For VT Students, Faculty, Staff and Counselors:
Several concerned alumni have asked us to post this page, offering free relaxation and guided imagery downloads, to help bring relief for common reactions to the attack on campus in April.
These resources can help calm down nerves upon the return to school. They've been effective with many other people in similar situations..
If you want to skip over the explanation of how and why these tools work the way they do, and instead go straight to them, click here. Having an email address with vt.edu at the end of it will provide you with a free pass to access the downloads.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you start feeling worse instead of better, or if you want to talk about your reactions, this is exactly what the Counseling Center (540.231.6557) is there for.
Typical Reactions After Such an Attack
After a traumatic event such as what happened at VT, even very resilient, emotionally healthy people can experience some pretty severe symptoms for a time - flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, panic attacks, concentration problems, emotional numbness, insomnia, impaired memory, irritability, temper and startling from sudden noise and touch. These reactions can even occur in some people who were not directly involved; and, of course, from the sudden loss of friends and classmates.
It's All About Survival Biochemistry
We used to think this was all "psychological", but now we know better. After a traumatic event, or even hearing the news of a traumatic event, there's a biophysical reaction, related to the massive release of survival hormones that flood the body. These biochemicals don't dissipate quickly, but instead swing back and forth, between natural alarm and sedation neurohormones, as the body tries to settle itself back down to its normal rhythms. People can be furious or terrified, agitated or panicky one minute - that's the alarm biochemicals - and numb, emotionally flat and disconnected the next - that's the natural opioids.
It Takes Time
We know from studies of typhoons and bombings that for many people, these swings can last in some people from four to nine months. For others, it's only a matter of weeks. Some people don't get them at all.
A lot depends on your built-in neurological wiring; also how close you were to the traumatic event, how personally affected you were, and whether you've suffered previous traumatic experiences.
Atypical Memory Storage
And because traumatic memories are not stored in the language and thinking centers of the brain, where normal memories are catalogued, but instead are stashed in the more primitive, survival-based structures of the brain, as images, perceptions, emotions, sensations and muscular reactions, they can be hard or even impossible to access with language.
Nor do they quickly fade and distort over time the way normal memories do. Instead they can stay in the survival centers of the brain, as flashbacks, nightmares, physical sensations and raw feelings, experienced with great immediacy, as if the original event were happening all over again. This catalyzes yet another blast of alarm biochemicals, followed by the alternating tide of natural opioids, back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes these swings can actually gain in intensity for a time. But most people's biochemistry eventually gets back to normal, even when they do nothing to make it so.
Talking About It Not Always the First Place to Start
So getting someone who was within immediate range of the traumatic event to talk about what happened, right off the bat, is not always such a great idea - especially if they experienced "freezing" during the attack (freezing is a commonplace, inborn, biological response to threat, common to all mammals, along with the better understood fight and flight reactions).
Either the survivor won't be able to access what happened in spoken words, or they'll talk about it in a rote, disconnected way that doesn't help; or they'll try to talk and a flashback or panic attack gets activated, turning loose another cascade of alarm biochemicals that activate the cycle all over again. For many trauma survivors, journaling about an event is easier and more useful than talking about it.
What is most helpful in the immediate aftermath of a trauma is learning and practicing simple self-regulation skills that help settle a disrupted biochemistry back down. Once there is a nice, solid practice of one or more of these simple, self-calming skills in place, body, mind and spirit can be coaxed back into balance more quickly and easily. These skills also makes it easier for survivors to discuss the trauma and integrate it cognitively in the language and idea-processing parts of their brains - that is, if they still want or need to. Some do and some don't.
A spate of recent research at Duke University with combat vets suggests that this may be one of the important keys to speeding up recovery from acute stress and posttraumatic stress - getting trained in these simple relaxation and self-regulation practices.
There are many of these practices, and they are easy to learn - conscious breathing (counting to three with each in-breath and each out-breath, for instance), progressive muscle relaxation, mantra meditation (all three are found on our Panic Attack download), mindfulness meditation, yoga, qigong, self-acupressure. all are good self-regulatory skills. Of course, for some, prayer fills the bill and is all that is needed..
Other methods such as therapeutic massage, energy work, Reiki or Therapeutic Touch, aerobic exercise, listening to music, mindful walking in the woods, working with art, writing or expressive dance are very helpful too.
