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Inroads In Trauma Treatment: Self-Regulating Emotions

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Inroads In Trauma Treatment: Self-Regulations Emotions Blog

Inroads In Trauma Treatment: Self-Regulating Emotions

"The subjective experience of trauma is unique and varies according to the individual and the type of trauma. What does not vary is the fact that trauma often results in a devastating intrusion into a wished for life of peace, calm and well-being along with a corresponding unexpected and undesired fragmented sense of self and of life in general." – Abstract of a research article by Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. and Maria A Zayas Ph.D., published September 2014 in Frontiers in Psychology magazine

There are various schools of trauma therapy, for achieving the "wished-for life of peace, calm and well-being" referred to in the quote. A fast emerging, though not entirely new, approach is training trauma victims how to better self-regulate their thoughts and emotions.

Self-regulating our emotions, meaning to consciously choose what emotions we feel – happiness and love, rather than sadness or hate, for example – is "intimately" tied to our physiology. That from HeartMath Institute (HMI) Director of Research Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. and researcher Maria A Zayas, Ph.D. in their article, Cardiac Coherence, Self-Regulation, Autonomic Stability, and Psychosocial Well-Being.

Additionally, McCraty and Zayas note, emotion self-regulation is intimately tied to the reciprocal interactions among physiological, cognitive and emotional systems.

How can self-regulating one’s emotions begin to help in trauma cases? To begin with, they explain, it is important to understand that when someone changes, or self-regulates his emotions, there is a corresponding shift in his heart rhythm. "This shift in the heart rhythm," they write, "in turn plays an important role in facilitating higher cognitive functions, creating emotional stability and facilitating states of calm. Over time, this establishes a new inner-baseline reference, a type of implicit memory that organizes perception, feelings, and behavior."

This new baseline is key because its purpose is to replace the internal baseline reference in which the memory of a traumatic event gets activated over and over.

People suffering from trauma characteristically "are at risk of living their lives through the automatic filters of past familiar or traumatic experience," the authors state.

So, if self-regulation of emotions and establishing a new baseline reference can help, where does one begin?


First of all, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one the world’s leading experts on trauma, observed in a HeartMath webinar, it’s important to note that a common therapeutic approach has been: "Somehow, by talking sense into people, you can make them change."

This does not work, said van der Kolk, founder and medical director of the Trauma Centre in Brookline, Mass. "The study of trauma shows unambiguously, you cannot knock sense into people (by talking to them) and that trauma is not an issue of cognition. It’s an issue of disordered biological systems."

Research shows affect regulation, or self-regulation can be a very successful in treating trauma, he said.

"There are two ways in which we can learn to regulate ourselves," van der Kolk explained in the webinar, which was hosted by Deborah Rozman, Ph.D. and CEO of HeartMath Inc. "One is from the bottom up, from breathing, moving and touching, and the other one is from top down (the brain)."

Treatment and research at the Trauma Centre has focused recently on heart rate variability (HRV), the beat-to-beat changes in heart rhythm, as a critical measure in trauma cases for determining one’s capacity to self-regulate emotions. HRV also is primary area of research at HMI, and McCraty is one today’s leading authorities in its study.

Van der Kolk cited a study by colleague and friend Dr. Enrico Mezzaccapa, who headed a team at Boston Children’s Hospital. It involved 42 traumatized children and "normal" children in Boston Public Schools.

"What they found was a very important finding," he said. "The capacity to gain control over one’s actions, to look before you leap, the capacity to think about how your actions will affect others and inhibit yourself from doing something, was highly correlated with good heart rate variability. … Kids who were aggressive, anti-social had little executive control and had very poor heart rate variability.

"They also found, which is incredibly important in the work we do, that these kids had lower sympathetic modulation, which means it’s very hard for them to engage in a task, and they were more preoccupied with avoidance of unpleasant things than engaging enthusiastically in new things."

Returning to McCraty and Zayas’s research article, they explain that "effectively dealing with trauma and instating a new internal reference first involves increased self-awareness and recognizing triggers, reactions, and ongoing emotional undercurrents (fear, negative projection, insecurity, worry, etc.)."

Once increased awareness is achieved, they write, "The next step is learning how to consciously self-

regulate and increasingly replace these feelings with more neutral or positive attitudes and perceptions."

The research article’s authors and van der Kolk each emphasized the importance of and benefits of simply learning good breathing technique.

At one point during his webinar, Engaging the Natural Healing Systems of the Brain for Self-Regulation: Trauma, Heart Rate Variability and Beyond, van der Kolk said, "You need to learn to breathe.” He said it was striking in the Trauma Centre’s work, “how many traumatized kids … have a hard time just taking a breath."

Heart-Focused Breathing

McCraty and HeartMath Institute have conducted extensive studies and trials into the benefits of breathing, not only in trauma cases, but in a broad range of debilitating conditions, including heart-related illnesses, depression, anger management and many others. This work has led HeartMath to develop many techniques for self-regulating emotions.


"The first step in most the techniques,” the article explains, “is called Heart-Focused Breathing, which includes putting one’s attention in the center of the chest (the heart area) and imagining the breath is flowing in and out of that area while breathing a little slower and deeper than usual." This conscious regulation of breathing, typically at a 10-second rhythm, 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out, “increases cardiac coherence and starts the process of shifting into a more coherent state.

"In challenging situations or after a strong emotion has been triggered, Heart-Focused Breathing is often the step that most people can remember and find that it helps take the intensity out or turn down the volume of the reaction."

  • Click here, HeartMath Tools, for the steps of Heart Focused Breathing and other self-regulation techniques and to read more about their benefits.

  • Read the entire article by McCraty and Zayas in HMI’s Research Library: Cardiac Coherence, Self-Regulation, Autonomic Stability, and Psychosocial Well-Being.

  • View the webinar, Engaging the Natural Healing Systems of the Brain for Self-Regulation: Trauma, Heart Rate Variability and Beyond with van der Kolk.

    I would love to hear your stories about dealing with your own trauma or how someone you know is dealing with theirs.