We have entered a time in history when traumatic occurrences are happening frequently; there is hardly time to process one event before another is shoved into view.
After the world revolted to protest the death of George Floyd and supported Black Lives Matter, more lives continue to be threatened by human ignorance and brutality.
Observing the current political climate is painful and, for many of us, intolerable. And over the last month, ahead of a fire season that no longer exists, the West has seen unprecedented destruction due to climate-change-driven wildfires, with over two-and-a half-million acres already destroyed.
On top of all of this, a global pandemic continues to affect the health and economic strength of the world. And leaders in science and medicine are continually vilified in order to fulfill political agendas.
Although violence and destruction are part of the human experience, traumatic occurrences are pummeling humanity like a persistent overhead swell. We are not wired to repeatedly experience trauma and function efficiently, therefore, there has never been a more important time to tend to our emotional shores.
I realize the word trauma carries a lot of charge and is relative to the experience of the individual; however, all types of trauma may affect an individual’s equilibrium by limiting function and blocking much needed relational connection and healing.
The current influx of environmental and social destruction is affecting the global psyche, and for many of us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the forest from the burned trees.
Tending to our emotional shores means committing to staying present in the moment, sensing tension in the body, and nurturing awareness practices that honor our precious time here on earth.
When we pay greater attention to our inner structure of defense and protection (fight-or-flight-or-freeze response), we become more capable of reacting to the world in a way that is beneficial to our well-being.
Constantly panicking about the world, feeding fear, and consuming excess media leads to a dysregulated nervous system. Choosing to operate in this manner is not helping us, nor anyone else to stay healthy. We all go there at times because we are mammals wired to defend ourselves. It is important to have compassion for the part of the brain that is conditioned to anticipate predation, real or imagined. That being said, committing to daily practices that regulate the nervous system supports health by reducing cortisol and promoting a healthy immune response in the body.
The more we become aware of how thoughts, feelings, and body sensations negatively affect us, the better armed we become to attenuate negative response patterns driven by fear and anxiety. When we are confronted with an internal or external crisis and feel unable to utilize supportive resources, we should think about our patterns of defense and how to work with them.
Withdrawal, also know as the “freeze” response, is a primitive defense function deeply wired in the brain to increase the likelihood of survival. When the system becomes flooded with negative information and uncomfortable feelings or emotions, many people unconsciously enter a state of physical or emotional immobility. We distance ourselves from the input we are unable to tolerate, and in doing so, also distance ourselves from good feelings and experiences that are there to support and regulate us. The body may feel closed off, and interpersonal connection becomes limited or nonexistent.
In this peculiar era of social distancing, it is important to pay attention to the part of ourselves that wants to shut down and tune out, especially since social contact is already limited.
The first step in healing patterns of withdrawal is noticing our behavior.
When we feel sad, angry, or frustrated, do we shut down? Do we limit social contact and go quiet, instead of reaching out to a friend or family member? Do we turn to substances to numb the pain? How does our mood change? Do we stop engaging in activities we would otherwise enjoy? Do we stop exercising or move less?
If so, we are most likely attempting to protect ourselves, yet are doing so in a way that may be disconnecting us from the healing our bodies, minds, and spirits so desperately need for balance.
When you withdraw, do you feel disconnected from your body? How does the breath feel? Is it shallow, tight, heavy, or barely there? Is there less sensation in your legs and feet and more in the upper centers of the body? Is there no sensation at all?
It is through the recognition of darkness that we are able to look toward the light and disarm unhealthy patterns of avoidance, somatic tension, and withdrawal.
If you tend to withdraw when you feel compromised, do what you can to feel more embodied and connected to your thoughts and feelings.
After conducting extensive research on interpersonal neurobiology, contemporary psychiatrist Dan Siegel, MD coined the phrase, “If you can name it, you can tame it.”
By naming our experiences, we acknowledge what is happening in the here and now and become more able to reclaim a sense of self and belonging. By naming our experiences, we acknowledge what is happening in the here and now and become more able to reclaim a sense of self and belonging.
When practicing somatic (body) awareness, individuals who withdraw or freeze often say things like:
>> I feel numb.
>> I am having difficulty identifying sensation.
>> I feel like I am floating upward.
>> I feel walled up.
>> I feel dull, dense, and cold.
Anxiety (Fight or Flight)
When the system becomes flooded with negative input and uncomfortable feelings or emotions, many people enter a state of moderate-to-extreme anxiety. This response is often associated with what is known as the fight-or-flight response, instigated by the sympathetic nervous system branch, and frequently associated with states of heightened anxiety.
Similar to an immobility response (withdrawal/freeze), this defense mechanism is neurologically wired in the primitive part of the brain and was designed to help mammals move away from or fight their adversaries. As the nervous system becomes flooded, it feels natural for people experiencing a fight-or-flight response to react to stimuli, rather than withdraw from it, although sometimes there is a fluctuation between all three response patterns.
When the flight-or-flight response is in full swing, it can feel as though we are being carried away by an internal storm that crashes over everything and everyone in its hyper-aroused path. Although, what we desperately need in these moments are regulation and support, what we exhibit often ends up pushing away connection, therefore sabotaging the likelihood that deeply vulnerable needs get met.
In this era of heightened arousal and anxiety, the first step in easing symptoms is acknowledging them.
When naming the sensation, thought, or feeling, we are better able to disarm unhealthy patterns of reactivity, anger, and anxiety. From this place, it becomes more feasible to seek support, develop coping skills, and start moving toward connection.
If you struggle with symptoms of stress and anxiety, try slowing down and checking in with yourself.
How many hours, days, or weeks have you been aware of these symptoms? Do you react quickly rather than pausing and taking a few mindful breaths? Do you feel unsafe in your environment, even when there is no tangible threat? Do you feel distrustful of others or demand that they listen to you?
Where does anxiety manifest in your body? How would you describe it? Do something every day to get in touch with these feelings.
Common things said by individuals who feel anxious or are operating from a fight-or-flight response:
>> My shoulders and back feel tense and tight.
>> I feel like something is pinching my chest.
>> My mind won’t stop racing.
>> It feels like there is a ball bouncing around in my head.
>> It feels like there are butterflies under my skin.
>> I want to escape.
>> I don’t feel safe.
>> I feel like walls are closing in on me.
Few humans become nervous system regulating Jedis by practicing stress reduction occasionally. Take time each day for either self-care or somatic (body-centered) awareness. It is a practice that needs to be cultivated. Your nervous system and loved ones will thank you.
A quick and powerful breath practice you can try is Antara Kumbhaka. This breath practice aids relaxation, decreases stress, improves concentration, and increases physical and mental energy.
There are many variations to Antara Kumbhaka; but, here is a simple method:
>> Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes.
>> Inhale slowly through your nose (3 to 5 counts).
>> Hold your breath (4 to 8 counts).
>> Exhale slowly through your nose (4 to 6 counts).
Although these are challenging times, we have an abundance of resources at our fingertips. You owe it to yourself and your cause to continue taking loving care of yourself and others.
Some self-care ideas:
>> Nature exploration
>> Getting more sleep
>> Calling a friend
>> Creating or listening to music
>> Being of service
>> Sitting with feelings
>> Reducing media consumption
>> Learning something new
>> Podcasts or educational videos
>> Hot baths