Imagery: The Best Tool in the Kit
Guided imagery - a kind of deliberate, directed daydraming, narrated by a soothing voice over calming music - is now considered a "best practice" and treatment of choice for acute and traumatic stress. It's especially easy to use, because it demands so little of the listener and does most of the "heavy lifting" - listeners can just drop into an immersive, receptive, dreamy state (surprisingly easy for most traumatized people to do, thanks to those endogenous opioids) and listen or, more typically, half-listen.
There are many other reasons why imagery is ideal - it acts on the same part of the brain that's been most affected, countering horrendous images with healing ones. It's also simple, portable and self-administered.
So, at the request of several of your dedicated Hokie alums who were already familiar with our audio materials from their professional work, we're making several of our downloads available, free of charge, to VT students, staff, faculty and families. Just to state the obvious: this is only for people impacted by the tragedy at VT, and we trust you not to send this link all over the place. (Normally, we sell these from our online and print catalog.)
To download, you will be asked to enter your passcode. If you don't have a passcode, you will be shown where you can enter your vt.edu email address and receive it. Click here to go to the downloads page.
General instructions, after you download these, are as follows: Once the audio starts, just close your eyes (or keep your lids at half-mast if you don't want to shut them completely) and let yourself experience the voice, music and images. You don't have to pay perfect attention for it to work.
Simple as it sounds, repeated listening to guided imagery can speed up your body's return to normal, bring you back to your basic resilience, and remind an agitated system that it does indeed know how to get back into balance.
Listen as often as you like or as often as you can, but once or twice a day for a few weeks is a good schedule to get yourself on. It's especially effective if you listen in that already dreamy time, when you're just waking up or falling asleep. You may get a little teary-eyed - that's normal, even when listeners don't have things to be sad about - so don't let that throw you. And they're pretty relaxing, so please don't listen while you're driving!
We're offering five downloads for you - these are the guided imagery recordings most relevant to these circumstances.
Help with Panic Attacks
It's not unusual for trauma survivors to have panic attacks - it's those same alarm biochemicals going into gear. This audio has 4 different quick, proven, user-friendly, techniques to reduce the intensity or head off panic altogether, before it has a chance to take up residence as a life of its own.
The most common after-effect of a traumatic event is disrupted sleep. Listen to this as you're trying to fall asleep and when you wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep.
Relaxation & Wellness
This is good for general stress relief, and to pump up feelings of resilence, emotional support and connection to others.
This is to help process loss, maintain an open heart in the face of loss, and offer a way to tolerate the sadness and eventually get beyond it.
This is the most powerful healing imagery in the batch, and the one that has gotten the terrific outcomes at Duke. But it's intense, so if it makes you uncomfortable, you may not be ready for it. Remember, you know where the Pause button is. You can always go back to listening to Relaxation & Wellness and build up your self-soothing skills first, then come back to it if you still need it (and you may not).
And DesktopSpa, for Quick, Effective Mini-Tools, at the Screen, 24/7
We have other self-regulating techniques for you to click and try, too. To experience a brief lesson in yoga, acupressure, qigong, meditation, conscious breathing, general relaxation or other kinds of imagery, click on DesktopSpa.com, our web-based, holistic health "jukebox". It streams 5-minute, "mini-treatments" for self-regulation - some audio and some video - guided by renowned experts such as Andy Weil, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joan Borysenko, Martha Howard, Cyndi Lee, Emmett Miller, Ken Cohen and many more master teachers.
How to Use DesktopSpa
To use DesktopSpa, all you have to do is give yourself a user name, and pass code of your own choosing. Where it asks for a corporate code, enter in caps the word: VTECH. A lot of universities offer this little "healer app" to their students to help with general stress, eye strain, concentration, depression and even sore shoulders.
Help Yourself and We Wish You Well!
Please help yourself to our imagery downloads and the mini-treatments on DesktopSpa. All of us at HealthJourneys.com are very happy to have some simple, useful techniques to offer you - tools we know can make a difference. And again, remember: call the counseling center if your reactions persist or intensify or begin to interfere with your ability to function at your work.
We wholeheartedly wish you the very best.
Belleruth Naparstek, LISW and the whole Health Journeys Team
For questions. comments or more info: