Christmas was 72 hours ago and I haven’t stopped crying in days. Over the past decade the month of December has snowballed from one traumatic event into another, resulting in a multitude of experiences producing the fight, flight or freeze response. Exactly 8 years ago I was in the hospital for my daughter’s birth. It was an extremely complicated venture wherein both mother and daughter’s lives were at risk. By the grace of the goddess, all survived. 7 years ago I was at my daughter’s 1st year birthday party when I got the call; I excused myself to another room to hear my doctor tell me I had a brain lesion. 6 years ago I returned from uprooting my family and moving across the country for two months of specialized radiation to the brain. 5 years ago I left my wife and was living alone for the first time ever on Christmas day. 4 years ago my health condition forced me to sell my biggest passion: a women’s spirituality shop I owned for more than a decade. I was navigating the holidays for the first time jobless. 3 years ago I was evicted from my studio due to my landlords selling the property. 2 years ago I was recovering from multiple brain surgeries and being evacuated from the hospital during the largest wildfire California had seen to date. 1 year ago my sister and closest family member was AWOL in a foreign country, and the man closest to a father figure to me in my entire adult life died. This year I am cancer free, my sister is safely home, I live in a new house I love, and my daughter just celebrated a joyous 8th birthday. I am the happiest and healthiest I’ve been in 7 years, so why can’t I stop crying?
Many of us experience trauma that triggers a primal fight, flight or freeze response. It’s the body and psyche’s way of surviving an experience that is perceived as a life or death threat. It is a brilliantly designed reaction that keeps us alive in situations that could potentially be deadly. For example, say you are hiking in a remote area and a bear crosses your path. In a split second decision that is made by your primal response, not by your conscious mind, you decide which avenue to take to ensure your best chance of survival. You may “fight” the bear by waving your arms high above your head and shouting to appear bigger, louder and scarier than the bear. You may default to “flight” and high tail it out of there by running away as fast as you can. Or you may “freeze” opting to become stone like still to minimize yourself as a threat in hopes the bear disengages completely.
When I was a kid I went to a girl’s camp one summer in a forest that had a strong bear population. We were safety trained upon arrival. We were taught exactly what to do and not do if a bear crossed our path. We were told under no uncertain circumstances not to run. These types of bears could easily outrun us; even if they weren’t predatory, they could chase us playfully. One swipe of a bear’s claw could be life threatening.
On the first day we were setting up camp when lo and behold, we heard a bear. Let me tell you, it didn’t matter one iota how much training my conscious mind was given. The split second I perceived the threat I took off running like a wild child and there was absolutely nothing and no one that could have stopped me, including my rational mind. My primal response was activated, and I was out of there. During the moments I was running, I had no time to process my fear. The emotional processing of an event you are simply trying to survive comes later. Often times much later.
One doesn’t have to be chased by a bear in order to feel the fight, flight or freeze response. More often than not, the response can be triggered by an emotional threat. Experiences where the “death” of how you’ve been living comes suddenly, such as the moment you learn of a loved one passing away, the abandonment of a partner, or the diagnosis of a life altering disease.
This brings us to the 4th F, which I’ve added to the mix. This is the stage of feeling. One must feel the fear, anger, and grief of any experience that elicits the fight, flight or freeze reaction. When we enter extended periods of chaos there isn’t time to feel, so there isn’t time to properly heal. I’ve cried my way through the better part of this last month because I finally have the safe space to do so. The fear of the cancer I was “fighting” and the grief of the marriage I was “flighting” is able to come up and out now because I’m not experiencing an active primal threat for the first time in years. Even though I feel trapped in a woebegone state, I am aware this is a good thing. It takes courage to face darkle feelings. Yet in doing so, ultimate healing can occur.
In a culture that encourages us to drink, smoke, or click our feelings away, it can be a lonely road to feel and heal. I’ve had countless sleepless nights. I’ve had deferred panic rip through my body like wildfire. I’ve lost my breath too many times to count from pure adrenaline alone. All of these emotions are part of the human experience. When feelings are embraced, healing will occur.
The most promising part regarding the 4th F is it’s simplicity. The only thing feelings need are the time and space to be felt. We all express ourselves differently. Some of us are physical; we walk our feelings off. While some of us are emotional; we cry our emotions out. Pick up a pen, a ball, a paint brush. Sit down at a piano, on a meditation cushion, or in the office of a trained professional. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how you do it. All you need is to give your feelings an outlet to be expressed and deep healing will transpire.