Self-Disclosure: Working With Fight/Flight/Freeze

During a travel adventure, I decided to accept the challenge to climb 2, 744 steps at the Manitou Incline in Colorado. If you have or have not heard of the Incline (it absolutely deserves a capital “I”), I am certain you can relate to my experience, because….well, you are a human being who is designed for survival and I know there has been a time when you felt scared or overwhelmed and needed to take action to respond to fear and activation. And I hope you learn new insights as you reflect on how your body has responded in a fight/flight/freeze reaction under pressure.

As a trained body-oriented psychotherapist, I am passionate about the mind/body relationship as it relates to healing and integration. Our body has a unique, natural rhythm and an innate ability for self-regulation. We have come wired into this human world with ingrained protective mechanisms for responding to danger-whether real OR perceived. Our bodies hold so much wisdom….if we can just get our minds out of the way, we can tune in to that wisdom to help guide us.

The Challenge

The climb takes place in the charming small town of Manitou Springs, CO. It has an elevation gain of 2,000 ft and at one point a 68% steep grade. I was all in! Wait, what was I thinking? I am an adventurer at heart, a seeker of life, an aspiring soulful enthusiast AND I have an incredible fear of heights that is deeply embedded in my DNA. The fact that the Incline had such a steep grade was not a factor in considering whether or not to do this hike….simply, because it wasn’t in my awareness. I had NO idea. My concerns rested in the following questions: will I have enough stamina, can I withstand the blazing sun, will I run out of water, will I feel pressured to go at a certain speed, and will I actually be able to enjoy the challenge and the journey with my best friend.

Lessons learned, experiences realized

Oh the journey of life! I often feel like my role with clients is that of a personal trainer. A nervous system personal trainer, that is. This experience on the Incline reinforced my Somatic Experiencing (SE) learning about working with the body to resolve trauma and traumatic stress and it taught me a valuable lesson that I hope will help you too. Pacing….or in SE language, titration is a key component in how I approach therapy. In trauma therapy, we call this staying in the “window of tolerance” zone. We can apply this skill of titration in life- when we are overwhelmed, emotionally activated, experiencing stress. Here is how I encountered staying within the window during the climb:

  • Take small steps at a time
  • Stop often, rest proactively (this involved tuning inside, away from ego)
  • Regulate breathing
  • Maintain presence without dissociating or entering hypervigilance mode
  • Follow a rhythm of expansion and constriction within the nervous system in a gentle way (pendulation in SE terms)
  • Practice keen mindfulness, one step at a time, one breath at a time
  • Manage fear-based thoughts (Can I really do this? What if….? fill in the blank)

I am an avid hiker thus I am accustom to physical endurance activity. What I am not as accustom to is such steep elevation gain and the very intense shortness of breath it caused me the entire climb, along with the FEAR (oh yeah, the fear thing). I experienced. At the three quarter marker, there is a steep grade increase from apx 40% to 68% at which point the steps become very tiny and the width very narrow. I looked ahead, panicked, and stopped. I found a rock on the side of the path to sit on. I was scared, really scared and I knew I could not go up…or at least that was my thought.

My friend later told me she saw two people crying at this juncture on the Incline. For 10 minutes I sat contemplating what to do; I had two choices. I could go back down which is extremely dangerous and not advised OR I could continue upwards. It was more dangerous to go down. The choice was clear. I had to continue on. My head remained down for fear of seeing how high I really was. I was in fear AND I was acutely aware that I must stay within my “window of tolerance” and not enter in a freeze response. I allowed myself time key component to orient by looking around in a deeply intentional, slow manner filled with micro movements which helped my nervous system stay regulated and take in (this is integration) a felt sense of safety. After all, I truly was safe sitting on the rock. **This ‘taking in’ of safety is important**,h_1000,al_c,q_20,enc_auto/file.jpg

Orienting and Pendulation

Are two trauma therapy principles. Pendulation allows us to ‘touch in’ when reprocessing a traumatic/stressful event AND ‘come out’ of the processing with a gentle ease- no need to relive a trauma that you have already experienced. It is a gentle dance that supports the body’s organic wiring for self-regulation to do what it is designed to do. This notion, that by slowing down the response internally in the nervous system and cognitively with racing/disorganized thoughts, we can train our nervous system to respond appropriately is what allowed me to complete the climb without being stuck in fear and freeze.

The outcome? I gave my body time to regulate, time to resolve the fear and I discharged the excess energy that was released during my initial flight/freeze response. I stayed in tune to my body’s timing and used thought stopping as a way to manage anxious/fear-based thoughts (They are just not helpful are they?). I got on my hands and feet and crawled up the flight of steep steps- hands and feet style. It is what I needed to do to feel safe and stay safe. I stayed present through it, my fear came with me, we did it together and I made it to a place where I no longer needed to be on my hands. The fear came and went from that point on but it didn’t become me, it didn’t consume me, it was simply along for the journey.

I was reminded that striving can be a form of attachment (suffering) to an end goal. I was intentional to not make it about an end goal. It was about remaining focused, practicing mindfulness, and staying present with my full range of emotions without a prolonged stress response. This experience further cultivated a strong appreciation and amazement for the body, for my body.

Somatic Experiencing is a unique, effective, holistic therapeutic approach. If you wish to receive a consultation with me to see if this might be a good fit for your concerns, please contact me directly.

SAY YES TO SELF-DISCOVERY! What are you waiting for?

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