When healing fear, it is impossible to separate the good from the bad, although we often try hard to do so. Through my own process as well as working with others, I have seen how good experiences are often coupled with bad ones. A great example could be a child who uses permanent marker to paint a picture on a window. The child wants her parents to be proud of her beautiful work of art, yet may be punished instead. I remember when I was little, my father drew a picture of his prized bull. My dad is a cattle farmer and he would always talk about #5130, the bull that had made it into magazines. I would look at this picture and to me it was so strange. There was this beautiful sketched picture of a muscular bull, surrounded by a cartoonish bird, a crooked house, the sun, and a large cloud above the Bull's body. I remember looking down at my father’s picture and thinking how awesome the bull looked, his muscles flexed as he sat in the middle of the field. He looked stoic and frozen in time. I thought how odd it was to see this bull brought to life by the Disney Scene that surrounded him. Even at a young age I was confused by my father’s choice to ruin his own picture. It turned out that my dad left his picture unattended and my sister decided to bring it to life. Looking back now, I think she was right, the bull needed to lighten up a little bit. When my father saw the picture he took a wonderful approach: he cherished my sister’s contribution and loved the picture even more. This picture depicts the wisdom of healing fearful situations in our life. It shows that sorrow needs connection in order to create wholeness. In the face of fearful situations it is important to see how positive and negative are brought together to thaw out the cold and stoic parts of ourselves so we can bring color back into our life.
When I imagine the picture of the stoic bull, he represents a part of ourselves that is locked in time. In the picture he seems stiff and alone as he stares across the field. There is no warmth to his body and I can imagine reaching into the picture and feeling a cold exterior. The bull is a wonderful metaphor for traumatic events that become locked in time. Much like the bull, these memories can appear large, menacing, and distant; it takes an immense amount of courage to approach them. Behind the bull is a cartoonish scene of a cloud, barn, bird, and sun. There is innocence to this scene and it captures the imagination and curiosity. Almost as if to get to the scene in the background you have to first deal with the bull. Somehow you have to bring warmth to his stoic exterior so both of you can enjoy the array of lighthearted experiences in the background.
Traumatic experiences shut down the body’s ability to fully experience joy. It is almost as if pleasant and unpleasant life experiences get thrown into the same mix and the intensity of our feelings during fearful situations make it easier for us to simply shut it all down. This has dire consequences to our personal life but seems to work wonders in the moments when we experience trauma. It is better to be removed from the scene all together rather than having to face the intensity of our own feelings.
Trauma is described by Dr. Peter Levine in his book Waking The Tiger, as a “stressful occurrence that is outside the range of usual human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone. He reinforces this definition with a description of symptoms having to last a certain amount of time such as anxiety, intrusive images, being flooded by emotional feelings, being shut down, and numb.” This definition points to traumatic situations having a lasting effect which impacts and alters our current life experience. These overwhelming traumatic experiences create shock in our nervous system and make it difficult to live and function in a normal way. I would compare moments of numbness and restriction that are felt in the body, as the aftershocks of a traumatic experience to the bull in my father’s picture. I recently had two experiences where I felt the bull show up in my life. Both occasions were similar and created lasting fear and restriction.
On one occasion, I was working and got a call from my wife, crying hysterically on the other end of the phone. I could not hear my wife’s words through her tears, but I knew what she was calling for. I felt the initial fear of what she was trying to say, followed by my heart dropping in my chest. My dog Giggs loved to visit the neighborhood dogs; he would be sunning himself in the front yard and all of the sudden disappear from sight. He was smart, sneaky, and impossible to reign in. When we kept him in a kennel or on a leash, his energy would drop and he would be plotting the moment when he would be free enough to disappear in a moment’s notice. We lived next to a busy road and I was always afraid of receiving the call that meant Giggs was gone. On this occasion, the ever-mounting fear had come true and I felt frozen in that moment. Emotions were flooding through me and I was overwhelmed by the truth of losing my dear friend.
On another occasion the phone rang and was answered by my mother; I could hear her brother’s voice through the line. He said a couple words that I was afraid to hear: that he had some bad news for the family. My uncle had passed away and I again felt the same experience as I had on the phone with my wife, a dropping of my heart, a freezing sensation, followed by a rush of emotions. While I moved through the aftermath of these two sudden losses, I noticed something remaining, the freezing feeling and a hesitation to answer the phone when I received a call. These moments when we experience fear are an opportunity to begin to approach the bull. They are the ways in which past traumatic events, whether big or small, show up in our life through the reactions of our central nervous system. In these moments there is a natural reaction of fear followed by a choice that I have to make. I can choose to connect with my fear, approach the bull, and answer the telephone.
