Shock keeps us from effective action. It steals our memory and higher brain functioning. It numbs us out when we need to stay awake and aware. It dampens our compassion, empathy, creativity, and wisdom.
Shock is a silent saboteur.
The following is a book I wrote for my clients after my article on taming the fight-or-flight response became one of my most-read posts. I’m making the full text available for free now because this is a hard time for many people (about a month after the 2016 election, if you’re reading this in the future).
I hope it helps.
Don’t get overwhelmed by the information below. Pick one or two things to try. Write them in a note on your phone. Set them as a text alert. Put a sticky note by your computer. Keep a stone in your pocket that reminds you to reach for those lifelines.
This information is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or treat any disease. If you suspect you may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or other illness, please seek help from a trained professional.
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Okay, let’s do this.
What is Shock?
Shock is a physiological response that happens when we’re temporarily overloaded by a stressful situation. It’s also known as the “fight-flight-freeze” response or an “acute stress reaction,” and it’s a lot more common than you might think.
Recalling a past stressful event, how did you react to it? Did you go into overdrive and try a million things to fix the situation? Or did you retreat and zone out with a substance (like food or alcohol) or a behavior (like napping or Netflix-binging)? Or did you start out in one state (say, putting out fires at work all day) and end up in the other (unwinding with a beer in front of the TV)?
This is such a normal way of existing for many people that it might seem odd to give it a label as serious as “shock.” But living your whole life swinging between these two extremes is quite hard on your physical, mental, and emotional health.
The following charts describe the symptoms of the two different kinds of shock so that you can start putting your own experiences in context.
Sympathetic (“Fight or Flight”) Shock
- Racing thoughts
- Overpowering thoughts/emotions
- Feeling the need to control
- Elevated breath rate or pulse
- Cold extremities
- Excessive sweating
- Muscle tension
- Teeth grinding/clenching
- Nervous tremors
- Hypervigilance (easily startled)
- Sensation of pounding in head
Common activities and/or addictions:
- Frantic/constant movement
- Talking quickly without stopping
- Compulsive working, spending or shopping
- Multi-tasking or constant planning
- Using substances like tobacco, alcohol, food or “downers” like pot to calm down
Parasympathetic (“Freeze”) Shock Symptoms
- Disappointment, grief, shame, guilt, and despair
- Inability to focus
- Numbness or feeling “shut down”
- Feeling disconnected from body
- Nausea or dizziness
- Indigestion, cramps, or constipation
- Feeling tired or sleepy often
Common activities and/or addictions:
- Isolating or withdrawing from others
- Sleeping a lot
- “Zoning out” in front of the TV or internet
- Intake of stimulants like caffeine or nicotine to wake yourself up
Okay, I’m in Shock. Now What?
If you’re like me and many of my clients, you might be surprised at how much of your life you’ve spent in one (or both) of these states. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat your shock in the moment.
Pick one or two of these to try out the next time you’re feeling “shocky,” and know that it becomes easier with practice. If a technique doesn’t work for you, let it go and try something different.
Please note: these techniques should be used in conjunction with more long-term treatment to help you discharge the original trauma (if necessary) and build up your in-the-moment coping mechanisms.
If your shock symptoms are chronic or overwhelming, please seek advice from a physician or mental health practitioner. These techniques have worked for me and my clients, but should not be considered a replacement for medical treatment.
Come Back to Your Body.
A common symptom of shock is a lack of body awareness. By bringing your attention to your sensory experience in the moment, your body will naturally begin to return to a neutral state. Keep reading for some ways to do that.
Bring your attention to your breathing (either the sensation as the air enters your nostrils or the feeling of your abdomen rising and falling) and gradually let the inhale and exhale even out. Don’t breathe too deeply – just focus on making it smooth and even, as though you were asleep.
You can press your palms together, gently hold on to one finger with the opposite hand, or give yourself a hug. Try tapping or rubbing gently right underneath your nose, at the crown of your head, or on either side of your upper chest. These types of actions let your body know where it is in space and also stimulate various accupressure points. See the end notes for related resources.
Notice the sensation of your feet on the floor or the way you’re being supported by your chair or bed. See if you can direct your awareness to your hands and feet – what sensations do you feel there? Can you sense the life inside them? What about the inside of your head? Can you imagine the distance between your temples, as though there was empty space between them? Can you let this awareness expand to fill your whole body?
Hold a hot or cold beverage in your hands and sip it mindfully, feeling it travel from your mouth down your throat. You can also use a hot or cold compress on your forehead, back of the neck, chest, belly, or feet.
Find a wall and rest your forehead against it. Place your palms on the wall on either side of your head. Press your heels into the ground. Breathe. Feel the support.
Release the extra energy.
Scream into a pillow. Whisper scream. Hit a wall or the floor or the bed with a towel. Let that energy move out of your body.
These exercises help relax the psoas muscles, which tend to seize up or contract when you go into shock. This set of muscles attaches to 22-24 different places in the body through your thighs and vertebrae; in other words, how tense they are really affects the way you move, stand, and walk.
