Have you ever felt that moment where your mind is telling you one thing, and your body is telling you another? A situation where your mind may be telling you that you are completely safe, but your body is reacting as if it is in survival mode?
This feeling is all too common for those who are survivors and thrivers of trauma. There are these moments where you may speak about something from your past, or something reminds you of your past, crosses your path and your body will begin shaking or you will stutter or you will become short of breath. Despite the fact that you are no longer physically or emotionally in that moment or anywhere near danger.
So, why does this happen? What’s the connection? Or rather, disconnection.
Our brain has existed for millions of years, and many of its habits were formed during our hunter and gatherer times. Our brain has a number of modes that come into play when it suspects our body will be harmed. These modes are most commonly known as Flight, Fight, Freeze and Fold.
Imagine a bear coming towards you – different people will respond to this suggested imagery differently. Some people would try to outrun the bear (flight), some may attempt to fight the bear (fight), some would not know what to do and would end up doing nothing at all (freeze) and some, may try to make themselves invisible or appear as harmless as possible (fold).
Notice that all of these responses are physical responses. The brain is telling your body to take over and do something to protect itself. But this doesn’t explain why your body still responses to danger that your brain hasn’t confirmed even exists?
Until this next detail.
Your body is a combination of muscles. What do muscles do? They remember. Think of the phrase muscle memory. This does not only speak to your body remembering how to build muscle after a break from the gym, but also what your body does during times of perceived danger.
If you experienced trauma during childhood and/or adolescence, a time when the brain is developing its ideas about the world, it is highly probable that the coping mechanisms you developed to survive the trauma was how your body learned how to respond to most perceived danger. As a child/adolescence that survived trauma, the Fight or Flight modes also develop as being always heightened (welcome anxiety and/or depression). This leads to the miscommunication mentioned I mentioned at the beginning. With a heightened Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fold mode, muscle memory and perceived threat of even the smallest scale – the brain can be saying you are safe, but your body is already in its F mode.
Ok, so this is lovely to know. But how do you manage it?
There is a reason mindfulness is so popular. WAIT! Don’t quit reading yet! There is logic behind why I am saying this.
In order to help your body re-learn how to appropriately respond to threats based on their danger level, mindfulness is useful because it grounds you into the present and breath refocuses your body’s attention and energy. I also find it helpful to name what is happening and applying kindness to yourself. Understanding that this is a pattern and response your body developed because at one point it needed to protect you and survive. And also, understanding that your body and mind can’t re-wire overnight. Share with someone you love what you are struggling with and share with them what helps. Is there something that calms you when you are shaking or stuttering or sick to your stomach? Make a list of your new coping mechanisms so that when your body and mind are disconnected, you have a connection back to you and the present.