By Rachel Hicks
Have you ever been swimming in the ocean, relaxing and enjoying the gentle push and pull of
the water, when all of the sudden a wave comes up out of nowhere and crashes into you?
Think about how that felt for a moment – your feet get swept right out from underneath you, you
find yourself twisting and turning as the water tosses you around, and you cannot tell where you
need to go to reach the surface again.
This experience of being dumped by a wave (or multiple waves) is very similar to what it feels
like being caught in the waves of spiraling thoughts after trauma. The impact can come suddenly,
you may feel like you can’t breathe during the onslaught, and it can feel impossible to pull
yourself back to the surface.
As humans, our minds and our thoughts have incredible power. They are, at the same time, both
a great ally and intense enemy. Our thoughts are often a byproduct of our experiences, our hopes,
our dreams, etc… But after trauma, our thoughts often can and will turn against us.
It usually starts small, maybe with a single harsh reprimand or self-criticism or a situation where
you wish you had done things differently. The moment it begins may not even be related to the
trauma itself. However, that moment plays in your mind repeatedly for you to dissect, along with
everything you felt at the time, until you are essentially reliving it over and over again. You
begin thinking things like, “What if I had done this differently?”, “Why did this happen to me?”,
“What am I going to do now?”, “What are they going to think of me?”, etc…
If given the chance, this single moment can take the reins of our minds and spiral us further and
further down a dark path, often recruiting more unhelpful thoughts to keep us trapped in the
depths of the waves. And the longer we spend in these places of darkness, the more difficult it
becomes to pull ourselves back to the surface.
FINDING HOPE WITHIN THE STRUGGLE
Despite how frightening those moments can feel, there are a variety of things that you can try to
help interrupt the spiral of negative thoughts, reduce the effects of the spiral, and give yourself
enough reprieve to head toward the surface again. If you feel ready for it, try some of them out
on your own terms and find what works best for you.
1) Do something that you know you will enjoy:
We all have hobbies and other activities that bring a little bit of joy into our lives.
These are the things that make us smile, laugh, and feel free when we do them – they
help us rest and recharge our batteries. The key is choosing an activity that you truly
love to do, and then allowing your mind to wander freely while doing it. Your mind
and body will continue processing what you have been through, whether you are
actively focusing on it or not. This does not mean that you should avoid your pain,
but it can help to balance and counteract the effects of negative thoughts.
2) Focus deeply on your senses:
There are multiple forms of this exercise going around, but here is a good one to start
with: name 5 things you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Be as specific as you
can. Once you have named 5 of each thing, then name 4 things you can see, hear,
touch, taste, and smell. Try to make these different from the ones you named
previously. Once you have named 4 of each thing, name 3 things you can see, hear,
touch, taste, and smell. And so on and so forth. Continue the exercise until you reach
zero. It may seem like a long exercise, but it will serve to refocus your mind onto
something completely different than the moment that began the spiral.
3) Talk or spend time with the people you trust most:
We cannot do this life alone. We need the help of God and the community that
surrounds us to be a support system until we are able to stand on our own again. This
support system is likely made up of the people that you have chosen to keep in your
life. They are the ones that have repeatedly been there for you and the ones that
would never intentionally hurt you. Try reaching out to them in a moment of need,
whether it’s to talk about what you’re going through or just to go do something you
enjoy together. Doing this will allow your mind and body to continue processing your
experiences, while serving to ground you back to the present moment.
4) Validate what you have been through:
What you’ve been through happened… Your personal experiences are very real, and
they are likely causing you increased pain and hurt. Trauma comes with a wide
variety of symptoms and reactions, which can change from person to person. No
matter what it is you are feeling or experiencing as a result of your trauma, remind
yourself that it is not your fault. There is nothing wrong with you or the way you now
experience the world. Everything you are dealing with is a perfectly natural response
to what you have been through. Each symptom, emotion, thought, etc… is your body
and mind attempting to process what happened. You are not wrong or bad for what
you are experiencing – it just means you are human.
5) Become your own best friend:
We very rarely take care of ourselves as we should, even when we have not been
through a traumatic experience. We talk harshly to ourselves, we put ourselves down
and criticize every move we make, and we don’t give our bodies the essential things
they need. None of these will help when you feel yourself beginning down a negative
spiral – in fact, they will likely drag you further into the depths instead of helping
propel you to the surface. Learn to become your own best friend – move away from
self-criticism, avoid repeatedly tearing yourself down, and talk to yourself the same
as you would if it were one of your friends in the situation. You have to live inside
your head 24/7 – put in the work to make sure that it’s a place you don’t mind
spending time in.
6) Test out a weighted blanket:
The use of weighted blankets has been highly researched and validated throughout
the years. The weight of the blanket provides a certain type of input through your nerves and muscles that trigger the mind to relax and realize that it is safe, which in
turn, calms and relaxes the body. In this way, weighted blankets can often be used to
reduce anxiety and other bodily disturbances in the moment. Many people use them
to help improve sleep at night, as well. I recommend that you do some further
research into weighted blankets if you find that you are interested in trying one. The
ideal weight of the blanket should be proportional to your body weight, and the
quality of the material does matter to its overall effectiveness.
7) Think about something positive for at least 12 seconds:
You can think about nearly anything – someone you love smiling at you, that
butterfly you just saw traveling through your backyard, giving your child a hug,
laughing with your friends, etc… Take that and focus on it for at least 12 seconds –
this short amount of time is just enough to move your focus away from the negative
spiral. The positivity coming from what you were thinking about then helps to
replace the fear and stress that you were feeling moments ago. If it helps, keep a list
of some positive things in your life on your phone or somewhere it will be readily
accessible when you need it.
These are just a few of the many tools available to help fight against spiraling thoughts. Focusing
on these and putting in the work to get there can help prevent you from being dragged out to sea.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The road to healing is long, and there will be challenges along the way. Changing your thoughts
is not simple, and there will be days that you will still struggle. Through it all, remember these
● Be gentle with yourself – you’ve been through a lot
● You are worth so much more than you believe, to your support system and to God
● Investing time and effort into your healing now will save you much heartache and pain
down the road
● You are doing the best that you can – nothing about this journey will ever come easy, but it
will surely be worth it in the end
You can do this. Look up and see the light of the surface coming closer. Keep moving
upwards… When you break the surface again, take a deep breath of fresh air. Just keep
swimming through those waves, and know that you are capable of dealing with anything that
Rachel Hicks is a capstone student working with REBOOT Recovery. She is earning her
doctorate in occupational therapy and is a Trauma Reboot graduate.