Travis was puzzled. He had been diligently working for weeks in therapy on decreasing his reactivity to his wife. He was learning to no longer escalate their recurring arguments that caused both of them to question whether they wanted to stay in the relationship and continue to work on it. He hadn’t yet been able to do anything more than be quiet and not make things worse. This was progress, but he knew he was resisting going deeper in his therapy work.
My sense was that he was very much stuck in his head. In therapy he had made progress in being able to describe what he was feeling and attach words to physical sensation, but he had yet to allow himself to feel much, especially when anyone else was present. He also lacked self-compassion and the ability to sit with his own tender emotions. Anger and all its descendants: irritation, frustration, indignation, resentment, occasional rage, and his common phrase of “it just pisses me off“ were his range of emotional expression.
I had an inkling that past trauma was keeping him stuck in an old behavior pattern and narrative of “it’s not fair”. He came from a family where his stepfather was quite reactive. He was harsh and verbally berated Travis, especially when he showed independent thinking or challenged the stepfather’s judgments. I generally have compassion for stepparenting, as I believe, it is quite a thankless job, and very difficult to do with grace and humor. The child often does not want the stepparent there and wishes the parents had stayed together. They tend to take out their frustrations and hurt on the stepparent, often unfairly, but they become an easy target to blame. In Travis‘s case, his stepfather lacked the skills of compassion and restraint to be a biological father, much less a stepfather. His mom, while at times loving, was herself emotionally stunted and prone to overwhelm and frustration. Of course all of this affected the young Travis and stunted his ability to have a fluid expression of what he was experiencing.
Fight, Flight, Freeze
Working with Travis, I illustrated the three central nervous system defenses of fight, flight and freeze with an example from nature. If we watch a video of an eagle hunting a field mouse, here is what we see: Once the mouse realizes that it’s being pursued, it runs like crazy for cover. If no cover is available nearby, it does a back-and-forth zigzag motion to evade the eagle. It is often successful. However, in this case, the eagle catches it, and at that point, all of the energy of the central nervous system that went into flight turns immediately into freeze. The mouse for all practical appearances is dead. I guess if you’re going to get eaten, it’s a good idea not to be present. This is an elegant central nervous system response, shut down.
As the video continues, we see that the mouse was lucky. The eagle wasn’t really hungry. It bats the mouse around, pecks at it for a while, and then loses interest because the mouse doesn’t respond. The eagle flies off. After a short time the mouse comes to, looks around, gets up, and shakes violently. It is throwing off all of that adrenaline and central nervous system arousal by shaking so that it doesn’t hold it inside of its body.
I believe that we humans, with our big brains and strong norms of social acceptability, learned to suppress our natural response to shake and cry after a traumatic incident. Instead, we hold all that energy in. We bottle it up. And sometimes it never comes out except as reactivity when we feel triggered into a fight, flight, or freeze response.
The Body Keeps Score
Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma researcher and therapist, wrote a book a couple of years ago, The Body Keeps the Score. In it, he cites studies and gives numerous examples of how trauma becomes stored in the human body. Even if in our minds we think we have no trauma or have found a way to deal with negative situations, the real knowledge and truth lie in the body. Healing with the mind only doesn’t work. It doesn’t make our whole system fluid and adaptable. We have to become curious and explore the body to uncover what resides there today. Without this body focus of uncovering and “shaking”—the discharge of the body energy—there is no true healing.
You/I Left Me
Travis was describing to me an argument he had several days ago with his wife. He was frustrated at how much it took out of him to be quietly supportive and not escalate the argument. As we focused on having to be quiet, I had him ask his body if this was familiar. He noticed some shakiness in his legs. A memory came to him of a time he was in trouble with his Mom when he was about 9. He wasn’t sure why he was in trouble, but his legs wanted to run. He knew that running would make the situation with his mom worse, so he became still and wished he was invisible until his Mom finished scolding him. “I was so young, it was so unfair.” As I asked him to stay with that young feeling, he heard the words, “You left me.” I asked who left him, and surprising himself he said, “I left me.”
The rest of the session explored how he still does that today with this young part of him. He went home and journaled about this and was able over the next several sessions to work on making friends with and having compassion for this younger part of him. As he continued to explore this, he noticed he didn’t have to only be quiet with his wife when they argued. He could get in touch with a sensation inside him that allowed him to open up more.
Building Adult Relationships
He could see his wife was often triggered from a younger place inside her as well. Travis was able to use words of compassion and add a feeling of compassion towards that injured part of her. His wife could see this happening when they were together and over time could, more importantly, feel this shift. This subtle and profound change in his behavior allowed them to make more progress in their arguments. They started to live the connected, loving relationship they both desired.
Travis couldn’t have gotten there without connecting to his younger experiences and the physical sensations that followed. Being willing to explore the past and follow his body allowed him to become vulnerable with another human being and create a more fulfilling life.
Image: Susan Myers