Recently, on a Friday night, I I needed to get outside and pick up some groceries, so I took a quick walk to the grocery store, the one closest to my house -about 4 blocks away.
On my way back I stopped to cross the street at the streetlights. When the walk sign went on, I started across the mostly empty street. As I’d been waiting I’d been eyeing the truck across from me, with it’s left turn signal flashing away. Her turn would take her across my crosswalk, but I didn’t worry, I knew the intersection well and knew that there was a left turn light coordinated with the walk sign.
When I got the walk signal I started across, glad for the fresh air and quiet time. I was a third of the way across when my own loud scream jolted me and I came back to myself as I madly dashed towards the centre line, the truck roaring towards me, driver absolutely oblivious.
I literally missed being run over by about 6 inches as she saw and heard me and screeched to a stop. I turned on my heel back towards her truck and smashed my hand down on her hood – ANYTHING to make her realize the enormity of what had almost happened. Frantically gesturing ‘sorry’ to me, she drove off and I carried on down the road.
It was only after walking another block that my shocked reaction really set in, and I alternated between anger, tears, shaking, cursing and making huffing noises.
It’s not too long ago that I would have automatically shut down those instinctual movements and energies coursing through my body. I’m so thankful that I’ve done enough learning and training in how the body works to know that the nervous system needs her discharge after a shock to the system. Not allowing that adrenalized energy to exit the body wreaks all sorts of havoc.
This near death (or if not death, then serious injury) incident reminded me of a bit of writing I did a couple years ago, all about us, our animal instincts, and the natural world we’re meant to live in.
Although it might not seem related to my focus on creativity and embodiment, I promise, it’s 100% connected. How we show up in our bodies affects how we show up creatively – letting flow happen through the nervous system mirrors our ability to allow for creative flow too.
Here you go.
Foot off the gas! Foot off the brakes!
I am living in a human world, trying to connect to our natural world. Why is it that there is such a divide, when our human world is not possible without the natural world?
Being in a stilthouse on the water makes the wild water life apparent. Looking out the living room window, walking along the seashore, I welcome awareness of the natural world in. The other day my daughter and I were fortunate enough to see two otters playing on our dock. For about a week previous to that sighting, there’d been a big mess on the dock. The paddle on top of the canoe was tossed on the dock beside the flower planters, one of which was torn up, dirt and plants scattered all over. I wondered. I couldn’t figure out how the mess was made.
My question was answered when those two otters climbed up onto the dock. I’d never seen otters before! They were dark, wet, mischievously playful creatures. I was surprised. I had pictured them smaller. Their tails were long and thick, and their legs short. They were sleek and solid. After scampering and exploring, one of them climbed onto the canoe, which is stored upside down. It started to jump up and down as the other one pushed on the side of the canoe. My jaw dropped. What brats!
My daughter is convinced the otters were intent on pushing the canoe into the water. Fortunately, their attention span was short and soon enough, they were off, playing on the dock again, then back into the water, slipsliding away. We don’t see them often, so it’s such a treat when they pay us a visit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about animal responses lately. I’ve been very curious about our bodies and how we deal with traumatic experiences.
Although we are all aware that people can experience trauma from war, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, trauma is also generated from motor vehicle accidents, concussions, surgery, dentistry and any sort of sharp physical or emotional shock to the person, even if it might seem ‘small.’
Given that I’ve been in five car accidents and experienced an intense concussion among other things, I’ve been curious about how I might have been affected without knowing it.
We humans are also animals; our bodies experience the world in much the same way as wild animals, and thus we necessarily go through certain cycles of expansion and contraction, charging and discharging energy. I think that so much of our troubles comes from a refusal to let ourselves, in our bodies, be the animals that we are. Our thinking minds take over and control and override our necessary animal functions, such as the fight, flight and freeze response cycle.
There is a physical response to experiences and stimuli, and in the natural world the cycle always completes itself, allowing a return to equilibrium in which the nervous system can regulate itself. When an animal (or person) is presented with a novel or threatening situation, there are three natural responses we have in our systems. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Afterwards, if the animal survives the danger, it always discharges excess energy from it’s nervous system with some variety of shaking, trembling, twitching. This discharge leaves the animal ready to fully respond again, and they can move through this sequence often without experiencing any negative effects or exhibiting symptoms of trauma.
