It was a Friday night, I needed to get outside, so I took a quick walk to the grocery store closest to my house – about four blocks away.
I stopped at the streetlights. When the walk sign went on, I started across the mostly empty street. I’ve had enough close calls as a pedestrian that I was eyeing the truck across from me. Her flashing left turn signal told me she’d be driving across my crosswalk, but I wasn’t too worried, I knew the left turn light coordinated with the walk sign.
When I got the walk signal I relaxed and started across, glad for the fresh air and quiet road. I was a third of the way across when my own loud scream jolted me. As the oblivious driver roared her truck towards me I madly dashed towards the centre line.
She noticed me and screeched to a stop six inches from my body. Heart pounding, I turned on my heel 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.
After walking another block along the empty street and sidewalk, the darkness held at bay by the streetlight’s pooling light, shock set in. I alternated between anger, tears, shaking, cursing and making huffing noises, breathing heavily and quickly in and out, like a dog overheated in the hot sun.
My hands and arms trembled and I shook them downwards as if I was flinging rivulets of water off my arms. I recited a litany of foul curses, first in my head, then out loud – no one was around. “Fucking asshole, fucking bitch, you could have killed me. Goddamn self-absorbed entitled truck driver, get off the fucking road!” And on and on. More tears, more shaking, more cursing.
I was thankful it was dark out, and silent on the roads. I didn’t want any witnesses to my distress, overwhelm and rage. To my shakiness.
It’s not too long ago that I would have automatically and strenuously shut down those instinctual movements and energies coursing through my body. Incidents of near death or serious injury are a reminder of our animal instincts and letting those instinctual movements out isn’t always welcome. It often looks and sounds ‘out of control.’ Thankfully, I’ve done enough learning and training in how our bodies work to know that my nervous system needs to discharge after a shock to the system.
To know that a shock to the system is experienced as a trauma, and trauma needs to be discharged, or we end up feeling like we’ve got our foot on the gas and our other foot on the brakes, burning fuel and going nowhere.
But what is trauma? The simplest explanation is that its anything you experience that is too much, too soon, or too fast for our nervous system to handle.
But what is our nervous system? Most straightforwardly, it’s the brain, spinal cord, sensory organs, and all of the nerves that connect these organs with the rest of the body.
Its most basic function is to send signals from one cell to others, or from one part of the body to others. This is how we feel pain and pleasure, for example. At a more integrative level, it controls the body and communicates among its parts.
And for this story, we’re most concerned with what happens when the nervous system gets dysregulated. When trauma doesn’t get resolved.
Traumatic responses can be generated from: war, motor vehicle accidents, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. These are often the more well-known traumas, the ‘big-T’ traumas.
But traumatic responses can also come from concussions, surgery, dentistry and any sort of sharp physical or emotional shock to the person, even if it might seem small. These can be considered ‘small-t’ traumas.
I’ve had five big ‘T’ traumas – five car accidents and one little ‘t’ trauma – an intense concussion. Because of those experiences, and the intense discomfort of the side-effects, I was constantly seeking relief. That seeking led me to receiving body-work, to getting trained in it, and learning more and more as I got little bits of relief from each practitioner. It sure wasn’t a fast process, seeking relief, but it got me curious about how I might have been stuck in a traumatic response, without knowing it.
I was 16 when I got in my first car accident. I was a passenger in a minivan taking a left turn when we were hit by oncoming traffic, directly into the right side of the van. I was sitting in the middle right side, and, with no seatbelt on, I flew sideways one way, then the other, tumbling into the sliding door then onto the floor. We stayed near the van while the police arrived and took statements, cop and ambulance lights flashing. An hour later, my siblings and I were in the musical theatre performance we’d been heading to, dancing and singing. I noticed I had a calm demeanor, but felt tearful, overwhelmed and shaky, deep inside.
I was 18 when I got a concussion, and the 4 other other car accidents stretched themselves out over time, the last one happening in my late 30s (knock on wood.)
Our bodies experience the world in much the same way as wild animals; we go through cycles of expansion and contraction, charging and discharging energy. Our natural rhythms are part of the flow of life.
If you’ve had a cat, you’ve probably seen it ‘play’ with animals it’s caught. Once, I found a tiny little bird 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 its tiny ribcage, pumping in and out like a bellows as it breathed. 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, the bird was hopping around, doing its little bird movements as if nothing at all had happened. At that point, I took the box outside, opened it up, the bird took little hops out, leaped into the air, and flew away.
This is the good scenario – the bird lived and shook the attack off.
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. (There is a fourth, Fawn (aka tend and befriend) but for this story we’ll focus on the first three.) After the situation, 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. In case you’ve forgotten, we’re animal too. Our bodies and their nervous systems are mammalian.
However, the blessing we receive from being human is also our curse. Our thinking brain with its well-developed neo-cortex is able to override our nervous system and stop the discharge of this excess energy. We can prevent a healthy discharge of trauma, in order to fit in and be more socially acceptable, even when we’re in great distress.
If only we could allow ourselves, in our bodies, to be the animals that we are. Instead, our thinking minds take over and control and override our necessary animal functions, such as the fight, flight and freeze response cycle.
The big question is: why would we do this to ourselves?
Well, we’re 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, we may have been encouraged to stifle our feelings, buck-up, pull yourself together, ‘be strong.’ Embarrassment or shame about these strange-feeling energy discharges can cause us to try to control ourselves and shut the discharge down. Our thinking brains override our animal brains and our body’s essential need to discharge and stabilize the nervous system.
It’s in those overriding and shutdown responses 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 we are unable to fight or flee, we’ll freeze instead. The experience might even seem inconsequential, so we may have felt we ‘handled’ it.
