Someone has just pushed your buttons. You’re triggered big time. You can’t fight back – It’s just not the way you do things. You can’t run away – that’s not the type of person you are. You can’t freeze – you have to handle the situation.
You have to respond. You have to keep everything going, but a few hours later the emotions are boiling, your mind is racing, you’re trying to make sense of it. You’re fighting it, running away from it and frozen all at the same time.
When you get triggered feelings are stimulated that you never want to feel. They are so intensely uncomfortable that you do almost anything to get away from them. It’s easy to replay the situation for weeks afterwards, or to bury yourself in work so you can forget what happened. Your mind tells endless stories to try and remove you from feeling anything.
That’s what they call fight or flight – the stress response – sometimes known as fight, flight or freeze. Apparently it has to do with sabre toothed tigers that used to roam the world and that we’ve never forgotten. Maybe that’s the reason, or maybe not. But it’s very real and it has nothing to do with sabre toothed tigers any more.
The problem is that these situations rarely get resolved. Another one happens and then another and it adds up. You can end up permanently avoiding all the feelings that have been triggered. You work harder and harder, your mind works overtime more and more and you feel more and more pressure inside. You’re constantly fighting the feelings, running away from them and you become frozen as a result. You’re the one who becomes the sabre-toothed tiger – a raging monster inside, all nice and fluffy on the outside.
So what’s the alternative to fighting, fleeing or freezing?
There’s another f word that gives us the key. This is all about feelings. You’re trying to avoid a feeling that’s so unpleasant you feel you can’t go anywhere near it. It can be fear, shame, rage, hopelessness, hatred, violence, self righteousness and many more.
So what happens if you stop fighting it, stop trying to flee from it and stop trying to freeze it? What happens if you allow yourself to feel it?
It can be very unpleasant at first, so it’s best to do it when you’re well away from anyone else. It can bring up some of the worst feelings you can remember – that’s why you want to avoid it so much. But the interesting thing is that it’s just feelings. There is no danger. Nothing really happens. It’s very familiar – after all you’ve had these feelings in you for many years.
Here’s a way to get started with this.
- Take a few minutes to sit quietly and relax.
- Allow yourself to feel the intense feeling you’ve been trying to avoid. For example, if someone has made you feel furious, or ashamed or aggressive, allow yourself to feel whichever feeling they triggered.
- The way to do this is to feel it in your body, not in your mind. Maybe you’re experiencing intense pressure around your heart. Or pain in your stomach. Or a burning sensation in your throat. Or a combination of different feelings.
- You’ll be tempted all the time to think about the feeling or tell stories about it. “I feel anxious because…” “This is all happening because …” “I feel so sad, and now I feel angry …” But the way to do this is to keep going back to the pure raw feeling. The sensation in your body. Forget all the words and all the stories. Keep coming back to the feeling.
- It will be difficult if it’s a strong feeling. You’ll want to run away. You’ll need to go to the bathroom, or get something done urgently, or look after the children, or answer an email – anything to get away from feeling.
- But that feeling is simply a movement of energy through your body. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something that needs to be felt because it’s part of you.
- Keep coming back to the feeling and simply feel it. That’s it.
- You will find that it changes. I don’t know how it will change. Everyone is different but it will change. Sometimes it feels the same for quite a while, sometimes it starts to change almost immediately. It’s not important what happens. Just stick with it. Allow yourself to feel it.
- If you’re dealing with a feeling that gets triggered over and over again, practise this every day (or every few days) for a while. You’ll notice that the feeling changes much more quickly when you practise it.
- When it changes you let go of the feeling – it turns into another feeling. At the same time all the thoughts that you usually associate with the feeling disappear.
Gradually you’ll discover that feelings are constantly changing and there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Not only do they change, but if you give them permission to be felt you discover a lot of very enjoyable, good feelings. In fact, those negative feeling you’ve been avoiding for so long are the doorway to the good feelings you’ve been looking for. If you allow yourself to feel the bad feelings you’ll discover the good ones lurking just underneath.
If you try this out, I’d love to hear how it works for you.