Saturday, June 6, 2009


While walking in Santa Barbara, CA earlier this spring, I was surprised to see that the street banners, rather than announcing a local festival or naming a given neighbourhood, bore the outline of a little girl's face, a heart, a home and the single word, "Calm".

"What a wonderful idea!", I thought, as the tension melted away from my neck and shoulders. Had it been that city's conscious intent to create an atmosphere of peace in the downtown core? I don't know. But I do know that every time one of the banners caught my eye over the next few days, I experienced the same quiet sense of calm.

What, exactly, does it mean to be calm and how do we achieve this illusive state? To answer these questions fully, I will direct you to Babette Rothschild's excellent book, Help for the Helper: The Psychophysiology of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma and Peter Levine's seminal work, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. To give you the short answer, I invite you to read on.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the part of the nervous system that prepares us to fight, flee or freeze in response to a demand or threat and then to calm down afterward. The ANS has two branches, one that creates arousal to meet the threat (the Sympathetic Nervous System) and one that reinstates calm once the demand or threat is dealt with (the Parasympathetic Nervous System). Working in tandem, these branches create the arousal cycle described by Peter Levine:

- "We are challenged or threatened
then aroused;
- the arousal peaks as we mobilize
to face the challenge or threat
- then, the arousal is actively brought
down, leaving us relaxed and satisfied."

It is important for anyone who has experienced trauma personally, or through caring for others, to be aware of the signs of ANS arousal (fast shallow breathing, quicker pulse, dilated pupils, pale skin, sweating) and the signs of ANS calm (slower deeper breathing, slower pulse, flushed, dry, warm skin). Learning to be aware of our increased arousal is the first step toward reinstituting calm.

Some strategies that can help us to return to a state of calm after a period of arousal include:

1. Arousal awareness

Learn to become mindful of your level of arousal by carefully noticing your internal physical state - the signs listed above, areas of tension etc. Then, practice noticing how that baseline changes when you remember something pleasant in your life or when you anticipate something mildly unpleasant. Move back and forth between the two states, a few seconds at a time, until you get a sense of how varying levels of calm and arousal feel in your body. Use this knowledge to assess your arousal whenever you're feeling uncomfortable. ("Calm" post-it notes, placed strategically at home and in your office, can be a good reminder to check in.)

2. Reducing general arousal

You can reduce your overall level of arousal, over time, through meditation practices, centering prayer, reducing your trauma input (ie how much trauma you see on TV, in the newspapers, in your work), engaging in personal therapy to resolve past traumas, and keeping your muscles fit. ("Relaxed" or lax muscles and "calm" are not necessarily the same thing. We may need a degree of "friendly tension" in order to manage our stress.)

3. Learning to put the brakes on

It is important to know different strategies for "putting the brakes on" when your level of arousal gets uncomfortably high. (This level is different for each of us.) A couple of these include:

(a) Using Peter Levine's instructions for Trauma First Aid to complete the arousal cycle and calm yourself after confronting a traumatic situation. (January 12 ,2009 post)

(b) Finding a Sensory Anchor to which you can retreat when feeling too aroused.

A sensory anchor is an internal image of a safe place/situation. Choose a memory of something pleasant that makes you feel safe and calm. (Don't look for the perfect memory because almost everything can have a negative association if you look hard enough.) Awaken your sensory memory of that place or situation. How does it look, smell, feel, sound, taste? Notice your body responses - has your calm increased? If so, practice switching from mildly unpleasant memories to your safe anchor until you can switch quickly from arousal to calm. (Be patient. As with any skill development, this will take time.)

These are just a few of the ways we can return to the calm I experienced in Santa Barbara. I invite you to try them out and to continue looking for ways to increase your own calm as you care for others.

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