Tuesday 12 September 2023

Survival Mode

Last weekend a question from my children about fear and the body provoked some thoughts about survival mode. 

For the first time in my life, I clearly saw five 'life-shocks' (in the words of the late, great Sophie Sabbage) each of which altered my world view, and have kept me largely in a state of survival for the past 24 years.

The first: 1999. An unprovoked attack on a London street, 3 minutes from my home in broad daylight. A broken cheekbone from the first punch, a chipped tooth from the second. I urinated in fear as the third punch threw me into the road on my back. Until this moment, with three brothers, I had always believed I could fight or talk my way out of an aggression. But this was not play-fighting. Naturally, it left me feeling scared and impotent. It changed the way I lived in the world for a very long time, unable to make eye contact with strangers, unable to trust that I was safe. I sensed that someone could exert power over me at any moment and not only would I be unable to defend myself, but that no-one would come to my rescue or protect me. I mistakenly learned to release an expectation of safety.

The second life altering event was learning that my husband and I would not be able to conceive naturally. By the time we discovered his infertility, we had been trying to get pregnant for over a year and I was crazed and myopic. Our choices were to use a sperm donor, adopt or stop. My body was screaming to carry a baby, and so we chose a donor. A donor who was the same height and skin colour as my husband. Who also had Irish heritage, brown hair and blue eyes, a love of music. But who was not my husband. The grief at not being able to carry the biological baby of the man I loved was immense. I learned to let go of the expectations that I had subconsciously carried since I was a child: that parenthood was somehow a right.

The third event was my own cancer diagnosis, which I have written about many times. I learned about the uncertainty of life and to release the expectation of health. I learned to understand mortality which is the biggest gift a life-altering event can bestow. It teaches us to live, to really live. It sparked a joy for reconnecting with nature, a move to the country and home education of my children. The lesson was clear: don't wait, don't endure. Grasp life with all of the colour it offers and live it daily.

The fourth event came nine months later. My 7 year old son, a week into September, fresh from the summer but his lungs full of grief about my own health, told me he had "little room to breathe". Doctors dismissed him, but within days he was on a life support machine, having been bluelighted across London connected to makeshift breathing apparatus. His recovery was slow, even after extubation and I would not wish the horror of those few weeks on any parent. I barely functioned during that period. Noises came from my body that were animalistic at best. The pain was indescribable and the fear was consuming. I learned not even to take breathing for granted.

The final event: two and half years ago, my husband, my best friend of 27 years, told me he no longer loved me and left. It was sudden, unexpected and triggered feelings of abandonment. The voyage of self-discovery over the past 29 months has been nothing less than epic. I have transitioned to yet another new identity, no longer someone's lover, wife or partner. Although I thought I had done this work, I am still learning to lean in to loving myself, wholly, without apology. I have learned to let go of the expectations of relying on another, instead understanding that I am whole. 

Each of these five events was a shock. These shocks send the body into sympathetic nervous system dominance: fight or flight mode. In this mode we do not need to digest food. We do not need to have a well functioning immune system. We do not need balanced hormones. Because the body is programmed to survive above all else, and from this place we need nothing more than cortisol, adrenaline and elevated blood sugar. 

In my practice I see many people who are stuck in this place of survival. It leads to leaky gut, autoimmune conditions, fibromyalgia, blood sugar dysregulation, irritable bowel syndrome, flatlining cortisol. And the root cause is stress. Chronic, prolonged stress which feeds back to the body that we are not safe. 

What is the takeaway from this blog post? Life happens. We will inevitably experience pain, loss, ill-health, fear or rejection. The question is, how can we care for ourselves and promote health at times of great change? How can we reassure the physical body when we experience intense stress? 

I firmly believe that love is the antidote. Not love from another, but love for self. Self-love involves reassuring the body, mind and soul that we are safe. This calms the central nervous system and supports the switch from sympathetic dominant to para-sympathetic dominant, i.e. moving from fight or flight to rest and digest. The fastest way to do this is conscious breathing. The body senses that it cannot be under fire if we are breathing deeply. Drop your shoulders. Breathe in deeply and slowly through the nose deep down into the abdomen for the count of 7. Hold that breath with ease, and then breathe out through pursed lips for the count of 9. Take a short pause between breaths and repeat at least 10 times. Observe your body throughout the day. Are shoulders raised? Are you taking short, shallow breaths which signal fear and unsafety to the body? If so, take a moment and realign with meaningful breath.

It is also helpful to practice the mantra of safety: simply repeat to yourself, "I am safe". Meditation and gentle massage are also beneficial here.

Sit down to eat. Chew slowly. Take your time. There is time. You are safe. 

Energy work can help to realign the body very quickly back to rest and digest: reiki, acupuncture and cranio-sacral therapies can support astounding shifts.

Lastly, awareness is everything. Become aware of thoughts and words which shape the way you live in the world. What is your inner narrative? Process stress as it comes, allowing it to move through the body in a healthy way. Shaking the body can be very helpful in shifting the biochemistry of stress.

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