Humans are born reactors. Living in a world of saber-toothed tigers, we learned to know danger when we sensed the animal was near. Without having to think much, our brain threw us into the modes of fight, flight, and freeze. Our ability to sense danger and immediately react probably saved our species. But today, it may be killing us.
Nobody I know is dealing with tigers these days, except for celebrating 2022 as their year. Yet, some of us live in a state of vigilance, as if at any moment a big cat might attack. The events that trigger our fight-flight-freeze, though, can be much smaller than those of our ancestors.
- A letter about taxes from the IRS arrives.
- Police sirens are coming up from behind our car.
- Our partner, on the road, texts us at 10 pm saying, “Call me asap.”
- Our gray tabby cat comes home limping, unable to put one foot down.
I know what happens to me when I sense danger: My heart starts beating faster. My stomach lurches. I feel constriction in my chest. My neck tightens. All of these are clues that the part of my brain charged with reactiveness has been triggered.
That section of my brain, the amygdala, has a job. It’s my inner watchdog, always on guard to make sure nothing happens to the house. It lives on a low-octane energy called “beware” and “vigilance.” Often, it has to be convinced to let its guard down and take a break. Which it almost never does.
My inner engine idles aimlessly on anxiety when it should be turned off.
The legacy of trauma and reactiveness
Our inherent tendency towards vigilance gets heightened when we’ve been traumatized. And these days who hasn’t?
I used to think trauma came from big life-shattering events. Now I understand that trauma doesn’t have to be world-shattering. It can come from any hurt or relational experience that is too painful for us to fully experience in the moment. To keep our system from overloading, part of us shuts down. Our bodies help us by storing for later what we cannot deal with now. However, with a large deposit of trauma locked in our inner underworld, we risk becoming hyper-reactive to what reminds us of what we once felt.
I’ve recently heard trauma experts talking about trauma as being on a spectrum, the way we now see autism. Traumas can be big, or they can come through small occurrences. We fell off a bike and then, scared and bloodied, we returned home to a house that was unexpectedly empty with no one to comfort us. Was this traumatic? It depends. Trauma lives in the body-mind of an individual, not in some external, objective measure of what qualifies as traumatic.
We can injure the body by breaking a bone. We can also injure it with a thousand small twists and tears. The broken bone may be initially more painful, but the damage is visible and often reparable. Both can be traumatic.
Facing life today can feel traumatic
How can we face the news about climate, racism, crazy politics – the big list – without feeling a sense of pain that is irresolvable and too big to fully take in? One hundred years ago, 100,000 tigers roamed the planet. Today, we have fewer than 4,000. Faced with the potential loss of a magnificent species, how can one not feel saddened and overwhelmed?
What we read in the news can be traumatizing or restimulate trauma that lives within us.
- Jewish worshipers are shot in a synagogue and I feel the horrific legacy of anti-Semitism.
- African-American churchgoers are killed in Charleston and my mind pictures lynchings and centuries of racial violence.
- A gay boy or trans girl is bullied, beaten, or killed, and I feel the weight of hurt caused to children and adults who are not allowed to be who they are.
- A female politician is attacked with misogynist comments and I remember how, for centuries, it was not safe for some women to speak up.
The list goes on.
Fortunately, I am largely protected from direct contact with such horror. But my body remembers the ancient memories as my amygdala whispers, “You see, it’s not safe.”
We can heal without having to fix ourselves
I’ve been in therapy. The traumas I carried within were too smart to come out during talk sessions with my therapist. Therapy probably helped me to make better decisions. Yet my deepest pains remained hidden.
Healing trauma is not a quick fix. Multiple approaches can be used; most take time.
Fortunately, there’s an approach we can use immediately when we sense that we’ve been triggered by life, taken over by our amygdala, or feel restimulated by trauma: we can come home to our senses.
By tracking on our senses, we have an immediate, simple, cost-free way to ease the effects of trauma, calm our reactiveness, make more peace with the past, and improve our functioning even as we continue to heal core wounds from our past. And we can do it when we’re in the midst of daily life.
One approach is to pay attention to our feet, which is a way of grounding with the earth. Last week I wrote about the power within our feet, honoring the beautiful walking meditation of Thich Nhat Hanh. By noticing the feel of our feet on the earth or our toes in our shoes we enter the world of our senses.
When we turn on our brain’s sensory awareness channel we turn down the brain’s reactive “fright channel.” We move from the world of past tigers to our body’s place of right here/right now.
Ways to come back to my senses
Breath. I take a breath and feel the temperature of the air coming in through my nostrils. I allow my breath to be deep and regular, sometimes letting my exhale be a little longer than my inhale. I feel the space inside of my nose and track how air enters my head and travels through my body. I enjoy the feeling of air.
Touch and taste. I feel the mug of tea I am holding. I study its lines, curves, and color. Then, I shut my eyes and feel its weight. I notice the texture of the cup, whether ceramic or glass, and I notice how it feels again my skin, whether cool or hot. I stroke it and feel its lines. I let the steam from the hot liquid drift into my nostrils. I take a very slow sip, feel the heat of the tea, and enjoy its taste.
Smell. I stand outdoors and focus on smells. Smells are hard for me to describe, so I just sense them, noticing whiffs I recognize. I sniff my hand.
Sounds. With my eyes shut, I enter the world of song. The sound of my breath, the tinnitus in my ears, the dogs moving about, a crow in the backyard.
Weight. I feel the weight of my butt on the chair, my feet on the floor. I pick up an object and feel its weight.
Sight. I notice something that pleases me and let my eyes rest on it expanding my vision to see what I might not normally see.
These sense-awareness processes are meant to be done mindfully. I can use them to reset the dials in my brain when I sense the tiger is near.
Easy to practice
None of these practices take long to do. I can do them in a parked car, on a walk, in a meeting, or when I’m standing in a crowded supermarket line blowing fuses because the woman at the checkout has just realized she needs to pay. Daily meditation is great, but my brain can be overtaken with reactiveness at any moment. I need ways to bring myself back to today, and out of the jungles where my ancestors were at risk.
When I pay attention to my senses, I become more aware of my body, I start to inhabit my body by sensing it from the inside out. My thinking calms. I discover options beyond fight, flight, or freeze. I’m able to smile at the cashier when it’s my turn to checkout.
The tiger isn’t coming for me, although I’d love to see one.
2022 is their year and they are magnificent. I hope they will always be with us.