WRITTEN BY Cindy Skelton-Hodge
Across the country, across the globe, we are starting to make decisions about “opening up” and getting back to “normal”. It is contentious! The complicated decision pendulum swings from “it is way too early,” to “it is way too late.” Every state, county, city, and rural area has to decide if it is time. With ALL that must be weighed, looked at, deciphered, considered and understood, it is easy to see how the decision process breaks down in frustration, anger, name-calling and total lack of empathy for the groups that see things differently than your group.
But what happens when that frustration and anger enters your own home? What happens when the folks living inside those quarantined walls are looking at the same data, having the same discussions turned arguments and come up with totally different answers?
Yep, that happened.
A simple and lovely party invitation was the final straw. Conversation over breakfast quickly turned into what felt like a feral cat thrown into a pillowcase with another feral cat. There was nothing but teeth and claws and no way to get out.
In this household, we know how to use regulation skills. We understand what happens to the brain and body when old patterns of fear, control, and anxiety take over. And here we were, in our own kitchen, living out the state and national paradigm of figuring out how to move on. Literally, the following thoughts and ideas were either said or implied:
Clearly this was not about the party invitation. Over the past months of lockdown, we have expressed our thoughts and concerns. We share, mostly, similar political beliefs and have followed the national, state, and local safety guidelines.
But somewhere in our breakfast “bag of cats conversation” it became clear that we had not HEARD the depth of each other’s concerns. What we did hear was filtered by our own internal fears, and righteous thoughts about pandemics, shut-downs, and even the “American way”.
The foundation of our work at Windows To My Soul is deeply rooted in the Trauma Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP) process of Natural Lifemanship, which is based on contemporary trauma research and greatly influenced by the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and many other experts in the trauma field. We believe the path to healing the effects of trauma is through healthy, good for both, relationships. This is because trauma and toxic stress can cause very real biological changes to our nervous system and brain. Inherent in these changes is the loss of connection to self and others limiting our ability to have healthy relationships. Building healthy relationships mandates that we maintain regulation (calm during stress) and causes us to rebuild or reorganize healthy neural pathways in our brain.
The question of good for both gets tricky when you are learning to communicate your thoughts or needs and/or are fighting to be heard.
That personal struggle makes it even harder for us to HEAR what the other person is fighting to communicate. Pretty soon both are frustrated and find themselves in a bag of feral cats. Many have said it - this is a traumatic time across the globe. To many, our very personal economic and professional survival is being questioned. This is trauma. In this state, we are only using the parts of the brain that are geared towards keeping us safe and protected. We are in fight or flight mode and may not have full access to the parts of the brain that allow us to empathize with others or think logically and thoroughly through issues. We may only hear our own scattered and fearful thoughts screaming through our head. Or, there is nothing at all. There are no thoughts, no fears, and no feelings. We are completely checked out.
When survival is at stake there are no easy answers. Even if the prescription for moving forward is given by others, we still must make decisions for ourselves, find our own answers and yes, find a way to move forward both individually and collectively. To do this, we are required to release ourselves from that bag of teeth and claws. But how?
Feel your activated nervous system.
Feel your heartbeat.
Feel the tingles or tightness in your stomach.
Notice your feet touching the ground.
Start to see the details of your surrounding environment.
Hear the sounds.
Search for physical sensations.
Feel the need for a deep breath and then take one.
This is the moment when the cats in the bag realize that nobody is getting out alive unless another path is chosen. This is the moment when we start to feel connection with ourselves.
The journey from this point is clear, but not easy. It goes something like this:
In order to stay calm in stressful situations, I must learn regulation skills. In order to get good at regulation, I must practice those skills regularly so just like muscle memory, they kick in automatically when things start to get rough. Because I am able to stay calmer for longer periods of time, I can now stay present in this current moment without fear from my past or fear for the future. Presence in the moment allows me to better connect with my thoughts and feelings.
This connection breeds confidence in self and allows me to ask for what I need and stay committed to being heard. With that confidence, my need to control lessens and I am able to HEAR others without fear of losing myself or not being HEARD. When I can really HEAR others, I start to attune to their needs and concerns and our connection grows. Together we can start to consider what is good for both. In this moment we have created a new healthy neural pathway that allows us to consider more than just ourselves without losing ourselves. We are working on our healthy, good for both, relationship.
Of course, it doesn’t happen fluidly like that. This is why a trauma-informed trainer of Natural Lifemanship and Founder of Windows To My Soul and her husband end up like two feral cats in a bag.
Trauma happens to all of us. Our past and current circumstances determine how we react and what we need to heal. The process is bumpy and requires choosing a new path and sometimes it is just easier and more comfortable to stay on the current path. Sometimes we can’t even see that a new path is necessary or possible.
As for this cat and her husband, we had that STOP moment. We reengaged our regulation skills and we started to HEAR each other. We learned that both of us have very real concerns for mental health, professional and physical survival. We decided not to attend the party. But we will get to have the conversation of moving forward in the world of Covid-19 many more times, hopefully, a little more regulated and attuned to each other. We have a family reunion scheduled in June. ☺