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Monday, May 6, 2024

How to Use "Anchors" to Cope With Trauma-Related Triggers - Part 2

In Part 1 of this topic, I defined anchors and how they are used to cope with psychological triggers based on a history of trauma. 

If you haven't read Part 1, I suggest you read that article first to understand the current article.

How to Use Anchors to Cope With Triggers

In the current article, I'm providing examples of how anchors can be used for trauma-related triggers as well as other situations where you might feel anxious, emotionally overwhelmed or stressed.

Anchors can be used between therapy sessions to help you cope with disturbing thoughts, feelings or memories that might come up for you. 

Note: If you're in therapy, always speak to your therapist first before you try using anchors or any other type of resource or coping skill.

Examples of How to Use Anchors to Cope
As mentioned in my prior article, anchors can be used any time you're experiencing distress. Your experience doesn't need to be trauma related.

Here are two examples of how to use external and internal anchors (the cases presented below are composites of many cases with different names and all identifying information removed to protect confidentiality):

    Panic Attacks
Panic attacks bring intense fear and physical reactions, including symptoms of depersonalization (a condition where the person feels disconnected from their body, emotions and environment) where there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks are frightening. Some people feel they are losing control or even dying when they have a panic attack (see my article: Tips For Coping With Panic Attacks).

    Using An External Anchor

John can usually sense when he's about to have a panic attack because he starts to feel disconnected from his body. 

His panic attacks have been much less frequent since he started working with an Experiential Therapist.  However, he still gets them from time to time, so his therapist recommended that he carry a small stone in his pocket which is meaningful to him because he found the stone when he was a child looking for an unusual stone with his grandfather. 

When he feels the onset of a panic attack, John holds the stone in his hand and it brings back happy memories of feeling safe and secure with his grandfather, and it helps to ground and calm him. 

Journaling Between Therapy Sessions

Once he is calm again, he writes about his experience in his journal to put words to his experience and to be able to discuss what happened at his next session with his psychotherapist (see my article: The Benefits of Journaling Between Therapy Sessions).

    Using an Internal Anchor

Since she started EMDR Therapy, Alice rarely has panic attacks anymore. 

Prior to EMDR therapy, she would have a panic attack whenever she visited her parents. She would feel like she was a helpless and hopeless child again (see my article: Feeling Like a Helpless Child Again During Family Visits).

However, even though she is coping better with triggers involved with being around her parents, there are still times she feels like she regresses when her parents criticize her.

Her therapist taught her to use an internal anchor based on the Somatic Experiencing concept of pendulation, which is also called oscillation in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (see my article: Coping with Emotional Distress By Using the Somatic Experiencing Technique of Pendulation).

Pendulation is similar to Babette Rothschild's concept of Dual Awareness which she writes about in her book, The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment.

Similar to a swinging pendulum or watching a pendulum on a grandfather clock, pendulation involves shifting your awareness back and forth between a sense of safety in one part of your body to the emotional activation in another part of your body.

In Alice's case, she learned in therapy how to use her felt sense in her body to identify a place of safety. Most of the time, her place of safety is in her heart area.  She also learned to identify areas in her body of anxious activation which usually involves her stomach.

Pendulation For Coping

When she is on the verge of having a panic attack or she is actually having a panic attack, Alice senses into her place of safety, her heart, and she senses the feeling of safety. Her heart area is her internal anchor. 

Then she senses briefly into the area where she feels anxious, her stomach, and she shifts her awareness back to her chest, her place of safety. She continues to pendulate her awareness back and forth between her place of safety and her place of anxious activation until she is able to calm herself. 

Then she talks about what triggered her in her next therapy session so she and her therapist can work on this issue.

Other Examples of When to Use Anchors:
As previously mentioned, you can also use anchors for temporary relief when you feel 
  • Anxious
  • Stressed
  • Emotionally overwhelmed or flooded 
  • Other types of emotional distress
Internal Anchors vs External Anchors
The external anchors tend to be easier for most people to use because they are meaningful concrete objects that you can carry with you: a stone, a shell, a picture of a relaxing place, and so on.

The internal anchors take practice to learn. If you're adapt at sensing emotions in your body, you can learn to detect where you feel safe in your body and where you feel activated.  If not, you will need to practice sensing emotions and activation in your body with a therapist who works in an embodied/experiential way.

Sensing emotions and activation in your body is one of the skills Experiential Therapists help clients to develop. It's a very useful skill because you can use it on your own between sessions or whenever you need it. 

If you're trying this on your own, you might want to start with an external anchor, especially if you haven't yet developed the felt sense skill.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have been struggling on your own, you could benefit from seeking help from an Experiential Therapist.

Experiential Therapy is an umbrella term for mind-body oriented therapy modalities like:
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy
  • AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy)
  • Somatic Experiencing
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Emotionally Focused Therapy, among others

Getting Help in Experiential Therapy

A skilled Experiential Therapist can help you overcome obstacles that keep you from living a  meaningful and more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City experiential psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Emotionally Focused Therapist for couples, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.