Regulating Stress Responses
By Kacie Shipman, LSW – July 20, 2022 –
Children and adults may react to stress in different ways. Trauma and stress can cause the brain to feel challenged or threatened, and the part of the brain that reacts is often on high alert. Our instinct is to protect ourselves, often by fleeing, fighting, or freezing from our perceived danger.
When individuals have experienced trauma or are in high stress situations, their behavior can sometimes become confusing to others. The term “trigger” is often used to communicate what caused someone to enter a state of dysregulation. Our brain works in a way that allows us to react before we think. It is a means of protection, although when trauma has been experienced our brain can set off false alarms.
What causes dysregulation? Our body has five great senses: taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing. For example, a certain smell may trigger someone to experience dysregulation before thinking. If abuse was experienced in a home that often smelled like coffee, the smell of coffee alone could trigger the brain to go into a protective defense mode. This correlation is easier for adults to recognize than children.
Children in a high alert state are not able to reason. It is crucial to help the child regulate their body and mind so they can process stressful situations later. There are many ways to help children and adults regulate, or “calm down.”
It is impossible to know what difficulties others have experienced. That is why it is crucial to treat everyone as if they are functioning in a high alert state or have experienced trauma. Regulating children through their environment can be very impactful in managing behaviors that are difficult to understand.
For instance, if a child is often misbehaving, it’s important to track those incidents. There is a possibility that behaviors may be occurring in a predictable pattern. Making small changes in the environment can help eliminate stressors. Creating a safe relationship with a child can also create an environment where their brain is able to stay at a level of calmness with the ability to reason more than react.
The most critical part of supporting an individual with trauma is maintaining your own self-regulation. Being supportive in a non-confrontational way will encourage the brain to recognize the situation as safe and non-threatening. Understanding our own triggers and challenge areas will help us stay regulated in moments that may provoke unwanted emotions.
Practicing self-regulation skills can be done in many ways including yoga, meditation, or journaling. Finding a positive and encouraging support team who understands the impact of trauma on children can be a tool to maintain ongoing work with those who have experienced it.