Lately I’ve been considering how we can shut ourselves down when the situation is too much for us to handle. We’ve all heard of the 2 responses to danger of Fight or Flight, yet we often forget the Freeze response. An animal in the wild can play dead so convincingly a predator spares her. A teen in a car accident can “go numb” and later remember little of the shattering glass, the burning rubber, the screeching sirens.
During the Freeze Response to trauma, we instantly download the sensory information, all the sights, sounds, and smells of the scene, for our overwhelmed nervous system to deal with later when we’re ready. This is a survival mechanism — our brain knows this is too much for us to handle in the moment. An animal who escapes a predator will then “shake it off”, literally, just like a wet dog shaking off the water, getting the trauma out of its muscles and nervous system. Unfortunately, people don’t normally do this, so can carry the memories of trauma in their bodies for a lifetime. For a great book with more on this, see Peter Levine’s “Waking the Tiger”.
In my EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, or “tapping”) coaching training with Carol Look, dealing with past trauma, whether in ourselves or in a coaching client, keeps coming up. Carol talks about “Little-T traumas”, maybe misplacing your keys and being late for an important meeting at work, and “Big-T traumas” like being whipped as a small child. Of course, since people have different levels of sensitivity, a minor momentary upset to one person could be enormous and life-altering to someone else.
Carol held a client session with a woman who wanted to improve her business. She had been in the Iraq war as a soldier, and when questioning the wisdom of their mission, was told by her superior officer, “You’re not paid to think about that”. She often had to ride into a war zone with so much road dust she could hardly see, all the while knowing there was life-or-death danger just ahead. So she shut down, since it seemed like nothing she did or said made any difference. She felt completely powerless and just focused on surviving.
Carol’s soldier client carried this attitude into her business life after she left the Army, not questioning her manager’s decisions, having that same feeling that to do so would be pointless. I identified strongly with this woman, tapping with the recording as Carol led her with “It’s life or death every day!” and “No one cares what I think” and “This hopeless feeling”. As I tapped I was pulled back to my childhood where my dominant mother met my “input” (which never got in!) with “As long as you live in this house…” or an emphatic declaration of “I’m the Mother!” as if she was the Queen of the Land. So yes, I guess part of me shut down back then too, just like the soldier, feeling powerless.
It’s occurred to me before that reaching out to other people to connect, which can often be scary for me, is closely related to reaching out visually to see clearly in the distance. If I’m timid and tentative, I won’t get as good of a result, or as strong of a connection, as if I’m enthusiastic and confident. If I’m afraid to look because I expect danger, I’m partially shutting down my visual channel. So I’m continuing to tap on “I’m here now, and I’m safe”, to remind myself to stay in the present.
In a recent personal session with Greg Marsh, the well-known vision teacher from Colorado, we worked on my negative feelings about the eye chart, especially being worried I’d “get it wrong” or be criticized. When Greg asked me where I felt this in my body, I described a constriction in my throat, as if I was about to cry, and a collapsing inward in my upper chest area. The latter felt like a caving in to protect myself and shelter my vulnerable parts, my heart maybe. With Greg’s gentle humorous style we befriended the Eyechart Monster, and I could feel expansion and relaxation afterwards in both my chest and my throat.
Some things I’m very good at, and others are more difficult for me. I’m realizing I downplayed my sensitivity most of my life since it was seen by others as inconvenient, or even at times a big problem. My mother used to tell me, “Nancy, you don’t feel that way!”. I am finally honoring my feelings, even if I am the only one who feels like this! In particular, I am honoring the feelings of my child self when I was frightened so often, and didn’t have the control of my environment I do now. I am safe, I am here in the present, and it is a joy to see!