If you’ve had a cat, you’ve probably seen some animals that were being ‘played with’, or that escaped. I recall a tiny little bird that I found in a corner of my living room, injured and being tormented by my cat. After chasing the cat off, I gathered the bird up and put it in a little box. Watching the bird, I noticed how it was still, frozen. Almost nothing moved except it’s tiny ribcage, pumping in and out like an accordion as it breathed. This lasted a while. Then, finally, the bird started to shake violently, crouched down. This also lasted a while. And then, in what seemed like a snap of the fingers, it was hopping around, doing it’s little bird movements as if nothing at all had happened. At that point, I took the box outside, opened it up, the bird took it’s little hops out, leaped into the air, and flew away.
This is the good scenario – the one that often doesn’t get a chance to play out where the bird’s nervous system returned to equilibrium where it could regulate itself. However, the blessing we receive from being human is also our curse. Our thinking brain, our well-developed neo-cortex, is able to override our nervous system and stop the discharge of this excess energy.
The big question is: why would we do this to ourselves?
Well, we are not always able to respond in the natural way that our nervous system was designed, which our system absolutely needs. You may remember feeling cold and trembly after a minor accident, shock or close call. If you let it happen, you’ll go through a series of discharges such as shaking, crying, laughing, breathing and twitching shudders. But we humans don’t consider displays of this kind as normal or acceptable.
Instead, you may have been encouraged to stifle your feelings, buck-up, pull yourself together, and embarrassment or shame about these strange-feeling energy discharges may have caused you to try to control yourself and shut the discharge down. Your thinking brain overrode the animal brain and the body’s essential need to discharge and stabilize the nervous system.
It’s in those freeze situations that we start to get ourselves into trouble. Our animal brain will respond to whatever-it-was as if it was a life-threatening situation, and a great deal of energy is mounted in the nervous system to protect itself. If you are unable to fight or flee, you will freeze instead. The experience might even seem inconsequential, so you may have felt you ‘handled’ it.
But following this, things might start to feel different. Perhaps you have trouble sleeping, startle more easily, have pain or are nervous in situations similar to the accident, or feel ‘off,’ more generally anxious or depressed. These are signs of dysregulation in the nervous system, which is trauma. Because the nervous system gets stuck in hyperarousal, it becomes all-around more difficult to regulate arousal.
Essentially, your body is trapped –the gas pedal is on, your energy charged up to deal with a situation which is now over, but the brake pedal is also on, your energy being used to prevent the discharge of energy. Because the body’s nervous system is then trapped in this cycle of charge, with no way of releasing it, this state can last for years, and years, and years, and impact your behavior and ways of being. If the nervous system is ‘on’ all the time, your whole system will think it’s in danger all the time, even though the thinking brain is entirely unaware.
Here’s another story: when I was 17 I was living in Japan as an exchange student. I was snowboarding, ironically, on the baby slope, when I fell backwards and got a concussion. I remember easily gliding down the slope, not paying particular attention, then the sharp piercing impact, and bounce, of my head meeting ice and snow.
I have a gap in my memory, then I’m crawling up the slope to retrieve my red toque. Another gap, and a flash into a conversation with an American exchange student on the ski lift.
Another gap, then I was in restraints lying on my back with lights beeping in an arc over my head (some sort of brain scan machine).
Another gap, and I was eating cake with female exchange students.
Another gap, and the Austrian and English exchange students were saying I had a concussion, it was criminal the Japanese hosts weren’t taking care of me, and did I want some alcohol? To go to a party? Another girl stepped in and tucked me into bed.
In all, I lost 24 hours. I was walking, talking, participating in life, albeit strangely, but I have no memory, besides those flashes, of that time. What I remember in the months after is difficulty concentrating, focusing, paying attention, and intense headaches.
Being in Japan, and having been raised to be tough, to stick things out, I did many things that I should not have done after a traumatic concussion, including continuing to practice kendo (a Japanese martial art – essentially Samurai fencing with bamboo swords) wherein I received further blows to my head. I was definitely further dysregulating my nervous system, overriding any opportunity it may have had to release and discharge that energy, in my attempt to be ‘normal’ and strong and fit in.
If the fight/flight/freeze response happens as a young person and doesn’t get discharged, say from a motor vehicle accident or fall, your traumatic responses, which aren’t your essential character, can become dismissed as ‘who you are’.
