Three Tools to Restore Peace During Times of Distress

In light of current events —the tragedy in Las Vegas, the ongoing trauma in Puerto Rico, and so many others— I find myself feeling heartbroken and full of grief.

During times of distress, one of the most powerful things we can do is to take action. Maybe that means donating to a charity, lobbying for reform, or even holding the door for a stranger. Any act of kindness can help us feel liberated from the hold of horrible circumstances.

Any act of kindness and support can bring relief during or after a distressing event.

But what happens when we can’t act? If we feel trapped, helpless or alone (one of the very definitions of a traumatic event) how can we return ourselves to a sense of peace?

If you feel too overwhelmed or depressed to cope on your own, or if there is too big a mountain of emotion to process safely, please seek the help of a professional (I see a licensed psychologist for this reason), or click one of the below links for immediate help.

If you are, however, at a manageable level of coping with stress, please read on for a few ways you can begin to restore peace and equilibrium for yourself.


Shake It Off

When stuck in a distressing situation beyond our control, the fight-flight-freeze side of the nervous system can get triggered. This stress response is intended to help us get away from, or fight, the threat. But, if we can’t escape, or we feel trapped and helpless, these hormones continue to circulate in the body.

Over time, if not used for its intended purpose, the stress response can cause adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems and even autoimmune disorders.

Physical movement, then, is one of the first ways we can “shake off” the stress. Shaking, running, screaming out, anything that would simulate how you might escape a traumatic event, can become a tool to channel the stress hormones.

Try one of these to move the pent up energy of feeling trapped:

  • bounce on the balls of your feet
  • go for a run
  • power scream while lifting heavy in the gym
  • flick your hands, like shaking off water
  • dance
  • go for a walk or hike
  • practice sun salutations

Practicing sun salutations in Pine Creek Canyon, near Bishop, CA


Get Back In Your Body

Trauma tends to cause us to disconnect from our bodies and the overwhelming sensations of distress. Anxiety, grief, sorrow, rage —these emotions (and many more) are a natural response to horrible events.

They can be so overwhelming, though, that we often shut them down by blocking the sensations of the body and, with them, our ability to be fully present in the moment.

To process the distressing experience and begin to heal from it, we need to reclaim our bodies and focus attention in the present moment. In practice, this means we stay by our own side through the storm of emotions and the often terrifying feelings of vulnerability.

Try one of these techniques to bring attention and awareness back to yourself and the present moment:

  • feel the contact of whatever part of your body is touching what’s beneath or behind (your feet if standing, your butt or back if sitting, etc.)
  • consciously release your weight down toward the ground
  • notice, and then relax, areas of your body holding unnecessary tension
  • take some belly breaths, pushing your tummy out in all directions as you inhale
  • observe the sights and sounds around you as a way to re-orient to the present
  • smell something pleasant that brings your attention to the here and now

Using the sense of smell to be present and in my body.


Calm Your Senses Toward an Inner Gaze

Trauma survivors have become accustomed to existing in a state of hyper-vigilence, with all senses trained toward the outer world and the possibility of threat. To restore a sense of inner peace, we can practice calming our senses and taking attention back within.

In psychology, this practice of mind-body integration is called “interoception.” It is a practice of taking stock of what’s happening within, of receiving, accessing and appraising internal signals.

In yoga, turning the senses within is called pratyahara, and it is the hinge between the physical practice of yoga postures and the mental practices of focus and meditation.

In both cases, calming our senses enough to take an internal scan, helps with self-regulation and the ability to recover from distressing events.

Here are some ways you can practice:

  • scan your body with curiosity, simply to see how your body feels
  • notice the state of your mind (is it calm, agitated, anxious, busy, etc.?)
  • observe what physical movements, if any, occur with your breath
  • relax your tongue so it is plump and soft, rather than hard against your palate
  • soften your eyes back in their sockets and make your forehead broad
  • open the ears to hear the field of silence from which all sounds arise, or listen to nature sounds like birds, waves or wind in trees

Listening into the silence in Joshua Tree National Park


Beyond these techniques, any action is better than none. All modes of moving forward in the face of distress will involve some level of presence with —rather than ignoring— what’s happening.

The process may not be easy or comfortable or quick, but you’re not alone in wanting to heal. If you’ve found this article helpful and you want others to know they’re not alone either, please share. And feel free to offer up any useful techniques that may help others in the comments section below.

Thank you for reading, and sending lots of love,