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The Country's On Edge. Trauma Experts Say The Present Moment Can Help.

It's been a traumatic year. The pandemic. Social justice protests in response to police brutality. An insurrection at the nation's capital. Now our nation is dealing with two mass shootings.

Traumatic events can put the human brain into high gear, according to trauma expert and psychologist Dr. Bethany Brand of Towson University.

“It feels like there's danger everywhere,” Brand said. “It is our brain's attempt to protect us by making us hyper-alert.”

This hypervigilance takes away the body's sense of control and can ultimately make people feel helpless.

“Instead think about where you can have control in your lives,” Brand said. She says it's all about learning how to regulate the body through things like deep breathing and exercise.

Elaine Miller-Karas, cofounder of the nonprofit Trauma Resource Institute, says focusing on the present moment can help calm your nervous system.

“There's something that we call ‘walking grounding.’ As I take each step, I'm going to feel my foot on the ground and remind myself I'm in the here and now, and I'm feeling safer, but maybe not safe,” Miller-Karas said.

The key word is “safer,” she says, because no one ever feels completely safe. She adds that going places that you personally feel safer can also help, whether that's a physical place like a park or a memory that calms your sensory state.

“We're designed to remember things not only cognitively but in our sensory system, and we can call up one of those things in our lives that have calmed us in the past,” Miller-Karas said. “It has an amazing ability to calm us in the present moment.”

She says it's about practicing how to distinguish the sensations of distress and wellbeing. Once someone understands how to separate those feelings, it becomes more natural to channel the sensations that let the person know they are safer.

Miller-Karas and Brand both say every approach will be unique to everyone working to heal trauma.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.