You know, I was in such a bad state last week that I started drafting this post. I do think fear runs my life much more than I realize, but I felt particularly awful and fearful last week. It’s strange to revisit that because while I still deal with fear and anxiety daily, I am nowhere near as dark a place as I was last week. But I will try to give voice to it. Last week for whatever reason, everything I was trying to do to help myself wasn’t working. I tried talking to someone, reading, listening to music, sleeping, and I was still terror-struck and in emotional pain. I don’t know if this was related to some sort of trauma trigger I was unaware of, but suffice it to say, I was not doing well last Wednesday night. I am no artist, and I never draw, but I found myself drawing, trying literally anything to help. First I drew this:
I realize that this is sometimes how people look who are dissociated/overrun by fear and maybe it’s a good visual representation of how things can look from the outside: A hollow, catatonic person. I often feel like that … that I can’t articulate what is going on for me or how anyone can help, which I will expand on later. However, I went on to add to the drawing … which speaks more toward what the person may be experiencing, real or imagined.
Truly, I am no artist, but I think this speaks to the overwhelming sense of dread and paralysis that people feel when they are in the “trance of fear.” I was torn whether or not to try to finish this, but I think I’ll hold off on it, because I don’t think I can really work on it if I’m not near the mental space that I was when I started it.
So fear can be useful, but it can also be so paralyzing. Fear can become so encompassing that it leads us into a trance and robs us of the present moment. I think that’s what happens to me when my anxiety becomes so intense that I can’t think straight, which is likely what happened to me last week. Again,
Fear is the anticipation of future pain.
For whatever reason, the universe always sends me exactly what I need to be reading at the exact time I need it. I’m currently reading Radical Acceptance as well as listening to The Body Keeps the Score on audio … both of which have substantial focus on trauma and fear. Both were recommended to me, but I didn’t consciously realize that I needed them.
If you come from dysfunction, like I have, where you grew up in a house filled with tension, never knowing what to expect, you carry that on into your adulthood if it is left unprocessed. It is so deeply ingrained to be fearful and on guard, because you never know when someone may have an outburst. Your body goes into protective mode, even if your head knows that there is no threat. Loud noises often make me jump exaggeratedly. When I have to ask someone a question, or make a request, I anticipate ridicule or snide comments. When you grow up in fear, you expect an attack, when that expectation is not warranted, but that anticipatory fear becomes a default mode of relating to the world. It is exhausting. Sometimes it can be helpful to protect yourself, but if you don’t believe what people say to you and you anticipate being judged, attacked, or hurt, it affects your ability to connect with other people, and that’s what I’ve been struggling with lately.
Neuroscience does explain how people continue to get activated, even when the initial threat is gone. If you’ve experienced trauma(s), or in my case what I like to call “accumulated relational trauma” throughout your life, your limbic system and amygdala in your brain become activated… sometimes years after the initial threat is gone. Stress hormones and blood pressure increase. Physiological states become activated and associated with triggers. What may be most compelling is that, if you dissociate as I do, or you feel confused when under extreme stress or activated, there is also a physiological reason for this too. The Brocas area of the brain is involved with this fear/trauma cycle, and there is actually less activity in this area while traumatized people are activated. Why does this matter? This area of the brain is related to speech. So it becomes difficult to express yourself. Thoughts and feelings can’t be put into words. All of this is explained in much better detail in The Body Keeps the Score. This book is invaluable to me both personally and professionally as a counselor/therapist.
However, being armed with this knowledge doesn’t make being activated any less frustrating. Feeling locked in, isolated, unable to communicate your inner experience is unpleasant, to put it lightly. The brain responds as if the trauma is occurring in the PRESENT which is why it feels as though these events are not resolved. Executive functioning can stop, (planning, making sense, logic) and re-enacting the past can happen without awareness. This speaks to not having fully integrated a previous experience that was disturbing and thus not being fully alive in the present moment.
So what to do?
“She made herself disappear,” is a quote from The Body Keeps the Score. Oftentimes during traumatic experiences or moments of intense fear, the brain tries to help by going into survival mode, dissociating, and distancing oneself from one’s experience. A protective measure. However, if this keeps happening after the initial event is over, it becomes less helpful. Radical Acceptance includes “leaning in” to fear as a way of overcoming it. Sometimes fear feels so overwhelming that if we were to fully experience it, it would swallow us and kill us. We would be unable to function. The catch with that is, however, that the more we actively resist fear without fully experiencing it, or inviting it to “sit with us,” the more it is prolonged and even intensified. Trying to sit with your fear and name it is a good start. What are you truly afraid? What are you experiencing?
Fear of failure
Fear of rejection
Fear of abandonment
Are common ones. Next, naming sensations in the body also helps fully experience fear.
Are common experiences. When you open your awareness and try not to let your mind close, you can fully experience your fear, giving it the attention that it needs. You may even consider asking yourself: What needs my attention in this moment? Am I able to hold it with compassion? If you are not able to do this, try increasing your sense of connectedness and belonging by talking to a therapist, sponsor, trusted individual, going outside, meditating about how other people in the world share the same fears as you do. When you are able to expand your awareness, the fear might not seem as overwhelming. Though, in the moment, I know this is much easier said than done. So a good practice is to expand your awareness on a regular basis by engaging in “connectedness” activities before a large fear surfaces. It has been something that I have been working on.