Over the past year I’ve followed a number of very subtle, thin-as-air, “whiffy,” seemingly over-the-top, yet very clear impulses. Some have come during trauma therapy sessions and some as part of listening to my body in my ongoing process of working with my chronic illness and gradual recovery.
The first impulse was to participate in a pre and perinatal workshop in California (which lead me to a wait list, being given an opening a day later – two nights before the workshop began – and scheduling travel and a place to stay all in a few hours that same night). This was my first trip other than to visit family in maybe 15 years. It validated that my body was improving, gave me another leg up in my health, and gave me more courage to keep trusting my body.
The second impulse was to get support to chip away at some layers through multigenerational trauma work. This was originally supposed to happen in New York but eventually called me to Spain. This took me WAY farther out of my comfort zone – and added another layer of improvement in my life.
The third impulse declared itself in early January, just a few short months ago. It was the desire to go on a quiet adventure in the form of a writing retreat. At the ocean.
I really, really wanted to go to Oregon. I’ve felt a pull for decades. I listened to this impulse even though I live in Colorado some 1500 miles away.
Table of Contents
- Note: I made significant changes to this post April 13th, including to the title. I added more support for inviting safety as an important pathway to helping our nervous systems calm the fear that so many of us are craving right now. I wanted to make it more about support and resilience and less about fear as I’ve worked through some of my own fear since first writing the post.
Following An Impulse
That retreat is taking place right now and I am on the beautiful coast in an amazing little house overlooking a quiet estuary. The bonus? I have an even better view than I expected (you see the view in the picture above with the sunset and the one below, which is the view from my desk that I have pushed up right against the front window).
I have the best of so many possible worlds – views of water, a quiet place (much quieter than if I’d been in a house ON the ocean, which I discovered unexpectedly wears on me over time), and ocean waves in the distance. It’s stunning.
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I’m also alone in this sweet little place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Health in Our Impulses
As I explored this impulse to drive to Oregon a few months ago, my husband and I appreciated the fact that my health has improved to the point where I even WANTED to take a long car trip. I crossed the country more than a few times in the olden days before I got sick, more than twenty years ago. We were both thrilled that I had the “margin” to do something like this, now that I can eat what I want and have enough energy that I can drive for a few hours at a time.
I also noticed two things about this impulse – a desire to flee and a a sense of reaching for something I craved.
My flight impulse has happened before. To my delight, it has actually served me well, even though it caused great havoc in m y life and raised a lot of doubt in my mind at first.
The last major flight impulse I had was when I left my career as a physician. It included selling my house, taking a self-funded sabbatical using my personal savings, and STOPPING. For a year.
It eventually lead to a different way of living and being in the world. It started with the impulse to go back to school to become a body psychotherapist, risking what felt like everything including all of my retirement savings, and facing fears that I might become homeless.
My therapist at the time took me very seriously. He also stayed curious about the impulses I was following. He supported my process by asking me to be with this fear in a refreshing, unexpected way. He said, if you DID become homeless, “How would you play bag lady?” This wasn’t making fun of anyone who is homeless. Rather, he was asking me to imagine my worst fear for a moment. And when I did that, to my surprise (always a good sign when your system surprises you during a thought experiment like this, because it means you are really in the present and not making something up) it reminded me that, even if my biggest fear were to come true, I could be okay for that moment. Because in that moment, I would still be alive. The surprise had been that I hadn’t thought I could live if I ever became homeless.
If I were still alive – it meant that I’d have choices – to be with myself, to not abandon myself, to keep examining what it was that I wanted and that my body was guiding me towards. To keep doing my best with what I had, whatever that might be.
The thought experiment decreased my fear and helped me keep going for what I wanted.
Taking the risk to go back to school, go into debt, and keep trusting my dreams, in turn, has lead to everything I’ve since learned about trauma and my passion to understand how it relates to chronic illness. It has been feeding my soul for 20 years.
It was also scary in many other ways – scary to feel that desire to leave my career. Scary to leave the first house I had ever owned, less than a year after moving in. Scary to not know what I might do instead of the career I had envisioned since I’d been a child.
This desire to come to Oregon has had similar tendrils. A sense of wanting to get out of Colorado and it’s dry, almost perpetually sunny clime.
It has also seemed related to wanting time alone, away from people in general. A time to check back in after being sick for 20 years and house bound or limited in significant ways for most of that. A chance to get a sense of who I am now.
