We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” response; but did you also know that “freeze” is a viable option? Not that we consciously get to decide, but I honestly think that’s the direction my body tends to react. To say that the brain is a fascinating organism, is an understatement. All of the things that the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz said he would do if he “only had a brain…” Sometimes though, our brain can act out of the ordinary for many reasons: depression, lack of sleep, stress…and even trauma. An overly-traumatized human exposed to repeated stressors can exercise poor judgment, execution errors, become easy to anger, or even contribute to immune and metabolic breakdowns. In trauma healing work, self-care is absolutely not optional, because it is unsustainable to live overly-traumatized 24/7.
The concept of good stress (which causes someone to concentrate their attention, improve physical strength, create an acute sense of hearing, or make you more social) vs. bad stress (traumatic events that disrupt the normal emotional & physiological activities and cause the aforementioned behaviors) is an important category between which to distinguish. There is a healthy acute stress response, where the brain secretes an appropriate amount of oxytocin, which can also be a healing response. Anything in excess is damaging, and stress is no exception; in fact, it’s quite toxic to one’s overall health. Trauma can masquerade as people “not cooperating;” when in actuality, it’s a chemical imbalance of neurobiology with sociology. Personally, when I feel a certain feeling or react in a specific way, I’ve found the practice of metacognition quite useful. If it’s becoming a pattern, I try to take a step back and figure out what is making me upset (this is not always easy when emotions are prominent). If I can identify the trigger, it’s a good basis for me to ground myself and begin to deal with what is really going on instead of manifesting itself in a way that makes no sense. This is particularly important when my metaphorical jar is full, and one more thing makes it all overflow.
So, how can we mitigate this? First, it’s important to recognize that your body is reacting to emotionally charged encounters that don’t just go away. Any performance issues could be manifesting directly from trauma, no matter how long ago. It is important to recognize the trauma, and come up with a self-care plan that works; this can include: exercise, a nutritional diet, deep breathing, conversing with a confidant, not compartmentalizing to a fault…because if one doesn’t deal with underlying issues, they will fester and bleed into other parts of our lives. Oftentimes, time is a big constraint to self-care practices. We are all so busy all the time, and everything is a “crisis” (especially in a situation of extreme trauma). If we can find a way to bring the temperature of a situation down, despite the urgency, we could discover a way to focus a bit better. I think there needs to be a sense of “feeling safe” to do so; and a person who practices self-care in a more dedicated manner, may find it easier to get to more often reach a safe space, physically or metaphorically.
If we can heal the whole being, the healing can then be more sustainable, in order to live one’s best life. “Being nice” is not the same thing as showing compassion. Always remember to look out for yourself, try to know what you can handle and how to handle it…and if you have limits, that is alright too. Empathy is entirely different than sympathy, and understanding HOW someone reached a point in their life can help you understand their behavior…but it’s not an excuse. It can shed light on a situation, and help figure out the best way to move forward. We can’t change the past, we can only learn from it, and decide what we want to do next with it.