Have you heard of the Ready for Fight or Flight Response? I discovered it as I began doing relaxation exercises to try to reduce overall tension in my body – the kind of tension that most childhood trauma survivors just live with – hardly aware of the pain it causes.
So I started to do meditations and as I started to do meditations, what I found is that I could get my body super relaxed and then one of two things would happen:
Either I would notice lying in my bed, that I couldn’t sleep because of a really subtle tension in my neck, my shoulders, and upper back. Or I would hold tension in my chin.
As I practiced relaxation, I noticed that I could become fully relaxed, but then gradually pull back into a place of tension. I also noticed that if I’m able to get myself fully relaxed, I get to a point where I just can’t stand it; I just want to run and scream – like the house is on fire.
Then I realized: this is a habit. It’s a habit based on not having safety at night during sleeping time.
But, I’m safe now.
I decided it was time to start to learn how to train my body to relax, now that I’m safe.
At the time of this blog post, I’m 54. So I’ve had 52 years of really strong reinforcement that at night time I’m not safe. So, I wouldn’t let myself relax. And I didn’t know I was doing this.
That’s the key.
If you think about yoga class or meditation or a therapist that may have asked you to “get in your breath” . . . and then somewhere in that process of learning to relax, there arises a sense of panic. It’s a body response of super panic.
We usually respond to that panic by saying, “That’s it. I don’t want any more, I’m gonna quit this.” And we do. I’ve been guilty of that many, many times but what I’ve been practicing is staying a minute longer after the sense of panic comes up in my body. Staying two minutes longer to work to calm it – to convince my body that I’m safe.
Now I’ve gotten myself to where I can do it for about 20 minutes, depending on the day. Sometimes I still have “had it” and I only do it for a minute or two longer. Sometimes it’s only a five-minute meditation, but it’s a practice.
And the more we practice and the more we train our body to understand that we’re not in danger, the better it gets.
A neuropsychologist researcher in Scotland describes that in psychotherapy sessions he noticed that when asking a trauma survivor to bring up a traumatic memory, the survivor would demonstrate visual tension in the face, shoulders and neck as soon as they began talking about the memory.
What they would do in those psychotherapy sessions is get people to pay attention to it the tension and try to release it. And when the survivors paid attention to it, they weren’t quite as triggered. They were able to stay aware, stay thinking clearly, and think through it instead of getting overwhelmed by all of the emotion associated with the memory.
With my discovery, I’m going on a different track to the same destination and it feels good to know that a neuroscientist is doing the same work I am in my own body.
One of the takeaways from this is that when you start learning to relax, when you start asking yourself to do that – and you’ll know when you’re ready to do that. When you start doing that, ask yourself to do 30 seconds longer than you think you can.
Remember this is a habit, so it’s about training.
This is what happens before the fight or flight response; it’s being ready for it.
I think most people who’ve had a trauma are either in fight-flight or ready for it and we want to get out of that state and get into a mental and physical state where we can problem solve and continue to heal our triggers.