Before I understood how trauma can shut down the nervous system, I had a lot of shame around the fact that I was quiet and slow, and was often told to ‘liven up’ or ‘put more into it’.
I was regularly chastised for not trying, especially with physical activities. In my mind, I was pushing myself as hard as I could, but no matter how much effort I put in, it was viewed as half-hearted by others.
When watching scary movies, which I love, I would rarely jump if there was a sudden fright. This subdued response was useful in my profession, where I often heard shocking things from clients, but it wasn’t appreciated so much socially when I was supposed to be excited over something but couldn’t show it.
When trying sports like ice skating, snow skiing or scuba diving, I was written off as a nervous nellie because inevitably I would freeze up and not be able to follow instruction.
But I’m not a nervous person. All the personality tests we practiced on each other while studying psychology showed I was a thrill seeker.
Once in a Gestalt group, I was asked to bash a cushion on a chair to unleash my anger. The rest of the group urged me to let go and give it my all. I wouldn’t, couldn’t. I left feeling like I’d failed.
Later when I was studying art therapy we made masks of our shadows, those things we don’t want others to know about us. Mine was the shame of being slow and quiet.
We were asked to wear our masks and act out our shadows. I slouched around the room, shrugging my shoulders and sighing, putting no energy into it.
And they clapped. Sixteen people, not judging me, not making me wrong, just applauding. Accepting me.
This was when I learned about trauma.
The way an over-stressed nervous system learns to shut down, because after being chronically in fight/flight mode, any activation at all feels overwhelming.
Hyperarousal is quickly followed by exhaustion and immobility.
This nervous system needs to wake up slowly. If I had beaten that cushion against the chair, I would most likely have retraumatised myself. It would have been too much activation.
When I tried physical sports, the alert centre in my brain, the amygdala, sent out danger warnings so loudly that the logic centers of my brain were unable to talk sense to it.
I was not a nervous nellie, I had an overactive amygdala that needed resourcing and pendulation.
Resources such as:
- trauma release exercises
- talking with an understanding friend
- recalling a pleasant memory
- mild physical activity such as yoga or walking
- drawing and colouring in.
Anything that calms the nervous system is slowly alternated with the source of the activation, which might be a sensation, a memory, a new physical activity. We go back and forth like a pendulum between the resource and the activation, learning to self-regulate, ground and calm.
Sadly our fast-paced society does not leave much room for this type of learning. So much is done at breakneck speed and many people who need this slow awakening in order to avoid overwhelm and retriggering of earlier trauma find it isn’t an option.
Instead they are led to believe the problem lies with them, as I did. The problem lies with a communal lack of understanding around how our brains work, and the obsessive focus we put on being the fastest, the first finished, the best.
We heal by accepting ourselves and starting where we are. Start within your body. Start with a whisper of change.