Here’s the first one: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put one foot in front of the other and all your weight on your front foot (your back heel will naturally lift off the ground). Using your back foot to balance as necessary, raise yourself up on the toes of your front foot and then slowly lower yourself down. Do this 5-10 times; you’ll probably feel a slight burning sensation in your calf muscles. Then put your weight on your back foot and lift the front foot, shaking it out – it’ll quiver on its own for a bit.
Give Your Mind Something to Do.
Whether your mind is racing or spaced out, giving it something to focus on can bring you into the present moment.
- Repeat some soothing words to yourself: “Be safe, be well, be at peace.” Or “You’ve got this.” What would you most want to hear right now?
- Notice your physical environment. Name objects, colors, shapes.
- If you believe in a higher power, ask for help in dealing with this moment.
- Mentally visit a “safe place” (maybe a favorite memory or a place out in nature).
- Harness the power of acceptance. Can you accept without judgment that this is the way you feel right now?
- Remind yourself that in this moment, right here and now, you are safe. Focus all your attention on getting through the present moment.
- Journal. Write down what you’re feeling. Start with “I’m feeling…” or “I’m noticing…” or even “I’m noticing that I’m feeling…” and go from there. Get those swirling thoughts out of your head or use this tiny action as a way to jumpstart your momentum.
- Try out some “Even though” statements. “Even though I’m in shock, I’m going to take care of myself. Even though I’m stunned, frustrated, and discouraged, I’m open to letting these feelings shift when they’re ready. Even though I feel helpless, I’m going to be kind to myself and others in this moment.”
Look Outside Yourself for Help
If you can’t deescalate or shift your energy on your own, there’s nothing wrong with getting help.
- Physical affection – would a hug from a friend or time cuddling with a pet help?
- Music or comforting words. Listen to a favorite song or read something that feels comforting or inspiring. (Check out the end notes for some suggestions).
- Listen to a guided meditation or relaxation recording.
- Trust your own experience: what’s worked for you in the past?
- Get grounded. Go outside and put your bare feet or your palms on the earth. Imagine that the earth can absorb whatever you’re feeling. Let the physical sensations bring you back to the present.
- Don’t isolate. Reach out and connect to someone. 7 Cups of Tea is a free online resource for connecting with a sympathetic listener if you don’t have a friend handy.
- Find a way to help someone else. Donate to a cause, show up for a friend. Take pride in your ability to function well in difficult circumstances.
Long-Term Treatment of Shock
Keep in mind, the previous suggestions are band-aids. Once you’ve regained your equilibrium, put a self-care plan in place.
- Work with a counselor or coach. No money/insurance? Check out this page for suggestions.
- Adopt a mindfulness practice, like yoga, t’ai chi, sitting meditation, or spending time in nature.
The Hardest Part is Knowing When You’re in It.
By the time we recognize we’re in shock, we’ve likely already spent much of our lives in that state. So the most challenging part can be identifying when we need to intervene. Congratulate yourself when you notice you’re feeling disconnected and take steps to bring yourself back.
Treat Your Shock Before You Do Anything Else.
Once you’ve recognized you’re in shock, take the time to bring yourself back to balance before going on with your day. Any actions you take or decisions you make will be much more effective when you’re fully present in the moment.
Shock is Contagious.
It’s very easy to pick up on someone else’s shock (and vice versa). Take the initiative and treat your own shock to keep it from being spread or magnified further.
Start Mapping Your Triggers.
Begin to notice what circumstances trigger your shock. A common one is worrying that you’re not going to get what you need (which can manifest as panicking or becoming resigned/defeatist). What else do you notice?
- Everything is awful and I’m not okay: questions to ask before giving up
- Guide to finding free and low-cost mental health care in the US and Canada
- You feel like shit (interactive self-care flow chart).
- 7 Cups of Tea (free compassionate chat service)
Reading for Hard Times
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
- F*ck Feelings by Michael and Sarah Bennett
- The Happiness Trap by Russell Harris
- Anne Lamott’s Facebook Page
Soothing Music (YouTube Links)
- Weightless by Marconi Union (also a 10-hr version…just because)
- P by Labradford
- 1/1 and An Ending (Ascent) (+ a 60-min version) by Brian Eno
- Night Sight by Air
- Dream 3 (in the midst of my life) by Max Richter
- Ave Maria by Ashana
More Reading about Shock and Treatment
Overcoming Shock by Diane Zimberoff and David Hartman. Much of this information was taken from that book.
What is Shock and How Can I Find Treatment? by Diane Zimberoff.
We Are All in Shock: How Overwhelming Experiences Shatter You…and What You Can Do About It by Stephanie Mines. Mines explores a variety of Jin Shin Tara (therapeutic touch) techniques for treating shock.
How to do EFT Tapping Basics – The Basic Recipe. EFT is a method of tapping on various acupressure points on the body to release negative emotions.
If you’re reading this: I love you. Please take care of yourself. The world needs you.
Have a resource you think I should add?
Leave it in the comments.