The biology of fear - moving towards connection in a divided world
Updated: Sep 23
Trigger warning: reference to suicide
I am sitting at home tonight by myself, lying in bed and trying to comprehend all of the various events taking place on a global scale as I write this. It feels like the world is on fire. In many places it literally is. As a trauma survivor, I recognize this type of chronic and constant hyper-vigilance. The not knowing when the next shoe is going to drop or what is coming down the pipeline. It is a type of chaos that my body and mind recognize, but that doesn't make it any easier. We all have a limited amount of stress that our nervous systems can handle before they begin to break down and become severely dysregulated. And it seems like that is what is occurring right now, on a large scale.
I am just beginning a month long stress leave from my place of work. I'm so grateful that I have the privilege to take some time to breathe and process through many of the things that are occurring in the world and in my community and personal life. In the last two months I have been evicted from my home and I have lost two friends to suicide. I am still uncertain about where I am going to live come October and the weight of the loss of two people who I admired and connected with on a deep emotional level is a lot to work through. We are all experiencing grief and loss right now in varying ways. Some more than others. We have all been effected by our global circumstances in ways that we can't always outright see, comprehend or understand. Time will reveal the impact that this has all had on us as we are slowly able to begin to process and come to terms with the many things that we have had to survive and the many ways we survived them.
Our brains and bodies are all so tired from living in chronic, unrelenting fear for 18 months in a way that many of us have never experienced before in our lifetimes. Our thinking brains are offline as a result of chronic nervous system activation. Being constantly chased by an invisible tiger has profound impacts on our ability to connect, think and function.
Even writing this blog post feels difficult as my system is so completely full and overwhelmed and my brain is not working in the ways that I wish it would. To be fair, my brain was already struggling as I have been working to heal from chronic illness and years of unprocessed and suppressed stress and trauma. Current circumstances continue to add layers on to that onion.
I have been feeling so, so lonely lately. And I don't think it's the physical self isolation that I have been in for the past 18 months - though, I'm sure that has something to do with it. Technology has been my main companion for the past 1.5 years and that is not always the best or most supportive tool to manage emotional wellness. I miss friends. I miss meeting people in person. I miss music. But mostly, I think I miss feeling safe to have open, diverse dialogue within community. The division, rage, and harshness of humanity has never been as evident to me as it currently is. We are polarized. It has felt very hard to know where it is safe to speak openly or when it will be dangerous to my emotional and psychological health. I miss being able to more easily access a sense of safety, both internally and externally.
The thing is, I know enough by now about how the brain and the nervous system function to understand why this feels so hard given current global events. In conversation with my therapist last week he pointed out that when humans are afraid they become more abusive. Oh. Of course they do. This recognition helps me to take our current social/political climate less personally. When mammals in the wild are under threat, they become aggressive and attacking. We are mammals - and we have been under chronic threat for the last 18 months. The ways in which we continue to be under threat are multiplying and it hasn't stopped or let up. It truly has felt like a collective dark night of the soul.
It helps me to remember that when our nervous systems are in 'fight' mode, our biological propensity is to attack. When we are in 'flight' mode, the impulse is to run. And when we are in 'freeze' mode, we collapse, shut down and disconnect. When our systems sense threat, they automatically access these states in order to preserve our lives. The executive functioning of our brains go offline, and we split. We view the world in black and white and in order to stay alive, our systems want to make sense of who is 'safe' and who is a 'threat'. I am seeing this now more than ever. And it is an extremely painful thing to witness and to personally experience.
While we are having conversations online and at work and with our friend groups as modern humans, underpinning these conversations are our very intelligent, undiscerning, biological survival mechanisms. We can't help it. It's how we are designed. We are animals that are trapped in a modern world. Technology adds mountains to our already chronically activated, hyper-alert, over stressed nervous systems. We can't turn it off. The tiger is always there. And now it is especially there. It is there in the form of an invisible illness and could strike at any moment, and it is also there in the form of our friends, family and co-workers that our brains label as other, different and dangerous based on their individual political and/or personal views and the decisions that they make or don't make. Shit is wild. And we can't escape it. There is no escape. No wonder we are all spent.
