HOW FEAR IMPACTS THE BODY.

mental health trauma Mar 21, 2021
Image of an East Asian woman wearing a black hoodie, amongst several large trees and ferns, looking out into the distance.

 

The shootings in Atlanta impact us so greatly because on some level, we know that if the conditions were the same in Australia as they are in the US, things would look really bleak here too.

Like in the US, if Covid was out of control here too, if people were dying all around us, if businesses were suffering, if people didn’t have proper health care, or unemployment benefits or if our PM continued to air racist propaganda, then yeah, the Asian Australian community might face the same violence as what we're seeing in the States.

Our bodies know this and that’s why everything that we see in the US, affects us so much even from such a distance away.

AM I SAFE?

I sometimes feel like my sense of safety in this country is conditional here. 

  • I’m safe in this country if I act in a certain manner.
  • I'm safe if I don’t speak my native tongue too loud or too joyfully in a public place.
  • I’m safe if I'm aesthetically and perspectively pleasing to others, but most definitely not if I have too many opinions or critical reflections.
  • I’m safe here if I’m not rude, pushy, stand too close, too aggressive, or too ambitious…
  • And right now, I'm safe if Covid is under control and if the common narrative remains ambivalent to those who blame China for the state of the world.

My safety and tied in with that, how "accepted" I am, often feels conditional here.

But even though this might be my lived experience, I can’t live in fear every day. Because doing so leaves me in a state of constant anxiety and distress. Because being in constant fear only hurts me and those around me.

So then how do we acknowledge the reality of the fear that we might be experiencing, yet live with a sense of safety?

THE IMPACT OF FEAR ON THE BODY.

Being in a state of constant fear leaves us feeling brittle and broken. Being scared means that we're in a reactive state where we're unable to pause, breathe and respond in a proportionate manner to the stimulus in front of us.

When we're in a constant state of fear, we're not really living, we’re just flailing our arms around and exhausting ourselves without creating any real progress.

In this state, it becomes very hard to connect with others (very important for our mental health) and our bodies start to adapt to this constant state of fear which means that we become primed to find threat in all different situations:

  • We become suspicious of everyone that we come in contact with,
  • we convince ourselves that everything (like our work, our investments, our decisions etc) will all turn out badly,
  • our thinking becomes very binary (it's either A or B, never both),
  • and every time something does go wrong, we think "I deserve this" rather than, "okay, what might I do differently next time?"

Despite this, it's important to remember that "feeling safe" is a learnable skill and that having strong emotions like anger, outrage, disgust and grief can all occur while also experiencing a base level of safety. 

We can witness all that is happening in Atlanta within the broader context of the US and engage in all the feelings that this brings up, but we can also find ways to ensure that this doesn't leave us feeling like we live in an unsafe world.

THE DOOM-SCROLL vs THE SABER-TOOTH TIGER.

Our bodies still detect and respond to threat in the same manner that we did thousands of years ago. However the difference is that way back when, our threats were in fact life threatening like, a saber-tooth tiger jumping out of the bushes to kill you. With this level of imminent physical threat, our body responds with the commonly known fight, flight or freeze response. You fight the tiger, you run away from the tiger, or if you're trapped, your body might choose to shut down.

The threats that we experience in our modern world can be just as physically threatening (ie. the inherent gender based violence in our society) however our threat response also kicks in for the emotional or psychological danger that we see all around us on a daily basis. 

When our Instagram scroll is filled with violence, outrage and anger, our bodies can pick this up as threat and we can find ourselves in:

  • fight mode (getting really worked up, arguing with internet people, creating or reposting the edgiest, angriest content you can find),
  • in flight mode (deleting all your social media accounts one night),
  • in a freeze response (becoming numb or perhaps feeling an enduring sense of devastation),
  • or in a fawn response (appeasing or bending over backwards for someone who you feel threatened by).

 

HOW DO WE CREATE A SENSE OF SAFETY?

When you’re stuck on social media seeing that constant stream of outrage and bad news, you can mitigate your body moving into a threat response by checking in with your body, even if it's just for a moment.

Becoming aware of the physical body helps to bring a sense of safety because our bodies are here "right now". Our thoughts and feelings might be all over the place, but our bodies are here in this world, right at this very moment. And for the most part, our physical bodies are physically safe so feeling grounded in the body reminds us that we are in fact okay right this very moment.

If you'd like to explore this, you can try this very simple sequence:

  1. Take your eyes off the screen and look around your physical surroundings. Our eyes are one of our strongest threat detectors so seeing that there is no tiger in your room can quickly and easily help to lower our threat response.
  2. After this, shift your attention to your body. If it's hard to sense the body without doing anything, you might like to place one or two hands on somewhere like your belly.
  3. Or alternatively, you might like to make some very slow movements and in the process of doing so, you can try to feel every part of your body engaged in that movement.
  4. Ask yourself, what is the body doing now? Where can I feel and where can't I seem to feel right now? If you could think of a word, what word would describe how your body feels right now?
  5. If this just doesn't feel right to you, try to take a few huge breaths instead. Make them so exaggerated that you're aware of how each breath starts and ends.

As you try these techniques, you might feel like you can't actually sense anything. Know that this is completely normal and okay and that continually coming back to this, will help you to sense your physical body. And that doing so will help you to stay grounded in a sense of safety as the world feels like it's spinning in chaos around you.

AT SHAPES AND SOUNDS:

In all our webinars and our programs, we always start with a short embodiment exercise to help us settle in our physical body before we move into more theoretical learning or into difficult conversations. This might involve anything from breathing exercises, to more movement based activities and all of these practices stem from trauma therapy and trauma-sensitive yoga practices.

We do this to help regulate some of the lower areas of our brain so that our executive functioning has a greater chance at being online when we dive into big topics like culture and race. Because without this kind of priming, it can be really hard for us to engage wholeheartedly in these discussions. We're too busy reacting (in fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode) that it becomes hard to engage in big and meaningful conversations.

BACK TO WHAT'S GOING ON RIGHT NOW.

There's no doubt that things feel a little overwhelming right now. Whether you're feeling it consciously, or if it's just buzzing behind the scenes in your mind, you might be feeling a little on edge.

But always know that in some way shape or form, we'll find our way through this and come out stronger because we're now talking about these issues and expressing our fear and rage in whatever way feels right for us.

But as you navigate all these feelings, remind yourself of the importance of feeling a base level of safety.

Remind yourself of this because the world needs smart people like you to feel safe in their bodies and in the world, so that you can respond rather than react to all that is happening right now.

If you want to make these embodiment practices part of your everyday experience, make sure that you've signed up to the Shapes and Sounds Club waiting list as we'll be diving deeper into these practices each month.

They'll help us to stay grounded and calm so that we can really start to work through different issues that impact Asian Australian mental health and come up with meaningful solutions for ourselves and for our community.

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You're not alone in navigating the intersections of race, culture and mental health. Find out more about our Shapes and Sounds Community, designed for and by Asian Australians.

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