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Why Relaxation Techniques Don’t Work for Trauma & What to Do Instead

There it is again. That familiar feeling.

Maybe it was triggered by a smell, a look, a sound, a certain phrase, a tone of voice, or the way someone treated you. It rushes through your body. Catching you off gaurd. Immediately putting you on high alert. The words you’ve been told so many times by well-meaning people may come to mind:

“Relax. Just breathe.”

“It’s just your mind playing tricks on you. Remember it’s not real.”

You may know that, but it feels real!

You can’t just turn off the way your body’s reacting as if flipping a switch on a light. No matter how many deep breaths you take or how many times you meditated on the fact that “it’s not real.” Trying to relax simply doesn’t work!

Actually… that’s not at all surprising.

The Reason Why Relaxation Techniques Don’t Work

Many therapists have the tendency to introduce relaxation techniques as if they work for everyone. But deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, guided visualization, or body scanning techniques don’t work for everyone.

In particular, they don’t always work well for trauma survivors.

Why is that?

It’s because relaxation techniques are meant to calm us down, and for many trauma survivors that state of being calm can be triggering in and of itself. In fact, it’s often in that very condition of relaxation that they’ll most likely experience a flashback.

Take, for example, if you’ve always experienced your trauma when they you were relaxed and about to fall asleep. Trying to bring yourself into a state of relaxation might have the exact opposite effect intended. The memory of the trauma will be triggered even more, and you may find yourself anything but calm.

So, if you’re a trauma survivor and have tried meditation and breathing techniques to relax you, but it just didn’t work, take heart. It’s not you—it’s the method.

What, then, does work?

Techniques That Work for Trauma Survivors

Lemons - not a relaxation technique but it is grounding

It’s grounding techniques that work, not relaxation techniques. Although we may think they’re the same—and some techniques do overlap—grounding has a distinctly different goal than relaxation.

How so?

As mentioned, relaxation techniques are meant to calm us down. Grounding techniques, on the other hand, help us to be more present and feel safe, not necessarily more relaxed. In fact, some grounding techniques may have the complete opposite effect.

For instance, squeezing an ice cube, splashing cold water on your face, holding a cold pack in your hands, or biting into a lemon are things that are definitely not relaxing. What they do, though, is bring us to the present when we’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed or disconnected—in effect, snapping us out of our flashback.

Of course, not every grounding technique works for all trauma survivors. Facets of trauma vary according to the individual and, therefore, a set of techniques that fits everybody does not exist.

Grounding Techniques – An Individualized Approach

Alternative to Relaxation Techniques

There are a variety of different grounding techniques—physical, mental, and emotional—that can help a trauma survivor to become aware of some aspect of themselves or their surroundings. However, what may ground one person and make them feel safe, may trigger another.

For example, some may not feel safe with any of the physical grounding techniques but are more secure with mental ones. While yet another person does not find safety with mental techniques but responds much better to emotional ones.

That is why the goal is not to make them all work. The goal is to identify those that make you—individually—feel safe.

It will take some time, but it’s well worth the time and effort.

Even if other techniques haven’t helped you before, once you discover and assemble your personalized set of grounding techniques, you’ve acquired a set of tools that are invaluable. One that helps you feel confident that you can counteract the triggers that can show up at any moment.

What are some of these grounding techniques? – I will discuss that in the article “Grounding Techniques: Individualized Coping Skills That Really Work.”

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