Somatic Psychology - July 2015 - Santa Fe
Self-Care in Times of Psychological Distress
By Dr. Corine Frankland
If you have survived a harrowing experience, or are currently navigating the rocky and indefinite terrains of a recent trauma, you are likely familiar with the array of alarming body sensations that accompany psychological distress. In the face of danger, we may experience profuse sweating, increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure; all signals that the body is preparing to fight, flee, or freeze to safeguard our survival. During times of extreme duress, the pre-frontal cortex, also known as the “thinking brain” goes off-line, deferring to the quick wisdom of the limbic system, also known as the “feeling/sensing brain and body”, which is ultimately responsible for our survival.
When the body experiences real or perceived threats to our safety, our consciousness becomes fixated on the instinct to survive. For example, enduring repeated experiences of fear can throw the limbic system out of balance, creating difficulty regulating our basic emotions and connection with others. Lack of limbic regulation can manifest as depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbance and lead to aches and pains, fatigue, or muscle tension.
In the aftermath of trauma, the prefrontal cortex works overtime to integrate disparate fragments of our experience into a coherent picture or story. We replay events in our minds in attempts to make sense of our distress, often times re-traumatizing ourselves in our effort to understand what has happened to us. These processes require an extraordinary amount of mental energy and further disconnect us from the body’s inherent wisdom.
Given that the body is our first line of defense, a healthy body increases our ability to cope with the stress caused by a traumatic experience. The following strategies facilitate the depth and speed of one’s healing process:
Eat well. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day will help regulate and enhance your energy and minimize mood swings. Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats—such as salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts—can give your mood a boost.
Exercise. Consistent exercise boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals. Low-to-moderate intensity exercise elevates one’s mood and functions as an overall stress-buffer. Regular exercise has also been linked to enhanced self-esteem and re-establishing one’s sleep cycle.
Reduce stress. Research suggests that daily meditation may alter the brain’s neural pathways, making us more resilient to stress. Engaging in yoga and/or deep breathing has been shown to counteract the effects of stress by slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure.
Sleep. A lack of sleep can make your trauma symptoms worse and make it harder to maintain one’s emotional equilibrium. Experts recommend avoiding coffee in the evening, taking a bath prior to bedtime, rising at the same time each day, and sleeping for at least 8 hours each night.
Psychological distress is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. However, when feelings do not go away or they impair your daily life, it may be time to talk to a qualified trauma specialist. Consider seeking the advice of a specialist if you experience one or more of the following:
An inability to stop thinking about the event
Terrifying memories, flashbacks, or nightmares
Being overly concerned about safety
Feeling guilty, worthless, or hopeless
Having thoughts of death or suicide
It is important to remember that everyone reacts differently to psychological distress and each person has their own individual tolerance level for difficult feelings. Recovering from a traumatic event takes time and everyone heals at his or her own pace. Symptoms stemming from psychological distress typically last from a few days to months, gradually fading as we move through the process of feeling and healing our wounds.
Corine Frankland, Ph.D., is the department chair of liberal arts at Santa Fe University of Art and Design where she teaches courses in women’s psychology, archetypal psychology, and Kundalini yoga. She is also a somatic polarity practitioner, specializing in anxiety reduction, grief and depression, and women's reproductive health and wellness.
You can find her on Facebook at
Vibrational Healing Santa Fe or visit her website at www.myvibrationalhealing.org