The nervous system becomes dysregulated, unable to modulate emotional or behavioural responses. This can result in, for example, excessive shyness combined with emotional reactivity, including rage. Difficulty with concentration and memory. Oversensitivity, particularly to sounds and lights. It can also manifest in many other ways including anxiety, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, drug and alcohol abuse and a variety of physical ailments, including neck and back pain, and TMJ (jaw) issues.
Then, it’s a vicious cycle – if our nervous system is dysregulated, it doesn’t take much to ‘fill us up’. It’s easier to become frazzled, reactive, tired. With each new trauma, and a pattern of getting stuck in freeze and suppressing the discharge instinct, the nervous system becomes increasingly compromised, the nervous system arousal becomes increasingly intense. At this point, any which way to reduce arousal will start to be used to cope, including drugs and alcohol.
Many of the dysregulation symptoms got my attention, most of all the jaw issues. I have, since I was a teenager, had neck and shoulder tension, and I grind my teeth so hard in my sleep I have to wear a mouthguard at night in order to function well during the day. I have tried all sorts of things to address it, and although many modalities have helped me to cope with the intense tension, nothing has banished the jaw clenching and grinding. To be honest, it’s made me a little crazy. Until…..
Until I met someone who does a healing work called SRT (self-regulation therapy) and learned how amazing it is for concussions and trauma. She planted a seed that started to grow in my head –until I got curious enough to try a session with her.
In the session – which is very gentle and hands-off, the practitioner takes you into the body in a way that gets you out of the overriding power of the thinking mind, and into the body, where the nervous system gets permission to start releasing decades-old charges. That’s when I remembered my five car accidents. Because it turns out the practitioner can’t even get to addressing the effects of my concussion until the nervous system’s energy that is charged through the body from bracing and ‘holding on’ from the car accidents is released. As I discovered, the only parts of my body that was relaxed were my ankles. My hands were gripped like claws on the pillows. I could feel everything holding on, ready. My poor body has been in this state of readiness for years. One session won’t do it all but……
But the most amazing thing is, I could feel my neck and shoulder tension, my patterns of overwhelm, my jaw, and how they were stuck in this hypervigilant state. And, when I left the session I was so exhausted he next day (which the practitioner said is normal), but my jaw was looser. My whole face was looser. My body got a chance to keep letting go, backing off of holding me in a state of readiness, and continue to release and discharge this intense energy.
In years of searching, amazingly, I’ve finally found out why my jaw is so tight and clenched, why I can get shy/overwhelmed/freeze up, why the tension in my body keeps coming back. I’ll finally be able to start taking my feet off both the brake, and the gas pedals.
We are all able to be resilient. If we let it happen, out bodies know exactly what to do to take us there. And when we don’t let it happen, there are tools that can get us back to that place.
Self-regulation therapy is a non-cathartic mind/body approach aimed at diminishing excess activation in the nervous system. It enables the nervous system to integrate overwhelming events, complete the thwarted responses of fight, flight or freeze and bring balance to the nervous system after years of being dysregulated. Pretty neat hey!
But our brains, oh our brains. They get in the way and they can cause us such trouble, can’t they.
I’m still thinking a lot about animal responses. I’m still very curious about the body, and how, in general, I can try to let my body take the lead more often, and get my monkey mind to back off and take a break. I have had an internal wail for years – the mind-that-wants-to-know getting lost chanting “I just don’t understand!”
Ah! I finally surrender!
Given what I’ve discovered, I think it might be a good thing if we all learn how to let the body take the lead more often, don’t you? There are mysteries in this world that are simply not available to be understood. I surrender, I do.
What I do know and get, in a new way, is that I don’t always need to understand. We are all able to tune into our deeper knowing, the body-based growl and snarl of the fight response, the electric shock of pulsing muscles engaged in the flight response, the quietude of the freeze response. We are all able to surrender to the out-of-control feeling of discharge and release, even to enjoy it, and then to luxuriate in the glorious full-body purr that comes after discharging that nervous adrenalized energy.
It’s a deeper knowing which bypasses the brain, and in that space I can feel, absolutely, that all will be well.
I think straddling the line between knowing and not knowing is a great way to approach life.
As always – I’m genuinely curious, curious, curious.
Have you had big, or small shocks and traumas and accidents? Have things felt ‘off’ after? Hard to recover from? Have you ever experienced a discharge from your nervous system? What’s the discharge, the release you are relaxing into? How loud is the purr as it starts to rumble out?
Until next time,
pps – if you enjoy my writing, consider signing up for my weekly e-letter. I share more there than here on the blog.