2. Mindfulness: Reducing Old Fear
One of the patterns I’ve come upon over the past year of working with my health, emotions and my chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), is a relative difficulty in connecting at a deep emotional level with others. This has been especially true in my most intimate relationships. I’ve been aware of this for many years now and I have been slowly coming into my body more fully, and into connection more fully as well.
But there has remained a sense of distance in my deepest friendships. A wall I have been unable to climb over. An inability to settle sufficiently in my own system and to connect emotionally and deeply.
But even though I don’t have this clear sense of real and easy, fully present emotional connection, the rest of me really likes being with these extra special people. What we understand from trauma that can help make sense of this is that, when you can’t feel something, it can be an indication that your system is numb or frozen because there are overwhelming feelings underneath. In other words, it’s not because you are truly distant, or don’t care, or are uninterested.
The place of disconnection and numbness is actually a shield that comes from an age old defense response in our systems – the state of freeze.
This shield stems from difficulty I have in feeling completely safe. It hasn’t been about any actual or true lack of safety in my closest relationships or even in the present moment. It has been about an underlying sense that my world – and humans – are not safe.
When we have this type of globalized fear response, it is often due to something old rather than something in the present.
In this time of the coronavirus there is clearly a reason to feel scared in the present because of this invisible little virus. This is a serious concern for everyone. Those of us who have a chronic illness or who are especially vulnerable in other ways are even more likely to feel this fear.
But there’s also a need to heal. To reduce the risk of trauma from such an intensely stressful event as the pandemic. To maximize our chances of being as healthy as possible. To find ways to do self care, to be able to sleep, reduce our symptoms, rest, digest and acknowledge what does feel safe.
That’s where being mindful of impulses and of the present moment comes into play. We vastly underestimate this seemingly little tool. Practicing mindfulness – the act of having at least some part of you observe the moment, without judgement, and with self compassion – actually helps to weaken pathways between fear centers and thoughts that trigger fear. They also help strengthen messages to our brains that old fear and triggers are no longer accurate and that, in this moment, we are okay.
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation (learn more in my 10 tools blog post and explore it through mindfulness meditation practice with one of my faculty I trained with years ago, Kekuni Minton, who teaches a trauma therapy approach known as sensorimotor psychotherapy. Here’s Week 1 – Week 2 – and more to come on their facebook page. Kekuni is introducing the principles each week through a gentle, spacious mindfulness meditation.
3. Following What You Crave
Another way of inviting more safety has to do with what you crave. I had some doubts about my impulse to come to Oregon because it had such a strong component of fleeing – just as I had twenty years ago when I wanted so desperately to leave medicine. Yet the impulse also rang true because of another component: Something that my system craved.
Things we long for and crave offer ways of working through tangled, water-tightened gordian knots that don’t seem to want to budge. That aren’t going away even with huge insights about their origins, or understanding just how they like to express themselves. Cravings to heal and to keep doing trauma therapy, for example, have helped me keep working with symptoms such as disabling fatigue, anxiety, flare-ups, belly symptoms. They’ve helped with more subtle expressions of fight/flight, such as talking louder or faster, not wanting to stop or slow down, and being Super Productive.
What we want or crave is often a clue to what our own unique bodies and nervous systems might need in order to heal.
As many of you know, I’m a big believer in listening to our bodies and trusting our impulses.
So I made plans last January to come to Oregon in the middle of March because I craved water, mist, moisture, rain, and the ocean. I craved a large amount of space that was all mine and only mine, to do with as I pleased. I wanted Alone time and quiet time. I wanted to write although I didn’t really know what I’d actually feel like doing once I got here. So I brought my basic tools (computer, paper, journal, paints and even a canvas) and stayed open to what might arise.
4. Checking In
As my departure date approached on March 8th, the pandemic was just beginning to land in the US. I had a feeling it was going to be serious and I wondered whether it was really a good idea to go. But the impulse and the craving and the flight response were all still just as strong as they had been.
So I did a “check-in.”
I learned about check-ins over 20 years ago with my first therapist, Kevin. It involves creating a few minutes (or more) of space and time to ask your body a few questions and see how it responds. It’s an experiment in which you ask yourself a question and practice being as open and nonjudgemental and curious as you possibly can, so that you can hear the actual answer and not just what you hope to hear.
I sat down on the edge of my bed and did my thought experiment.
I settled my system a little first by feeling the bed and letting go of thoughts so that I wasn’t distracted or in some state of emotional distress or worry (being distressed when you check-in makes it harder to tell whether the answer you’re getting is due to your underlying fears or anger or other feelings, or whether it’s an actual answer to your question).
I asked each individual question separately:
- What happens in my body when I imagine cancelling my trip? I felt a slight heaviness.