The restriction I felt while answering those phone calls mirror my past traumatic experiences. Sometimes we are not even aware of an overwhelming anxiety, irrational fear, numbness, or emotional reaction being connected to a past traumatic event. When I made this connection, it helped me identify why I was afraid and what was causing the restriction in my body. What became difficult about answering the phone was the fact that it was intrinsically connected to the loss of my loved ones. It became difficult to approach this restriction because I then had to feel the pain and loss I had experienced. This is when we can begin to understand the benefits of connecting with the bull: it helps us get in touch with the reality of the situation. It helps us to have the fortitude to feel what has caused us pain. If I avoid feeling my fear, it will live on and restrict my ability to function in a normal way. By approaching my restriction and feeling the loss, I was claiming some of the power of the bull: the profound strength of being able to feel the bigness of my loss. A part of me was stuck in the shock of answering those calls, but through connection and beginning to relax my natural reaction of fear, I opened up to the brightness of the bird, cloud, sun, and crooked house in the picture. The intensity of my experience needed to be met by reconnecting with it. When I felt the fear of answering those calls, I felt the immense loss and sadness. I felt the flow of my emotions and the array of physical sensation: overwhelming feelings of missing my uncle and my dog and no longer having their presence in my life. This array of emotion was a light that shined through my fear and restriction. When I answered the call of my feelings, I started to process them and over time, felt more comfortable with remembering my uncle’s humor or my dog licking my face to let me know that he was close by. I felt the intricacies of their presence and the unbelievable sadness that was connected to the huge space that they filled in my life. When we are open to feeling the restriction and approaching the bull, we become strong enough to move forward in our life without the blind spots around the places that bring up our trauma that we seek to avoid.
The Bigger Picture
When we do not have practices to feel the fear, it naturally restricts our ability to function. I may at first be afraid of a phone call, followed by recurring images of the moment when I received the devastating news, then withdrawing from my loved ones because it becomes overwhelming to be around people. These ever-expanding limitations might compound into symptoms of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or trouble sleeping. We have a choice about the impact that trauma has in our life. Do we want it to expand into the limitations of the bull, isolated and alone in the field? Or do we want it to expand into the relaxed energy of being able to move through life without recurring fear and restriction, able to see the beauty of the birds and flowers that surround us?
In my experience, by addressing the fear, then the loss, and then the connection with the memory of my loved ones, I could move into feeling relaxed when the phone rang; I could have the pictures of my uncle and dog in my house without being overwhelmed when I looked at their images. In my process I approached the bull and felt the strength of the fear; I opened up to the emotion behind the restriction and felt a new sense of strength, freedom, and connection with the world around me.
Exercise for healing fear:
If we want to bring flow back into our life we have to start to realize that the river of openness flows with the river of restriction. A beautiful practice to start bringing more presence to your body is to get in touch with where you feel open. Notice a physical space in your body that feels safe. Some people find this in their chest as they connect with their breathing, others feel it easier to connect with a more periphery place such as the fingers or toes. This is a gentle practice of connecting with the body, so take your time. Notice the sensation and bring your attention to this area. After a while it may feel more comfortable and you may notice your awareness expanding. An awareness of the finger may move to the entire, hand, arm, or chest. The purpose of this exercise is to notice the array of feelings and to see how they change and move. This movement is creating a flow into the intricacies of your felt experience.
As your attention has settled and expanded into the areas that are easy to connect with start reinforcing this practice by laying your hand on the body. I usually notice the ease in my chest and gently lay my hand there. I then connect with my hand on the body while tracking the sensation in the chest. Begin to also notice where you may feel tension or restriction in the body. You may notice tightness in the stomach or neck. As you notice the tension gently bring you awareness to this area. If the sensation ever becomes too intense move back to the area where you felt more open. Remember that you can always go back to the place where there is ease at any time. You can also go back to the beginning of the first step if you do not feel comfortable with the intensity of the experience. As you feel comfortable spending more time in the restriction feel your awareness settling into this part of your body. You may find the tension moving or changing or notice your ability to stay present. Once you feel more comfortable place your hands on the tension and stay present, if it changes place your hand on the ever changing positioning of the sensation. As your hand is placed on this area begin to notice your breathing and feel the expansion and contraction as you breathe into this space.
Once you feel more settled into the place where you feel restriction begin to dance between the open and restrictive sensations. Take time feeling the openness and then move your attention to the restriction. This movement back and forth creates flow in the body, begins to integrate the two experiences, and creates safety and security no matter what you are experiencing. The result will be creating the bigger picture of accepting the array of physical sensation without the need to react through fear and restriction. Through practicing the technique you may notice a greater sense of ease on a consistent basis.
Waking The Tiger, by Dr. Peter Levine