Do you remember when you last felt really stressed?
I know I certainly do.
Almost always there are three predictable stress responses that we can feel literally pulsate or surge through our body - fight, flight and freeze - and we could add to this 'submit' and 'dissociate'. We usually tend towards one of these responses more so than the others, depending on our past experiences and conditioning.
My own dominant response is to freeze or clock off when things get overwhelming, though when I reflect honestly the urge to fight or flee is definitely there as well. Often we are encouraged to fight with or overcome these urges so that we can come back to a place of stillness - perhaps by learning to relax more or concentrating harder. Adding to this, almost everyone in our culture tells us to be polite and respectable, even if we are volcanic!
I was reminded of my own stress response recently when I felt a burning passion to move forward with booking a long-awaited oversees trip, with the words imprinted in my head of someone very close to me, "!'ll see you there!' Yet when I looked into the practicalities of making this happen, it was a big challenge financially, my partner was genuinely concerned that it wasn't the right time, and I felt like a leper when I learnt about the need to pay for a quarantine hotel on returning to Australia.
'The insanity, the injustice! Why can't anyone support me? What has this crazy world come to?' My mind ranted and raved like this for a little while, and then I'd clock off into a state of 'brain fog' where I sat there motionless like I'd been hit by a stun gun. And then I pretended nothing was wrong and went about my usual day.
Later it dawned on me that this diabolical dance of fight and freeze was happening for a reason. It wasn't just an instinctive or preprogrammed response I had no control over; rather it was my nervous system responding to intense overwhelm caused by the PAIN OF PARADOX.
'Paradox' is when we are besieged by a state of inner contradiction. Part of me desperately wanting to go on this trip. Another part enraged that I simply can't. Part of me wanting to control the situation, the other part fuming that it's totally out of my control.
Research and experience in the trauma field helps us understand that the overwhelming, intolerable pain of paradox lies at the root of the trauma response, and then the fight-flight-freeze reaction actually emerges as a defense to this pain, beautifully orchestrated to protect our nervous system from what would otherwise be way too much for us to handle. This defense response literally helps us survive. It protects our personality structure from being torn to pieces.
In many people affected by major trauma, especially when they were really young, identifying with these defense responses is the only way they can make sense of the world. For example, if we desperately need love and affection from a caregiver and they are instead cruel to us, the only way we might make sense of this massive paradox is to submit or remain loyal to them, and take on the belief that we are bad and they are ok.
Yet this is not just something that happens to trauma survivors; rather it seems a universal part of our human condition.
I recently spent some time with my Tibetan Buddhist teacher, a Lama with many years of incredible spiritual training in monasteries and retreat centers all over Tibet. He shared with me his recollection of when the Chinese police were physically violent with him, yet he could handle this much easier than a situation in a monastery where he confronted the Pain of Paradox. Senior monks were bullying him, and the cultural and religious expectation was that he should remain sternly silent. Yet he simply couldn't do this, so he chose to retaliate, speak out and face the consequences, including being shamed and made to feel intense guilt. For many years he had recurring dreams about these events, and only recently did he feel he'd fully processed what had happened.
So instead of judging ourselves because we react intensely to something stressful, perhaps we can learn to appreciate, validate and honour those parts of us which are simply trying to protect us from the overwhelming Pain of Paradox. We can let these parts know that they may have developed the habit of reacting in an exaggerated way because they believe something really awful that happened a long time ago is still happening now. We can then gently reassure them that we are an adult now and offer them the possibility of not needing to protect us from this pain quite so fiercely.
This then begs the question, is there any way to step into and heal this Pain of Paradox, if it has been lodged in our nervous system so strongly as a result of past challenges? Is there any way to release it so that we no longer need fight, flee, freeze or submit when it gets reignited?
Although it certainly isn't easy, the good news is that the answer is yes! It is all about tapping into our innate ability to feel grounded, solid, stable and present in our bodies, and connected to what we call 'Self-Energy' - that aspect within all of us which can be a loving, courageous witness to even the most terrifying pain. I absolutely love the work of Lisa Schwartz who has gifted us with the 'Comprehensive Resource Model', a powerful sequence of guided meditations - using eye positions to anchor different experiences - which builds within us the inner strength to dive so fully into the Pain of Paradox that we can then release it and never have to re-experience it again!
Then our nervous system can finally relax. Those parts of us primed to fight, flee or freeze can then go on long service leave - a well-deserved holiday! They can then step into healthier roles where they can respond appropriately as needed and can be lovingly integrated into the Whole of Who We Are.