Surviving a Plague, a Torn Tendon, and Other Trauma
Marti Wibbels, MS, LMHC
The coronavirus pandemic hit our world without warning, catapulting us into places none of us could have imagined. Even though we’re experiencing the global plague in different ways, everyone has now experienced trauma! Perhaps all trauma survivors can begin to feel safe recognizing the impact of traumatic stress rather than ignoring or avoiding its continuing ramifications in daily life.
A year ago, after months of Covid quarantine, my husband Alan and I traveled to a nearby resort for a few days of rest and relaxation. The ocean was gorgeous, its expansive waters sparkling under a brilliant sky. On our last day, walking along the pristine beach under a magnificent sunrise, I felt something “pop” behind my left knee. Back in our room, ice seemed to relieve the pain.
And for the next six months, I was able to keep the pain at bay with aspirin, ice, and elevation—even attempting daily walks with my husband, until the pain increased to the point that I simply couldn’t walk at all. The orthopedic surgeon said the tendon couldn’t be repaired and recommended physical therapy to strengthen the area around it. Something I’d never heard of—a popliteal tendon—nearly redefined my daily life.
I wanted to walk, so I chose to be proactive—and accept help when Ana, a dear friend, offered her skill as a physical therapist (PT). She assigned specific exercises and helped me experience steady improvement. When Ana had major surgery and couldn’t work, I had to find another physical therapist. Studying my records, the “new” PT glared at me, stating adamantly, “You think you’re young, but you’re old,” she sneered, adding, “You’ll never walk again.” At first, I thought she was joking but soon realized she meant exactly what she said.
Crushed, I called Ana, who was at home recovering from her surgery. “Is it true I’ll never walk again?” I cried. She assured me I’d be able to walk, reminding me to continue doing her exercises. I listened to Ana—and quit going to the PT who offered no hope. Instead of “numbing” the pain with ice (which eventually was impossible, anyway), I learned to manage it. Change is inevitable; growth is a choice. To help my growth process, my friend Mariselle graciously allows me to use her pool, which involves driving ½ hour to get there, swimming laps, then driving ½ hour to get home. Swimming is strengthening my leg, enabling me to resume an active life.
Trauma, like a tendon, is invisible to others, its pain internal, yet pervasive—with the healing process including continual choices. Many have been told there’s nothing they can do to move beyond PTSD, anxiety, or other stress-related conditions. That’s simply not true! Though it’s impossible to remove trauma from the brain and body, the good news is there are practical exercises to help manage trauma’s ramifications and enjoy life again.
Trauma survivors are often referred to as “numb survivors,” people with “frozen emotions.” When even small increases in life stressors rapidly or gradually disrupt life with incapacitating emotional or mental pain, it’s vital to do specific grounding exercises, moving your mind and body from past trauma to the present. You can strengthen your core—rebuilding your sense of safety, competence, identity, purpose, and belonging—steadily moving from trauma and into the future and hope God promises. For I know the plans and thoughts that I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for peace and well-being and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11, AMP).
Grounding exercises can be physical, mental, or soothing, and provide practical help for your stabilization. The stabilization process requires continuous action and proactive choices, utilizing a variety of grounding exercises up to 300 times per day. Instead of ignoring pain (like I did with the torn tendon), trauma survivors can “listen” to their bodies and steadily move beyond trauma’s control. Any time trauma stored in the brain’s amygdala is “triggered,” it feels like an ambush. In 1/12 of a second, trauma stored in the brain or body can initiate a reaction known as an “amygdala hijacking.” This “hijacking” can be activated by any of the five senses, with old memories (sometimes of events you can’t consciously recall) moving you rapidly from logical thought into what is known as the 5 Fs: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fornicate, or Feed.
When you feel stressed, instead of reaching for a gallon of ice cream (the “Feed” F) or isolating from others (Flight), etc. try diaphragmatic (belly) breathing: “Inflate” your lungs by inhaling through your nose (unless you have allergies and really can’t do that; in that case, inhale through your mouth, noticing your belly go out as you inflate your lungs), inhaling to a count that’s comfortable for you—perhaps 3 or 4. Then pause for two beats (to be sure you don’t hyperventilate), then exhale, emptying your lungs as you breathe out through your mouth for one more count than you did on the inhalation. That’s a basic form of physical grounding. Mental grounding is using your mind (doing anything from basic math problems to reading Scripture to noticing shapes where you are), enabling you to quickly move from a trauma reaction into a healthy response. And soothing grounding can include choosing kind thoughts, having hope in God, and training yourself to move forward.
Core Healing from Trauma is a workbook with grounding exercises in every chapter, and practical steps for healing the core of your being. You can move beyond living as a victim and begin living as more than a conqueror, experiencing undefeatable HOPE, anchored in the present rather than drowning in the past. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure (Hebrews 6:19). In Jesus, we can experience new life, new hope, and daily transformation!
God bless YOU!