- What happens in my body when I imagine staying home? I had the same mild increase in heaviness in my chest area.
- What happens in my body when I imagine going to Oregon as planned? This tine, the space in my chest opened up and felt lighter and slightly more spacious. There was also a subtle golden color to the light. And it felt good. Pleasurable. There was a little more energy in my system.
This was how I based my decision to come to Oregon despite what was happening in the world. So I came and took as much care as I could. I was very cautious on my drive, brought all my own food so I wouldn’t have to stop in any restaurants (except a Mexican restaurant my first night ’cause it was part of the joy of the adventure), stopped only for gas, and had wet soapy cloths in the car so I could wash my hands afterwards. I was able to drive long days, and to keep going because I could feel the desire to land in a safer spot, and got here a few days earlier than I’d expected.
5. Mobilizing Even if There’s Fear
I felt my fear as I drove across Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. And as I finally arrived in Oregon. I knew it was partly due to this counter-intuitive, potentially risky, possibly completely inappropriate choice I was making.
I also knew it was because I was mobilizing. I was moving. And I was moving towards something I wanted.
Mobilizing is typically thought of as an act solely supported by the sympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic activity enables us to DO something. It maintains our blood pressure, stabilizes or increases our heart rate, distributes more oxygen to our muscles so we can stand up, walk, or run. It helps our pupils focus and blood sugars become available for fuel instead of being stored away in our cells. These are characteristics of the sympathetic nervous system in states of safety.
If we feel fear, our sympathetic nervous systems gear up a notch or ten and we gain the options to protect ourselves through fight or flight with even greater availability of fuel and oxygen, blood pressure and heart changes etc.
As a person with a chronic illness that is driven by a freeze response (ME/CFS), anything that represents sympathetic activity can actually trigger more shut-down.
This is because such symptoms are the result of a body that learned that movement, action, anger, fight and flight were not options that could increase my safety or help me escape. In chronic illness, our nervous system have learned, somewhere very early on, that the only way to survive is to shut down, be quiet, not express conflicting opinions, be good, be helpful, support others, please others, and not be too visible. For others, it’s been to fight, argue, stir up conflit or flee (fight and flight mechanisms).
After a few decades, these pathways get strong enough to lead to the very real symptoms of chronic illness and to skillfully maintain states of freeze-like hibernation, fight or flight, or some combination of these.This is because our nervous systems still interpret the world as though it is threatening in ways it was in my past.
Remember that it’s not psychological. It’s not actually a conscious choice. These are pathways that are run by our nervous systems as a way to maximize our chances of survival in circumstances that once felt overwhelming. Just as we don’t consciously manage our blood pressure or heart rate or blood sugar levels in fight and flight, we don’t manage them in freeze either (when they tend to get very low as a way to preserve us during shut-down).
As a result, any kind of mobilization can be a trigger for a flare-up for me and for many others whose symptoms are based on the freeze response. A flare-up is a worsening of any one of my symptoms that are driven by that state of freeze – such as fatigue. Flare-ups happen because my system has shut back down and gone back into freeze.
In other words, mobilizing can make my internal “Bear” that is poking it’s head out of the cave to see if spring has arrived and if it’s time to come out – retreat back to her den. Even if spring has actually arrived and it is actually safe and welcoming out there.
Taking action can therefore cause flare-ups of the freeze state in my physiology, which I experience as increased fatigue (even as it is no longer incapacitating the way they used to be) and this week, also more belly bloating and discomfort.
Moving towards what I want can also trigger characteristics of freeze in my behaviors – making me want to stop and not do anything, making me want to just crawl into bed and stay there for example.
At the emotional level, mobilizing by driving west for 5 days also triggered a sense of greater disconnection mixed in with my fear. This is mixture of sympathetic and freeze.
But it has also been satisfying and tender and spacious. In other words, my craving has been rewarded.
Note that, in an opposite way, slowing down, being home, feeling stuck can be triggering or stimulate more flares if your system is caught more in fight and flight.
Ultimately, experiencing a lot of fear as is happening in the pandemic stimulates flares because it stimulates all of our old survival responses. This is where making time and room to take in perceptions and feelings of safety make a difference.
6. What Calls to You
I made room for feelings of safety during my drive here by tapping into things that appealed to me. It’s a way that gives you padding so that you are not as easily overwhelmed and so that your thoughts don’t take over or run the show.
One way I did this was to cultivate gratitude as I drove through areas that made my heart fill with appreciation. Appreciation that arose spontaneously as I dipped into the fact that I could make this trip in the first place.
