Posts Tagged With: fight or flight

Day 209: Two sides of the same coin

This post was inspired, somehow, by watching the show “Breaking Bad” with my son and my bf last night.

Not sure what I’m going to write today. That’s not an unusual situation when I sit down to write a post, but it’s true, even more so, this morning.

Several years ago, when I facilitated writing groups, at a Psychiatric Day Program, I would often suggest that people write freely without editing. Sometimes I suggested people write with their non-dominant hand.

Not sure how to “free-write” with my non-dominant hand when I’m typing, today! But I will do my best.

I’m noticing that my left leg is bouncing as I’m writing this.

One of the people in one of my therapy groups, last week, pointed out that my foot was bouncing — air-tapping — when I was making a point that felt important.

Later in that same group, when we were doing a writing exercise about the topic of “Worry,” I made the suggestion that somebody, who was stuck, try “free writing” and maybe try writing with their non-dominant hand. They kept writing with the same hand, but the suggestion seemed to help.

I think the bouncing leg/tapping foot thing is a sign of two sides of the same coin: Fear/Anticipation. Anxiety/Energy.

I’m not sure if my leg and foot are bouncing and tapping more lately, or if I (and others) are just noticing that more.

Right now, I want to write about something that happened last week, when I woke up in the middle of the night and had trouble getting back to sleep.

When that happened, I tried something new, based on what I’ve read so far of this book (which I’ve referenced in a previous post, here):

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The author of that book, Peter Levine, writes about how people who have experienced trauma (and he says that many of us have experienced some form of trauma) often have the normal, animal physiological responses to that trauma frozen in their bodies.

I often think of the “deer in the headlights” response, when I read his book:

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Peter Levine also cites the “Flight or Fight” fright reaction.

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(Note: The above illustration came from a blog called “The Atomic Meme,” in a post about the biology of stress.)

Peter Levine, in “Waking the Tiger,” says that our primitive, protective reactions to fear-inducing traumas get stuck in our bodies.

I am not sure how Peter Levine is going to “prescribe” — in his book — how people dispel those frozen impulses. I haven’t gotten that far, in my reading.

But I came up with my own prescription, in that middle of the night, last week, when I couldn’t sleep.

Here’s what happened: I woke up and the calf muscles in my legs were hurting me. They were painful. They were tight.

Why were my legs doing that, I wondered? It was possible that I had walked too much that day, in too-new shoes. It was possible that I needed to drink water. It was possible that I needed more potassium.

All of these were possibilities. The reality was: I couldn’t get back to sleep, no matter what I tried.

And I thought about something I had read in the book: Peter Levine’s life-changing experience as a treater of trauma.

Here are some excerpts of how he describes that important encounter, in “Waking the Tiger”:

I was asked to see a woman, Nancy, who was suffering from intense panic attacks.

She appeared paralyzed and unable to breathe.

I became quite frightened.

I had a fleeting vision of a tiger jumping toward us.

I exclaimed loudly, “You are being attacked by a large tiger. See the tiger as it comes at you. Run toward that tree; climb it and escape!” To my surprise, her legs started trembling in running movements. she let out a blood-curdling scream.

She began to tremble, shake, and sob in full-bodied convulsive waves.

She recalled a terrifying memory from her childhood. When she was three years old she had been strapped to a table for a tonsillectomy. The anesthesia was ether.

Nancy was threatened, overwhelmed, and as a result, had become physiologically stuck in the immobility response.”

So, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, after a couple of hours, my legs still cramping (they felt like they were saying, “We want to run!!”), I decided to try an experiment.

I got out of bed, in the dark, and stood there, thinking about that passage above.

My son was asleep downstairs. My boyfriend was awake, downstairs. The cat was downstairs, too. So I knew I wouldn’t be frightening anybody with my experiment. No one would be able to hear me, I was sure.

As is often true when I do a mindfulness exercise, I wasn’t sure what exact form this experiment would take. I gave myself the following instructions, “Run as hard and fast as you can, in place, like your life depends upon your running, on your getting away from what you’re scared of.”

And I ran in place, really, really fast. I didn’t scream. I didn’t need to. The running was intense, hard, and fast.

I didn’t “get anywhere” because I was running in place. But in ways, I covered a lot of distance. I released a lot of energy. And I felt like I might be able to get back to sleep.

When I went back to bed, my legs weren’t hurting as much. They felt a lot better.

A little while later, I was still awake, and my legs still felt stiff. So I tried that exercise one more time.

Then, I tweeted the following:

Cure for insomnia + leg cramps + anxiety + weight gain = Run like you’re being chased by monsters. Rest, repeat.

And I went back to sleep.

Now, I want to end this blog post, so I can meet my old friend, Barbara, on time. (I’ve mentioned Barbara, before, including this post about some “monsters.”)

Thanks to Peter Levine, tigers, “Breaking Bad,” my son, my boyfriend, Barbara, and to you, for reading today.

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