The Stress Thermometer and Trauma Triggers

The Stress Thermometer is a metaphor developed by Terry Gorski to help people manage stress. This is particularly helpful for people whose Sympathetic Nervous System has been hijacked by trauma.

People who struggle with post traumatic stress or addiction are more vulnerable when they are stressed. The 12 Step community memorializes this principle in the acronym, H.A.L.T. people in recovery learn they are at risk for relapse when they are: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

Of course the HALT experience are not the only things that make one vulnerable. These simply stand in for any number of stressors. Stressors push your Sympathetic Nervous System into the danger zone. The more one is aware of how their body is responding to their environment, the more they can take power over the unconscious reactions of their body.

This is particularly important for people who have had traumatic experiences that make them particularly sensitive to trauma triggers.

So who does the stress thermometer work? Simply imagine a thermometer. It is calibrated between 1 and 10.

Between 1 and 3 your your body is iin a state of restful serenity. Think of how you feel on a beach somewhere. The sun is mildly warm. You have eaten a satisfying picnic lunch and you are now enjoying the sound of waves gently lapping on the shore.

Between 4-6 your body is activated. At 4 you are engaged and productive. At 6 you are engaged but agitated or distracted. You are beginning to “feel stressed”.

At 7 are in a state of peak alertness. Your eyes and ears pick up every sight and sound. Your muscles are taunt. Your heart and lungs are ready to pull in the oxygen you need to sustain a fight for your life.

By the time you have reached 10, you are no longer in control. Your Autonomic Nervous System has taken over your body. You are in full fight-flight mode.

People experience rising and falling stress levels throughout the day. This is common to everyone. We move between states of relaxation (1-3), productive engagement (4-6), and distracting stress (7) all day long.

This movement between stress states is natural and healthy. But when one’s life has been hijacked by trauma, the Autonomic Nervous System can fail to signal the calming influence of the Parasympathetic System to calm the body down.

Most do not hit levels of stress that would monitor 10 on a stress thermometer. But some do, especially those who are living with unresolved trauma in their lives.

Stress at higher levels, sustained for a longer period of time, undermines the balance of the Autonomic Nervous System. That is, the Sympathetic system remains activated and the parasympathetic system fails to bring the necessary relief.

This is when a trauma specialist can help. A therapist trained in trauma can help your Autonomic Nervous System recover its balance and restore you to emotional health.