I also paid attention to the landscapes that drew my attention. I then followed more impulses. I pulled over and took a few long walks in the middle of nowhere in both Utah and Nevada, and then in the Redwoods and then on the beaches when I finally made it to the coast.
I collected a tiny bunch of bright green moss that is one of my favorite colors of all time, along with a small stone smoothed by the ocean and a little art form of twisted grass.
I gave myself lots and lots of silence and in between, I listened to Taylor Swift’s new album Lover and Mandy Harvey, one of my favorite acts from America’s Got Talent who got the golden buzzer for her song Try (about how she wanted to give up after she lost her hearing from a connective tissue disorder, but wanted to do more with her life than “just give up”).
When I recently got groceries for the first time in weeks, I paid attention to all the resources I could notice because my anxiety was quite high and I could feel the anxiety in the store as well.
I listened to the country western song playing while I looked for dates. The love song actually made me soften and feel teary – it was connecting me to my social nervous system so I didn’t get caught in freeze.
I paid close attention to the color of the fruit and how fresh it looked (something positive and pleasurable). I drove there and back using the more scenic of the two routes I could take, using the view of the ocean to touch a place of appreciation in my eyes and chest.
I also slowed down. After getting back in the car with my groceries all packed up I admired a pine tree in front of me that had a very distinct shape. I breathed and sat quietly for a few minutes before moving. Allowing my system time to make each transition.
On the way home, my eyes welled up with tears of relief. It would seem silly if you didn’t understand that these are the little ways our nervous systems feel the feelings – the anxiety and fear, then the sense that it’s over and then conveying to you that you’re safe and it’s okay. The feelings like relief come. They may include gratitude, or sometimes shaking or slight trembling or heat…. In my case, I felt tears of relief. A seemingly large response but an appropriate one that helped me keep staying in my body.
A friend with a chronic illness wrote about her grocery trip and how coming home and seeing her cats helped remind her – and her nervous system – that she was safe too.
7. Inviting Safety
Since arriving at my destination and settling in, I’ve slowly started to have more room to invite safety.
My craving to come to Oregon had included wanting to slow down, to stop, to be quiet, to retreat from society and other humans – which I certainly got (in spades).
When I had originally started thinking of this trip in January, I had thought I might make a trip to Portland and Seattle and the surrounding area to visit old friends and maybe even get together with some of you who read my blog. A part of me was excited by the idea. The Impulse was not.
So I kept paying attention to the impulse and how what it seemed to want was a quiet retreat.
I first got sick with a mild cold the day after arriving, as my system started to settle after being somewhat hypervigilant during my drive to help me complete my trip and get to safety.
I did not have my typical symptoms of a sore throat or runny nose. Nor did I have the typical coronavirus symptoms of shortness of breath, fever or coughing. But I had a profound and heavy fatigue when I lifted my arms or went for a walk, and a denseness in my body that felt like it was fighting an infection pretty intensively. So I quarantined.
It was another nudge to slow down (I have since almost fully recovered. All of this seems like a good sign that I am indeed improving and that my system has responded well despite the stressors).
A few days after arriving, while ruminating, I discovered that a) I was feeling intense fear as though I were a deer caught in the headlights that is completely stiff with terror and unable to move; and, even more importantly, b) that this feeling was OLD. It was more of an emotion than an actual physical stiffness or shutdown.
I hadn’t quite been able to reliably feel into this emotion that had been brewing over the past 6 months until that day. Even as I’d felt fear during my drive – I’d thought it was more about taking my adventure, heading out during the coronavirus, and taking a big new step.
It’s when I noticed the more direct sense of this feeling that I realized the intelligence behind my impulse to come to Oregon. An impulse that had lead me to find a large enough space, without interruption, without interaction, without being called to do or be or act in any way other than where I was, so that I might be able to heal more of this thing that had been too overwhelming to meet.
I was making room to invite more safety while I could be surrounded by the gentle softness of the tide, seabirds, and moss on tree trunks and growing through cracks on the side of the road.
8. Making Room For the Sense of Safety
A few nights after arriving, when I woke up in the early hours still feeling the stress and fear from news updates, I stayed in bed and wondered about my blog.
I had been planning to introduce you all on Friday to a new series in which I will begin to share your stories of how you work with your chronic illness and other symptoms from trauma and nervous system perspectives. Stories that share how it’s helping (if you’re interested, get in touch through my contact page or by email veronique (at) chronicillnesstraumastudies.com).
But I’d started to feel anxious about it the day before.
