How to Heal from Unspeakable Terror
Eight brain-based steps to help adults and children when tragedy strikes.
Posted October 4, 2017
The horrific scene in Las Vegas likely left millions of children and adults traumatized. Sadly, mass shootings are becoming part of a new reality that can create emotional scars for years to come unless we are able to heal from them. At these times of senseless tragedy, words of comfort are not enough.
Whether you witnessed the gunfire personally, acted as a first responder, knew people who attended the concert, or watched the news coverage on television, your autonomic nervous system was shaken by this traumatic event. According to trauma specialist, Dr. Sharon Stanley, these events trigger memories that reside in our bodies from prior life traumas, hijacking the vagal circuits of our brains. The result: We experience fear and terror throughout our body-mind system.
Adults and children have stories of trauma that are held in their physical memories. Thousands of miles from Las Vegas, people responded to this tragedy through their own bodies and emotions. They might have been combat veterans, survivors of 9-11, parents of the Sandy Hook shooting, and others who have been touched by profound loss and terror.
As people watched the news coverage from what is now the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, many were overcome with unspeakable grief for the victims. But then, as Dr. Stanley suggested, the shooting likely triggered memories of their own traumas, often immobilizing them with fear. Embodied trauma causes feelings of anxiety, panic, abandonment, worthlessness, and other core emotional experiences.
Our body’s reaction to the shooting in Las Vegas is an example of the autonomic nervous system at work during times of stress. In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017), Dr. Robert Sapolsky, suggests that the autonomic nervous system is more powerful than our thoughts and emotions. It’s a part of the brain that is not changed through logic, words, or avoidance.
Our reactions to trauma create persistent patterns in our autonomic nervous systems that can live on throughout our lives, and can even be transmitted to the next generation, according to Dr. Stephen Porges in The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. These universal neural processes are why the victims of mass shootings, and survivors of many types of trauma, relive their experiences in their bodies each time a new tragic event occurs.
Amidst this background of neuroscientific evidence that all of us have embodied trauma, there is positive news. When we attend to the effects of trauma on our brain, research suggests we and our children can build and strengthen our abilities to adapt to the many adversities of modern life.
An empathetic and safe relationship with a skilled person can regulate the effects of trauma on the brain. Sharon Stanley, Ph.D., author of Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past, suggests that specific interventions can restore the autonomic nervous system.
8 Steps to Help a Child or Adult Heal from Trauma
I reached out to Stanley to find out how parents, teachers, counselors, and other helpers can be most effective in helping others feel safe and heal from trauma after a tragedy such as the shooting in Las Vegas. She provided the following brain-based intervention, grounded in research.
This step-by-step process for calming and restoring the autonomic nervous system can help transform fear into resilience. It is designed to be used by an empathetic, compassionate adult to help others process trauma. To heal from past, unresolved traumas, Stanley recommends working with a professional in the field of trauma and body-based therapies.
- Prepare yourself. To be helpful to a person who has experienced a traumatic event, you need to be calm and attuned to the person you are helping. Begin this process by bringing awareness to your own body and breath, and by connecting to your compassion. Familiarize yourself with all the next steps and imagine supporting another person in this way.
- Establish safety. Assure the person that you will stay with them. Use language that reflects the age and ability of the other to understand and feel connected to you. “I want to help you, and I am going to stay with you as long as you need me.”
- Educate. Let the person know how you can help them. Brain science teaches us that getting beyond terrifying events has more to do with calming our nervous system than any particular words we speak. "This event has likely caused trauma in your body; and it doesn’t yet know that you are safe. I would like to help you, if that feels okay with you.” Explain that you can guide them in simple exercises that can help them feel safe, calm, and in control again. Tell them that you will be doing these exercises with them and that you will pause to ask how they are doing, and that they can say “stop” at any time.
- Start slowly. Your voice should be soft, calming, and slow. Ask: “What happened that you would like me to know about?” Listen to the story and watch the person until you notice changes in their body or agitation, like a sudden change in skin tone (grey, pale, redness), tone of voice, eyes, posture, or tears. As soon as you notice one of these changes, ask them to pause the story. “Now it’s time to tune into what your body is telling us.”
- Establish somatic empathy. Make sure the person is comfortable with both feet on the ground. Feel into the experience of the other person as you watch their face, eyes, and body posture. Tune into their body’s story. “Tell me what’s happening in your body right now?” (heart hurts, jaw is tight, nauseousness) Notice what is happening in your own body. This is called somatic empathy, your ability to feel what another person feels in their body.
- Sense gravity. Both the helper and the person being helped are now in a relationship to release trauma and calm the autonomic nervous system. Invite the person to feel the ground with their feet. When you sense they can feel the ground, invite them to see if they can feel how gravity pulls their feet. You can ask them to lift one leg and let it drop. What’s important is to allow the person to sense gravity and how it pulls our bodies. Continue to notice your own body’s sensations.
- Engage with gravity. When we can feel gravity, we can release tension from trauma. Return to what the person is experiencing in the body. “When you notice the tightness in your heart, imagine gravity pulling the tension down.” Invite the person to make slow, small movements in their facial and neck muscles. This encourages healing neural activity. Then return to other areas that feel tension and repeat the process of letting go. A release of tension may be accompanied by a sigh, deep breath, or movement. As this process evolves, you are watching the person become more calm and restful. You will notice this in their face and posture. What enables the nervous system to recover its natural vitality is twofold: 1) Somatic empathy between the helper and the person being helped. 2) The physical release of tension.
- Reflect and rest. Reflect on the process by asking, “What do you notice now that is different than it was before we went through this exercise?” Bringing awareness through reflection is an important part of learning how to take care of ourselves. Next, inquire “What feels right for you to do now? Would you like to tell me more of the story or take a rest?” If the person doesn’t know what to do next, suggest a rest. “Would you like me to sit with you while you rest?” If the person wants to talk more about the traumatic event, you repeat the steps you just went through until the person is ready to rest, an integral part of the restorative process.