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The Ice Cube Trick

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

When you experience trauma, there are a lot of ways that it takes a toll mentally. Frequently people experience agitation, mistrust, anger, depression, and many other symptoms. One of the most difficult results of trauma is often described as not feeling like yourself, feeling distant from your life and others, or a lack of feeling. When this occurs, people sometimes lose track of time or may not remember how they got to where they are or forget what they were going to do; these are examples of dissociation.

When working with trauma, we as therapists approach it in a variety of different ways. One of the most important aspects in any practice is to ensure we are working to help people who are struggling with the past event and their life in the present. It is important to focus on both aspects. As I mention above, dissociation is one of the more difficult aspects of coping with trauma because oftentimes, you don’t realize that you disassociated until after it happened. The reason one dissociates is due to changes in the brain that occurred as it tried to cope with the traumatic event and as a result, the amygdala flooded the hippocampus and made it difficult from there on to separate triggers from the actual trauma event. In some cases, the traumatic event affected the person in a way that makes their brain shut down and unable to process what is happening in the present, this leads the person to dissociate and have their mind removed from the moment. It is incredibly difficult to feel as though you do not have control over your mind or body, and it can result in people being in a constant state of stress and disorganization, and feeling as if it’s useless to take on the task of healing.

At this point, you might be thinking, “This is interesting, but what does it have to do with the title, The Ice Cube Trick,” which is what even got your interest to begin with. The key to combatting dissociation is to bring a person back to the present time and place; we do this by grounding a person using mindfulness. Your brain focuses on certain processes at a time so as to do that one task well. So if you do something to bring yourself back to the present, it stops your brain from pushing you away. One of the most direct and useful ways to do this, is by doing something that is physically uncomfortable because it snaps your brain to attention. One way that I have found that this can be done quite successfully is to go to the freezer, take out an ice cube, place it in the palm of one hand and close your fingers around it when you are feeling the pull to dissociate (which takes some time and repetition to know the signs it may happen). You should hold it as long as you can. The sensation of the extreme cold is uncomfortable; it is so uncomfortable that it pulls your brain back to the moment to address the discomfort.

Anytime you are feeling a dissociative episode coming or you are recognizing you just experienced a dissociative episode, grab an ice cube and hold tight. This small act can help to ground you in the present and allow you a moment’s reprieve from struggling with the effects of trauma, it can give you the breath you need to keep moving forward and this small step can give you the footing you need to then make more progress.

If you have experienced a traumatic event of any kind and are looking for help, please be sure to ask for help. The therapists at Symmetry Counseling can help you through these difficult times and maybe even teach you some interesting tricks along the way.

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