One of my dearest friends and I were having a visit recently and we began to wander into the realm of politics and world events. Without realizing it, we both moved into the defensive. We could both feel the tension in the air and the discomfort of the disconnect between us. I left that interaction feeling more lonely and in more pain than what I had gone there to ease in the first place. Normally, this friend would be a key 'go-to' in a moment of need. It took us both a couple of weeks before we chatted again. Not because we were avoiding each other, but because we have the kind of friendship that is low maintenance and doesn't require regular communication. When we did reconnect we both acknowledged that we had been reflecting on our visit and how we both had had realizations about it. Hers being that she had been traumatized by the last year and a half and was acting from that state of trauma, and mine being that I had been in a protective state of defensiveness and defiance because I was having a hard time finding safety. Acknowledging our own pain to ourselves and to each other opened a door between us and allowed us to see that despite our pain and the ways that we had unconsciously responded to it - underneath that was the same, longstanding, meaningful connection and friendship that we had always had. In this recognition we both felt a weight lift. The moral of the story - love wins. And we said that to each other. 'Love wins'. Period.
I don't know what the answers are. I don't even want to begin to pretend like I do. I am simply surviving one day at a time. Sometimes one moment at a time. I don't know what the future is going to look like. What I do know is that I have realized that my own body can only handle so much stress. I have had to realize that it is not healthy for me to be on the defensive 24 hours a day. It sends my system into a state of chronic activation and inflammation. It suppresses my immune system and makes me more vulnerable and susceptible to all illnesses - mental, physical and spiritual.
What has helped me, has been a recognition that what is happening within the collective right now - the chaos, the division, the rage, the attack, the polarization, the overwhelming lack of safety and connection - is understandably a result of human fear and suffering. When we are afraid, we shut down and we are not able to perceive things dialectically. This understanding helps me to have a little more compassion for myself when I become defensive or attacking or when I view others doing the same.
When I judge, when I 'other', when I place people into camps and groups and label them as being on my 'side' or not - this, I know, is the result of my fearful and hyper-vigilant, splitting brain, which is looking to find some semblance of safety in a world that feels grossly and entirely unsafe. Acknowledging my lack of control feels deeply painful, and I want to do anything I can to cling to a notion of control and predictability because it allows me to feel like I have control over my pain.
I feel like I have a lot to be angry about right now. We all do. There is a lot happening right now to be angry about. I do not want to deny or suppress that anger. I want to acknowledge it. AND, I want to recognize that I have a choice. I can choose to reside in my anger and my defensiveness, or I can choose love. To choose love means to sit with my own pain, acceptance and lack of control about much of what is happening in the world. That does not feel good. It feels better and easier to be angry. But my body can't handle being in an angry state for so long. I can’t afford it. My practice is to sit with the discomfort of the pain that comes from recognizing that the majority of what is happening is out of my control and that it is, in essence, extremely painful.
I am trying to choose love. I am trying to learn how to sit in shades of grey. I am trying to remember that when I feel the need to 'other' that I am sitting in a space of biological protectiveness. That understanding helps me sometimes. And then I falter and pick myself back up and try again. I am only human. There is no shortage of trying. Our current circumstances are not going away over night. And even when they do, there will be other fields and areas of practice. Of that I am sure.
I guess I should try to go to sleep now. My fear is telling me that under no circumstances should I publish this blog post. I am terrified of what the response will be. But, I also deeply long for authentic expression and to put something out into the world that even a few people might resonate with. If you are one of those people (or even if you're not) please feel free to contact me to share your thoughts and feelings. I will try my best to be a safe, non-judgemental space for you to speak. We need those spaces now, more than ever.
Reilly Scott is a singer/songwriter, blogger, yoga teacher and facilitator residing in Kenora, Ontario. She is passionate about combining trauma informed practice and body based healing modalities with the arts to support psycho-education, health and wellbeing.
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