The Body Knows What the Body Knows
I wonder how Pavlov’s dogs felt? Did they know he was messing with them? Did they know the limitations of their own brains? While I think we often underestimate the capacities of canines, it is safe to say Pavlov’s dogs did not spend much time examining their motives. They just loved Pavlov and their keepers, as dogs are inclined to do.
When animals in the wild are traumatized, their responses are predictable. They enter a state of hyperarousal, followed by constriction, or hypervigilance, followed by either fight, flight or freeze, depending on their instinctual response. If the response is to freeze, there will be dissociation and helplessness. When the entire threat has dissipated, there is a visible discharge of energy, as the animal will shiver and shake, literally shaking off the trauma. Life goes on, and the animal is not in need of therapy.
Not so we humans. Because we have a reptilian brain (instinct), a mammalian brain (emotions,) and a neo-cortex (rational thought,) our responses to trauma are far more complex. If we experience trauma and are able to go through all of the animal stages of response, life goes on and we are relatively unscathed. But if we are not able to discharge that energy, trouble brews. The energy stays in our bodies and our bodies conclude we are still in danger.
During the summer months I often encounter rattlesnakes when I am out mountain biking. It is always fascinating how quickly my body responds to the danger. I stop the bike on a dime, or swerve around the snake, or lift my feet and ride right over top of the snake, whatever is called for. But after it is all done, I frequently tremble and shake. I get off the bike and shake my arms and legs, ridding myself of all that adrenaline.
I wish it was that easy when it comes to the weeks and months after I came out as transgender. When I learned I was being virtually expelled from the religious fellowship in which I served, I cried and paced and went for long runs. But I couldn’t risk fighting back, for reasons that do not need to be rehashed in this post. My response had to be measured, which was not helpful in discharging the energy that had built up. That was not good for what Mary Oliver would call, “the soft animal of your body.”
My post-transition trauma came back last week in the form of post-traumatic stress. Since my TEDx talk began increasing in views (it’s at about 180k now) there have been a lot of positive and negative comments on YouTube. No one likes to read negative comments about themselves, but all in all, it hasn’t been too bad. But here’s the thing. I have no unresolved trauma with those people. Therefore the negative comments have little effect on me.
On the other hand, a number of people from my former world had comments about last week’s post. I posted and answered one thoughtful question from a kind and gentle man I greatly respect. But the other comments triggered me. You do not see them in the comments section because I do not publish comments that are not respectfully presented.
I was surprised I was triggered by the comments, but there was no denying the truth. I began shaking. Our bodies tell us when there is unresolved trauma. I realized these were people who can still wound me because I was never able to fully discharge the energy generated by my trauma when I was expelled from my religious tribe. So what did I do?
First, I acknowledged I was triggered. The level of my response was not connected to any current reality. It was rooted in the past. Second, I named the reality. I was responding to a time when that community had my wellbeing in its hands. That is not my current reality. Third, I allowed myself to feel all the emotions my body was feeling. I let the feelings run through me, not frightened of them. When they had run their course, I did something compassionate for myself. I called my two co-pastors at Left Hand Church and talked about the good work we are doing together.
All of us have experienced trauma. Life dishes it out to a greater or lesser degree to every last one of us. Allowing our bodies to work through that trauma is a critically important part of emotional and physical healing. Stuffing your feelings does not work. We do not get to consciously choose the moments in which we are triggered, or what it is that triggers us. But we do get to choose how we will respond.
( By the way, this blog has not only had comments coming from my former tribe. I am getting an inordinate number from the alt right in reaction to my TEDx talk being included in a media occurrence back east. So for the moment I am not allowing comments on any pages of my blog. Phone numbers have also been removed from the website. Sorry. Things should get back to normal soon.)