Week 2, Session 1: Fear in the Body
Hello and welcome to Week 2, Session 1 with Bloom.
If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However, if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!
You’ll need your thought diary for the homework for this week so make sure you have it with you if you don’t already.
Today, we’re going to get into the biology behind control - specifically, what happens to our bodies and minds during moments of trauma.
What is really going on with us when we feel threatened or scared?
By the end of the week, we hope you leave knowing more about the reasons we stay in abusive environments: about the chemicals in our bodies, how we bond in relationships, and more about the ways our bodies have also been keeping us alive.
You should feel proud of what you’ve managed so far - wherever you are - and we hope this small science lesson encourages you to be kind to yourselves, in all the ways your system can be understood, strengthened, or calmed.
The goals for this particular session with be:
- to learn about the symptoms of fear, stress, and anxiety
- to leave with a basic understanding of how both the mind and the body respond to danger
Before we get into the biology behind these practices, however, we’ll start with our opening exercise! As with last week, we’re beginning each session with a small grounding technique to help connect us with the present. We encourage you all to join in, but don’t feel you have to strain yourself to do so.
Today’s grounding exercise will be...
For today’s grounding exercise, pick a color that you like, maybe one that makes you feel calm, or makes you smile. Now, look around the room you are in and try and identify all of the things in the room that are that color. As you find them, say them outloud. Try and find at least 4 things in your space. If you can’t find anything in your room, try looking out a window, or conjure a picture of four things in your mind and say them outloud.
Fun question: Share your favourite film or favourite book!
In our last session, we touched on how abusers frighten and threaten us to keep us in line - to bend according to their whims. This is what defines an abusive relationship.
But what is actually happening to us physically, at a biological level, when we’re made to feel we are in danger? What are our instincts? And how can they be hijacked in situations where we either cannot or don’t feel as though we can escape?
As we introduced earlier, today we will be talking about the science behind many of the feelings and behaviours that stem from surviving abuse. As we well know as survivors ourselves, these symptoms often show up physically - and they’re exhausting to manage. We can often feel so uncomfortable in our skin that we shut down. We disengage from the world around us to regain a sense of control, and - as a result - end up in a continued cycle of disappointment and a lack of self-esteem - even when we’re no longer living in abusive environments.
This is because our bodies respond to trauma or stress the same way we do danger. For many of us in this course, we have been put in physical danger by our abusers - but, whether we’re in the presence danger or else just stressed (or even confused about whether we are being properly threatened), our bodies still flood with a chemical called cortisol - which is our body’s fight or flight hormone.
In small doses, cortisol acts as an alarm. It shuts down all non-essential functions - so that we can best protect ourselves using one of the 3 f’s: to fight, to flee, or to freeze. We react with the best action to face the threat in front of us, or whichever ‘f’ our mind has learned has kept us safest in the past (the one we’re most adapted to), as an automatic response.
Let’s step back from abuse for a minute and discuss this reaction with another example. Think of what would happen if you were walking down the street and saw... a snake. Your response would be to jump back and run away from the snake, before the more logical part of your brain could debate whether or not the animal could hurt you. Stress is a natural part of our systems that works to keep us all alive, without needing to fuss around with the logic or debating pros and cons. It’s actually something good - a wiring inherent to survival.
What becomes difficult in our life, however, is that we aren’t always dealing with (actual) snakes - or at least with their bite - but our minds still interpret the things that scare us with this same spike of chemicals; our bodies react this same way, and overwhelm us. Plus, when we’ve been living in a dangerous environment or with damaging, unpredictable people for so long - anticipating their angers, judgments, and moods - anything they do can feel like an attack, not just to our self-esteem, but to our lives. So, of course we’ll expend the energy every day to manage that aggression - in our own need to survive and to live.
However, cortisol is meant to flood our systems and empower us into immediate action. When we’re having to stay hypervigilant day in and day out, it’s exhausting. It becomes harder to manage our own thoughts, moods, or look after ourselves. It is even physically damaging to our health!
In addition, when we can’t do anything to handle the immediate danger, like run away, or fight back (without risk to ourselves) - with nowhere to run, or no way to flee, we spiral into a deeper state of anxiety and self-doubt. This leaves us even more confused and, thus, complacent to their demands.
What does this feel like?
- We can have physical reactions: dry mouth, sweating, fast breathing, a racing heartbeat
- Feelings of confusion, panic, fear
- Unhelpful thoughts/negative thinking: thinking I can’t deal with this; I know I’ll fail; everybody hates me - also includes intrusive thought, like the fear we’ll lose control, blaming ourselves with raw intensity
- Actions we repeat in a cycle: running away, avoiding the fear altogether, or becoming aggressive with nowhere to turn
This is also what leads to panic attacks. When we notice these symptoms happening, it’s scary - so we begin to worry more, notice our heart tightening, fixate on these physical sensations - and our reactions worsen. We wanted to say: if you are dealing with these more severe anxiety attacks (have started hyperventilating, or had intrusive thoughts): try breathing into your hands and then inhaling back in. This is because, when we panic, we lose too much carbon dioxide and it becomes harder to think - but we can actually balance this out by using our body’s other functions to restore balance. We will always have our breath as a tool for self-power. Our breath belongs to us.
Regardless, it is important to remember that if nothing seems to be helping you calm down, your body will only take so much stress before it shuts down its alarms. Panic rises on a scale from 1 to 10. Know that if you ever do hit a 10, you will always go back to normal. It knows how to fight, to run, or how to stay still because it wants to protect you - and where you can’t use one of your 3 f’s, you can learn techniques to stay well. Until you find one that works for you, although it may seem too hard to cope, your body knows how - and will - take care of you. You are wired for resilience.
The homework for this week is… Consider how you react to stress or to danger. Do you fight, flee, or freeze?
Have you always responded this way?
Have repeated events or the needs of your abuser taught you to favour one over others?
Is this the way you’ve learned to stay safe?
What are some of the symptoms you feel in your body?
Today, our homework is to locate what it “feels” like when we’re threatened or anxious - so we can learn our bodies’ individual reactions to stress. When we understand these feelings in advance, it’s less overwhelming, as we can know and befriend what’s happening to us, then choose how we can take care of ourselves either with an automatic response: to fight, flee, or freeze - not in shame, but as a way we have been keeping ourselves safe!!); or, if we can’t react as it puts us at risk, we can attend to our physical sensations and look after our well-being and health.
We’ve got this! Here’s a stick image with some of these symptoms, adapted from the Sexual Violence Recovery Toolkit.
Feel free to draw your own stick person in your thought diaries.
Continue with your diaries, too! Anything difficult that comes up as we work through this task can be written down, processed, and shared. We’re in this together.