Two Reasons Why Being Told to “Relax” Isn’t Very Relaxing For Many Trauma Survivors

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For too many trauma survivors, the suggestion to relax has exactly the opposite effect.

Does this mean that they are too stressed to chill?  Nope.

Maybe they don’t like being told what to do?  

No, that’s not it either.  At least, not most of the time.

If neither of those things are true, what are some of the reasons this is such a problem?

  • Being told to relax, particularly in medical and dental appointments, can be traumatic because it can closely resemble statements from abusers.  This can be a huge trigger for a flashback or for switching identities as the adult remembers past abuse.  Even if the person has amnesia for most of their abuse, the human mind after trauma is complex, and trauma is “sticky” to the brain.  Events stay around long after they are over.  Hearing statements that are similar to the statements of an abuser can shake up a trauma survivor who has no conscious recall of those words being said to them as a child.
  • Unfortunately, many adults with DID associate relaxation with being less vigilant.  This can be terrifying.  Being tuned into their surroundings and the actions of people in their home, let alone in their room, is as natural as breathing.  It had to be.  It was a survival strategy.  Because the day-to-day experience of living in an unsafe home is not well-explained in trainings for trauma-informed care, this can be completely lost on providers that absolutely wish to be supportive.  They simply don’t know what they don’t know.

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Chapter 7 of my book is devoted to this topic.  It adds some other reasons that being told to relax can have a paradoxical (med-speak for an epic fail we didn’t expect!) result.  And some strategies to improve care.  Obviously, it would help if healthcare providers would not use phrases that are triggering.  Sometimes saying nothing, or messaging calm by modeling it, works far better.  Taking a slightly deeper breath is helpful for stressed providers, and because of mirror neurons, patients often unconsciously imitate this behavior without a word being said.

Being too calm can be difficult to handle.  Trauma therapists know this, and will help you gradually ease into learning ways to calm your body and mind.  If you have lived your life on edge, feeling intense calmness might be scarier than being hyper vigilant, or even depressed.  It might be a trigger for dissociation or self-harm.  Just like re-feeding anorexics, it is dangerous to put people who live in constant stress into the opposite state without preparing them!

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It is incredibly important for trauma survivors to understand their negative reactions to being told to relax.  And I believe it is important for new providers, both healthcare and psychotherapists, to understand that they themselves have to appreciate the details of the effects of trauma disorders in order to improve care.

“Staying In The Room:  Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID” is available as a paperback and a digital download (readable on any device with their free app!) on Amazon  .

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Published by Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist and a licensed massage therapist, in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment, with a focus on sensory processing issues and treating the consequences of complex trauma. I am the author of four books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone". Over the years I have lectured about trauma treatment and pediatric development.

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