In the mulling time of feeling this anxiety as it mixed with the coronavirus fears, I could feel that I was pulled into it and was getting a bit convinced that something is wrong and that I am at risk way out here all by myself.
While there is some truth to that, it’s not 100% true.
Noticing this feeling helped me take a step back.
I could feel how, in that moment, in my bed, I was okay.
IN THAT MOMENT I was not in any danger.
That’s all we need when working with fear and other difficult emotions.
With this little bit of space of not believing everything I was thinking and feeling, I remembered my tools for working with my feelings.
I used a simple process called orienting, which I learned from Steve Hoskinson when he was faculty in my somatic trauma training with Somatic Experiencing, and who now teaches this and more at Organic Intelligence.
Orienting uses our social nervous system to focus our attention on something. We see wild animals orienting all the time – cocking their head, turning to see where a sound came from, listening and looking to identify whether there is a potential threat or to see if the coast is clear.
Orienting can also be used to notice what is neutral or pleasurable.
Orienting uses your senses such as sound and sight, hearing and taste.
These are part of our social nervous system.
Orienting to things that convey safety or pleasure is a way of INFORMING your nervous system of what is true in the present moment. It’s a way of overriding unconscious perceptions of threat and exchanging them for accurate new ones. It’s a way of conveying to your nervous system in a slow, methodical, gentle way that you are actually safe.
So this is a practice that helps shift gears and helps us come more into our bodies.
In the wee hours that morning, I oriented to what felt or looked or sounded good to me.
I oriented to the softness of the pillow under my cheek. Oriented to the fact that I can see the ocean from my bed during the day. Oriented to the comforting sound of gentle rain pitter pattering on my window pane. Oriented to the fact that I was dry and warm and cozy.
I noticed these little ripples of feeling good.
After a while, I placed my hand over my heart. If felt good there. Warm. Gentle. Comforting. Compassionate.
And then I started feeling warm little tendrils of love. Love for my courageous, hard-working, oh-so-earnest self. Love for how I am working with my fears.
Mostly, it was just a sense of warmth in my chest.
A sensation that is very different from freeze and fear.
I didn’t want to go to sleep as I felt this.
Even though I still felt the fear, I ALSO felt this sense of comfort. It made the fear less pervasive. Less important. Less scary and more of something that is just part of my life at the moment but not a big deal.
I then started to feel how much I wanted to share some of this with you – about working with fear and freeze.
This was a sign that I was starting to come into social nervous system territory. The part that wants to connect. To reach out. That is (more) okay with being vulnerable. A part that wants to be of service and to contribute in this time of need. A part that doesn’t want to miss feeling like I, too, am a part of this worldwide event that will change us all. A part of me that wants to be helpful before it’s all over. Because it will, indeed, be over at some point.
This was a part of me that doesn’t want to feel alone. Not out of fear – but because I am one with this world.
Because I am a social being.
Because I am not alone.
Because I, too, belong.
Know that these little practices are powerful tools that engage your social nervous system, and help gradually inhibit states of fight, flight and freeze that aren’t necessary. Know that these ways of working with fear and freeze also give you more resilience from infection. They help you be more fully who you are in this world, with all of your gifts that come from being just who you are.
I am thinking of you all and so glad to be in this with all of your bright, brave, beautiful souls.
Wishing you safety and support and love wherever you may be and whatever your circumstances are.
Summary of Tips for Calming Fear
Note. I’ve made some significant updates since first posting, including cutting the length down by half and shortening the list below since there were a few less points. I’ve made it more positive and created more room to invite safety as a way to help reduce feelings of fear and have more tools that build and support resilience.
- Listening for impulses
- Checking in with a question to see what your body says
- Trusting what your body says
- Orienting to the Present Moment
- Coming into the Present Moment
- Noting when you are safe, even for a moment
- Orienting to what feels neutral or positive to YOU
- Noticing what neutral or pleasurable feels like to YOU
- Noticing what safety feels like to you, even if for a moment
- Witnessing the feeling of fear as a sensation (rather than as a thought)
- Titrating and limiting your input of stress, such as the news, while staying in touch (such as with local events in your neighbourhood with apps like nextdoor)
- Increasing things that resource you such as music or getting a beautiful astronomy pic in your inbox every day or reading how others have conquered fear and are doing what feels right or listening to podcasts on how others have found their way through thick and thin to this trauma and nervous system based way of working with symptoms (and learning to love and accept and respect themselves in the process)
- Staying warm
- Eating as well as you can
- Mind body practices
- Connecting with that which resources you – people, nature, your animals, art