This article was originally posted on November 22, 2017 and updated on October 30, 2019.
Safety Advisory: This article mentions an accident in a car but does not give any details.
I took a break from working at my computer and went down to the hotel gym to clock a few miles on the treadmill. I checked the podcasts on my phone to see what I had saved up to listen to. I found an Invisibilia podcast, and had no idea what it was, but hit the play button. The Invisibilia gals started talking about emotions, and it became clear early on that they were about to tell a story about some extreme emotions from a tragic car accident.
Part of me started to head for the emotional door out. “You don’t need to be hearing about tragic events during your downtime; find something more uplifting!” it said. But another part of me kept me listening. My whole personal and professional life is revolved around practicing meeting emotions skillfully, so here was an opportunity to walk my walk.
I listened, and soon realized that I was moving into a freeze response. Out of fight, flight and freeze, I tend to freeze in a threatening situation – staying very still and hoping something bad won’t happen.
I am a person who does not expose myself to the mass media news because I am highly empathic and I would crumble every day if I heard about all the tragedy in the world. I titrate my news diet – and the tap is pretty much turned off most of the time. So to expose myself to this Invisibilia episode was an intentional act of practicing being with emotion, knowing that National Public Radio doesn’t tend to sensationalize tragedy for the sake of getting me hooked. I felt I could trust their podcast.
The story of the car accident unfolded in the podcast. The players in the story started to talk about what they experienced. I listened, and soon realized that I was moving into a freeze response. Out of fight, flight and freeze, I tend to freeze in a threatening situation – staying very still and hoping something bad won’t happen. I could feel myself moving into this response. And I noticed it. I often say to folks that the most challenging part of a mindfulness and self-compassion practice is remembering to do it. Noticing is a triumph because all good things can come from that.
My freeze response said, “Please, please, please, please, please, don’t let them say something that’s going to upset me too much.” It was a response to having no sense of control over my experience. It was about hoping to dear God that someone would take care of me because I couldn’t take care of myself.
It hurt to hear those people’s stories. It hurt big. It hurt so much my system felt that my life was coming to an end, and it took every ounce of my being to stay strong in the face of the threat.
A freeze response is learned at a very young age when we have no recourse to fight or flight – we cannot defend ourselves or run away. It’s a response that is hardwired into our system as a way to try to survive.
So, this independent, adult, self-sustaining, quite capable body was saying to a recorded voice on an iPhone, “Please don’t hurt me.” I know, it sounds strange. I have a little laugh to myself as I name this. But the body remembers how to survive, and it makes sense to have our survival responses kick in instantly, regardless of how contemporarily relevant they are.
Here’s where practice came in. Once I noticed my freeze response, I also noticed how I was shutting myself off from my body which is sort of ironic, as I was actively and intentionally exercising my body at the time. I felt how painfully lonely it was to shut myself off from my body. I felt a part of me that needed to feel connection – a very young part that thought all she could do was freeze. I answered her silent, wide-eyed call. I made a decision to drop into my emotional landscape to be with her.
When I got there I found massive physical emotion. It hurt to hear those people’s stories. It hurt big. It hurt so much my system felt that my life was coming to an end, and it took every ounce of my being to stay strong in the face of the threat. It was terrifying, and at the same time ultimately self-intimate. I felt the emotion move through my body from the top. I stayed with it. I kept myself company. And then it moved all the way through and out of my body.
I heard more of the story, and another wave of emotion started. Coursing through my body from the top, burning my face, catching in my throat, making the inside of my torso ache. And then moving through.
And again. And again. Sometimes with the start of tears.
An interesting thing started to happened. It started to become less scary to be with the emotion. My confidence grew. I’ve got this, I thought, I can keep myself company here. This is some big shit emotion, and I’m escorting each wave through my body. I’m seeing it from start to finish. I’m allowing it to pass through me.
If I don’t midwife my own emotions, who’s going to do that important task? I can’t hope to dear God that someone else will take care of me. No-one knows what I need the way I know what I need when I am in touch with my body.
I remember reading Jan Frazier retell her story of the moment she heard a friend of hers had died. She described the same experience – the emotion moved through her body, she witnessed it and kept it company, and after about half an hour it had moved through. She didn’t get caught up in the story or the other workings of the cognitive mind – she simply allowed her body to have it’s experience, to move through its process, in the way the wisdom of the body knows how to do.
After my treadmill experience there was no emotional residue. I wasn’t left feeling traumatized even though I had had a deeply empathic somatic response. I had met my own emotion with courage, kindness and wisdom, which meant I could also witness the emotions of the people in the podcast from a place of strength and grounding. I could be with their pain, rather than collapsing under the weight of it. I held that little inner girl of mine close. I did not abandon myself.
This was mindfulness and somatic self-compassion in practice. This was seeing my emotional experience, staying in touch with my body, and intentionally midwifing my emotions through their passage. If I don’t midwife my own emotions, who’s going to do that important task? I can’t hope to dear God that someone else will take care of me. No-one knows what I need the way I know what I need when I am in touch with my body.
This is my practice – collecting skills for midwifing my emotions along with information about things like the freeze response so that I can empower myself through knowledge. Sharing how to do this with others is my calling.
If you’d like to explore self-compassion practices to support you in this work, the Somatic Self-Compassion program is carefully scaffolded to help us understand fight, flight and freeze, and to support us to take care of ourselves when we are experiencing these survival responses. If you’re interested in exploring trauma-informed contemplative approaches, check out the HeartWorks Professional Development trainings. I’d love to travel with you for a while. Thanks for being in community with me.
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