But following this trauma and shutdown response, 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. Then, once the nervous system gets stuck in hyperarousal (your body acting as if the danger is still present), it becomes all-around more difficult to regulate reactions, moods and sense of safety.
Essentially, our bodies are 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 trapped in this cycle of generating charge with no way of releasing it, a state which can last for years, and years, and years, it impacts 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 if the cognitive thinking brain is unaware of thsee circumstances.
For example, if the fight/flight/freeze response happens as a young person and doesn’t get discharged, their traumatic responses, which aren’t their essential character, can become dismissed as ‘who they are.’ This can result in; 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.
It becomes a vicious cycle – if our nervous system is dysregulated, it doesn’t take much to overflow. It’s easier to become frazzled, reactive, tired. Each new shock combines with a pattern of getting stuck in freeze (or fight/flight) by suppressing the discharge instinct, with the result that the nervous system arousal becomes increasingly more intense. At this point, any which way to reduce arousal will start to be used for coping, including drugs and alcohol.
My fifth and last vehicle accident was the worst. I rolled my car off the road and upside down, caused by a combination of 0 degrees Celsius, roads slick with misty rain, a tight cloverleaf merge-road and speeding. I saw that I was going to go off the curving road moments before it happened. It was an eerily and unnerving slow motion experience.
Once the car crashed, time sped up and I found myself hanging upside down from my seatbelt. As I assessed how to get out of the car, looking down toward the ground/my car roof, I remember seeing my friend’s favourite camping spoon and thinking, randomly and irrelevantly, ‘I need to get that back to him,’ before clicking the seatbelt latch and dropping to the ground with a curl of my neck and shoulders. I crawled out my smashed window and reaching back in to grab my cell phone, and the spoon.
I took a picture of my upside down car and texted the picture to that same friend, who I’d just dropped off at the ferry. Then I called 911. The cops and the ambulance and the fire truck arrived. The cop told me he wasn’t going to ‘kick me while I was down’, but it was clear it was my fault and he ‘could’ give me a ticket. I wasn’t visibly hurt but the ambulance took me to the hospital. Everything felt calm, clear, surreal. I felt shaky, disembodied, shocked and lightheartedly hysterical. I wasn’t technically hurt, but my body was stiff, it hurt for months afterwards, and I remained jumpy for much longer. My car was totalled, a write-off.
As it turns out, I’ve had many of these dysregulation symptoms, particularly jaw issues. In retrospect, not surprising with five car accidents and a concussion.
Since I was a teenager I’ve had neck and shoulder tension, and I’d grind my teeth so hard in my sleep I had to wear a mouthguard at night in order to function well during the day. I tried all sorts of things to address it, and although many modalities helped me to cope with the intense tension, nothing banished the jaw clenching and grinding. To be honest, it made me feel a little bonkers.
Then I met someone who did SRT (self-regulation therapy) and I learned how amazing it is for concussions and trauma. I discovered there are ways to heal and start to take your foot off the gas and the brakes.
In the session, which is very gentle and hands-off, the practitioner, by bringing my attention to somatic (physical) sensations and getting me to do very gentle pelvic movements, got me out of the overriding power of my analyzing and overthinking mind, and into my body, where the nervous system started to release decades-old charges. The release felt like pins and needles and temperature changes all over. That’s when I remembered my five car accidents. Because it turned out the practitioner couldn’t get into addressing the effects of my concussion until my nervous system’s energy, which was charged through my body from bracing and ‘holding on’ from the car accidents, was released. I discovered that the only parts of my body that were relaxed were my ankles. My hands were gripped like claws on the pillows. I could feel everything holding on, ready. My poor body had been in this state of readiness for years. One session won’t fix everything but……
For the first time, I could feel my neck and shoulder tension, my patterns of overwhelm, my jaw, and how they were stuck in this hypervigilant state. After the session I was incredibly exhausted, but my jaw was looser. My whole face was looser. My body got a chance to keep letting go, to stop holding me in a state of readiness, and continue to release and discharge this intense energy.
After years of searching, and trying so many different healing modalies (all of which helped in small but not long-lasting ways), I’d finally found out why my jaw was so tight and clenched, why I would get shy/overwhelmed/freeze up, why the tension in my body kept coming back. I was finally able to start taking my feet off both the brake and the gas pedals.
We are all able to be resilient, relaxed and comfortable.
If we let it, our bodies know exactly what to do to take us to that state. 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.
A similar therapy, with many more practitioners worldwide, is Somatic Experiencing.
An another supportive and complementary therapy is BCST – biodynamic craniosacral therapy.
But our brains, oh our brains. They get in the way and they can cause us such trouble, don’t they!
We don’t always need to understand. But we have the capacity 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 experience 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.
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,
By the way – six years after writing this essay, I refined it in my Fine Toothed Comb course. And thank goodness for critiques and edits and revisions – it’s much improved! You can learn more about this 8 session writing class here.
- Start getting clear on your desires and untangling yourself from destructive longings with my free and on-demand Outline Your Memoir, workshop. A heads-up – by signing up (if you haven’t already) you’ll get an early-bird priced invitation ($250 off!) into the self-directed version of the Art of Personal Mythmaking.
- You can also download this PDF for support on working with your painful memories and stories (and access a limited time discount on the Art of Personal Mythmaking.)
Personal Mythmaking Podcast episodes about big ‘T’ and little ‘t’ traumas and connecting with your natural cycles:
- Listen to Isabel Martin-Ventura discuss letting go of thinking and the story Into the Fire in Episode 83 by clicking here.