We also know that, unless it's taken to unhealthy extremes, exercise - whether it's a morning run, a walk in the park or an hour of yoga, tends to make us feel good in mind and body, the two have a compounding effect on one another.

Our suggestions include:

  • Try to get outside in the fresh air each day, even if it's just for a 15-minute walk.
  • Don't time yourself or measure progress - just go outside and enjoy the movement.
  • Never underestimate the power of a simple walk.
  • Try to create a routine around exercise - routine can be extremely calming.

Holistic wellbeing for self-care

Holistic therapies, ranging from aromatherapy to massage can be a really gentle and restorative way to support the mind and body after trauma. Massage and the manipulation of soft body tissue can help you get back into your body and out of your head, helping to relieve physical tension, which has a profound impact on mental wellbeing as well. Even something as simple as aromatherapy - which you can enjoy in a spa environment, alongside a massage or at home, can help calm emotions by stimulating the brain via the olfactory system.

The following holistic therapies are amongst those recommended post trauma (supported by the National Institutes of Health:

  • Massage
  • Reiki
  • Reflexology
  • Meditation
  • Acupressure or acupuncture
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
  • Using natural products

Overall, the recommendation after trauma is - do things that make you feel safe, good and calm. An article from the University of Notre Dame wrote:

"Do things that feel good to you — take baths, read, exercise, watch television, spend time with friends and family, fix yourself a special treat, or whatever else feels nurturing and self-caring. Allow yourself to cry, rage, and express your feelings when you need to. Try not to numb your feelings with alcohol or drugs. This will only complicate your situation."

While none of this is a ‘cure’ for trauma, and we are certainly not experts in trauma, they are all things that can help support you and your wellbeing during difficult times, and hopefully give you some peace and control through self-care.

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