Evidence-Based Tools for Self-Care in Stress & Trauma

Evidence-Based Tools for Self-Care in Stress & Trauma August 13, 2016

We all need self-care, regardless of the degree of trauma in our lives, and here are some evidence-based ways to go about it.

Here's an example of a place I'd find calming to walk around. Photo from Unsplash by Lukasz Szmigiel.
Here’s an example of a place I’d find calming to walk around. Photo from Unsplash by Lukasz Szmigiel.

Since beginning to study trauma (read my write-up of one particular workshop here), I’ve been intrigued by the question of “well how do we cope with it?” In this case, “we” can mean the people impacted by trauma, whether you’ve experienced it or whether you’re studying it, helping someone through theirs, or, well, just living in this world, which is enough to expose you to trauma even if it’s not firsthand.

For example, this essay on social workers and burnout describes the effects of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, which are real phenomena that can impact people in close proximity to others experiencing trauma. The author suggests that self-care can be an antidote to burnout, some of which line up with the list below.

Without further ado, here’s the list of self-care tools based on evidence from Ashley Manta whose workshop at Woodhull I attended:

  • Change in scenery
  • Gratitude
  • Breath work
  • Exercise
  • Service
  • Reading
  • Shopping
  • Beauty rituals/grooming
  • Sleep
  • Crying
  • Being in nature
  • Cursing
  • Sex
  • Joyful movement
  • Aromatherapy
  • Mindfulness
  • Laughter
  • Massage
  • Physical touch
  • Affirmation

Other members of the audience chimed in that listening to music can be helpful (as music lights up multiple areas in the brain, which can help ground us when part of the brain shuts down during a traumatic trigger). This makes sense, so I thought I’d include it, even though it wasn’t on the list of evidence-based options.

These may work differently for different people, and some folks may need to adjust them to make sure that they’re being used in grounding rather than numbing modalities. For example, I love to dance (which could count as joyful movement), but if I put myself through a grueling 2-hour drill session when I’m feeling emotionally activated, I run the risk of depleting my physical resources and exhausting myself to numb the emotional pain rather than replenish and refresh myself in order to deal with it better.

The physiological aspects of the stress response cycle are covered beautifully in Emily Nagoski’s book Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, by the way.

See also: The Impact of Sexist Microaggressions


Because of how trauma impacts the brain and body – essentially hurling someone back into the moment of helplessness/terror/whatever and shutting down the cognition centers of the brain – it’s important to have ways of self-soothing. The reasoning is that if you can get through that moment where a trigger or a disproportionately minor stimulus makes your brain go on high alert as though the original trauma (or traumas, in the case of complex or chronic trauma) is going to get you right now, you can ride it out and not do anything that will permanently harm yourself or others. Seeking trauma-informed therapy is, of course, recommended as a long-term solution, but in the short term? Find what works for you and go with it (again, so long as it’s not self-destructive, even though, some professionals might adopt a harm-reduction approach and say that temporary coping strategies like escapism that get you through but aren’t the healthiest are better than more extreme things).

Why are these self-care strategies important, even if you haven’t experienced trauma?

As this blog post explains, the airline reminder to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others in an emergency applies to everyone in a trauma situation, or even just situations of intense stress. Incidentally, many of their suggestions are found in the above list.

Which of these strategies have worked for you? Are any of the strategies on the list surprising? I know I’m glad to have a few more tools to add to my self-care tool-kit.

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