First of all, I didn’t know that I was a traumatised person. Emotional trauma – I thought – was something that only happens to other people. The moment that I had become traumatised had slipped my conscious mind. I never would have thought that this incident of my late teens would still impact my today’s behaviour. I guess you can imagine how “surprised” I was when out of the blue I had to experience the feeling of being paralyzed and trapped in my body again. But don’t you worry. It didn’t last long. Just long enough to pull it back to my awareness and teach me the lesson I had to learn.
This is the 4th part of my latest self-experiment “What really happened in the Amazon jungle of Peru”. If you are new to this blog, you may want to start with part 1.
Ok. So let’s get into the juicy details.
Back to my traumatic experience in 1995
In my high school years I jobbed at the post office. At ridiculous early hours I pre-sorted letters for the mailmen. That meant getting up in the middle of the night and stumbled drowsily to the car parked in a very dark corner behind the house.
Back then I was driving a station wagon. You know the cars where the trunk is not separated and is part of the passenger area. So one morning on my way to the secluded parking spot, with my eyes still adjusting to the darkness, my ears heard some rumbling in front of me. My autonomous nervous system spontaneously kicked in. Suddenly I was awake and focused. Mechanically my body stiffened. My heartbeat spiked. My head involuntary turned to the area of the noise. And then my eyes spotted the shadow of an open trunk.
While my thinking brain still puttered through the experience …
… darkness, suspicious noise, open trunk …
… my most primitive instincts took over. A shiver of a million neurons firing all at once flushed through me. My body had switched into survival mode. I froze with fright. I had no energy to move. I couldn’t scream. I became a statue. A numb and cut off body. I guess that’s where the expression “scared to death” comes from.
Welcome to our 500 million year old neuronal energy sub-system, which originates from an ancient species of cartilaginous fish. Me being immobilized was the action of my primitive instinctive brain, trying to conserve and shuffle energy to vital parts of my body. That meant my organs and brain, not so much the muscles of my arms and legs.
Playing opossum is a natural survival tactic that seems to work for small slow animals that are being chased by lets say a lion. First the freezing behaviour wraps them into a kind of invisibility with their environment. Secondly playing dead could result in the lion losing its interest on its prey. And thirdly the flow of endorphins has a painkilling effect. In case the small animal gets caught it probably will not suffer much pain. That’s a soothing thought, isn’t it? Mother nature thinks about everything.
For us humans this state of paralyzing shock has also life supporting benefits. People that have been in an accident for example often report how they experienced no pain and just calmly witnessed the whole scenario around them. That’s our body prioritizing. Life supporting energy is directed to the areas most needed, our metabolism.
However, this paralyzing effect doesn’t last forever. Eventually an overwhelmed brain that receives inconclusive and somewhat worrisome information from the sensory system will regain momentum and prepares us for fight or flight.
Welcome to our second and approximately 300 million year old neuronal energy sub-system. This one does exactly the opposite of the first one. It restricts the energy flow to the organs und rocket launches the energy to our muscles in order to fight for our life or run away from the situation.
And so did I. I regained power over my limbs but …
… just like in those superhero movies where the scene is shown extremely slowed down so we can actually follow the bullet first hitting the bad guy (just in the arm) and then doing major damage to Granny’s wooden statue, which shatters into a million pieces, but not before getting redirected by the iron fry pan… just like that sloooooooow motion, I witnessed my situation.
- I wanted to run fast. But it felt like re-learning how to crawl and dragging a million bricks through quick sand.
- I wanted to scream out loud for help. But only a rasping sound left my dry mouth.
After what felt like hours under super intense energy expenditure I finally reached the front door, which was an agonizing 30 meters away. I grasped for every doorbell I could reach.
Too make a long story short. My boyfriend at that time and a neighbour caught the guy who had broken into a number of cars that night. He was drunk and frustrated with life but I doubt he would have harmed me.
However at that moment the threat to my life felt freaking real. And my experiences of being paralyzed, under stress and being scared are apparently the cornerstones of trauma.
The years after my emotional trauma
Of course life just went on like normal after that incident. I went to work right after the police had left. I was shaken and hyperactive that day. But it never ever occurred to me that this experience would influence my behaviour throughout my life. Of course I was more cautious and alert in similar situations the following years.
Approaching a car by myself in the dark put my nervous system on alert. Anxiety. Faster heartbeat. A scary feeling of being watched. I tried to find parking spots in well lit areas. On the remote farm of my parents I drove extra rounds in the yard to make sure all light motion detectors were aware of my arriving and shining as bright as they could. If there would have been an Olympic discipline in racing to the car, finding your key, open the door, get seated, fasten the seatbelt and starting the car, I would have won gold.
I wasn’t even sure what I was running from. Was I scared of men hiding in the dark? Really? Was I afraid of getting surprised? Or was I scared of having to feel that flush of endorphins again? Whatever it was, I felt uneasy in the darkness. But eventually I stopped thinking about it. Tiptoeing in darkness like a scared bunny or avoiding darkness just became my normal.
Therefor the following facts may not surprise:
- I left the remote farm of my parents after high school and never lived in the countryside again for an extended period of time.
- Now I live in a city apartment building with direct elevator access to a well protected and lit garage.
- I can’t enjoy a stay in a remote cabin in the woods with no electricity nor neighbours.
What do you think? How much influence had my emotional trauma on my choices in life? Are we talking “coincidence” or unconscious conditioning?
How much is our life directed by experiences we had as children or adolescence? Are you wondering why you life is the way it is? Does this sound like you? You really would love to do something but a subconscious fear is holding you back? I would love to visit Canada but can’t stand the thought of getting into an airplane? I would love to camp with the kids but just the thought of spiders or mice triggers a panic attack? Do you experience fear without actually being in a dangerous or life threatening situation? I mean fear is a good thing. It helps us to survive. But sometimes we have to look fear into the face to determine if it’s really for survival or an old software program that needs to be updated.
Overcoming my emotional trauma
So yes. I must have been desperate when I decided to live in the jungle for a month with no electricity and real darkness to find out what really drives me. And honestly I’m not sure if I would have gone if my friend Katie hadn’t signed up for the same journey.
Looking at the situation now, no wonder that darkness anxiety had to go first in order for me to make the best possible use of my month in the jungle.
And that is what happened during one of my first Ayahuasca ceremonies. I sat on my cushion in the dark, not thinking much, when suddenly my ears heard rustling behind my back. Instantaneously the feeling of all my nerve cells firing at the same time shook my whole body for a second. It felt like a rocket was launched inside me. I could feel my body temperature bolting. My senses were on high alert. From one to the next second I was back in 1995. Not visual but with all my emotions. Only this time I didn’t feel any fear. I was “just” facing the situation again. And my body suddenly seemed to gain the important piece of knowledge that was left behind in 1995.
It’s okay to feel fear. You escaped. You are well. There is no constant danger in darkness. Your past experience doesn’t serve you in the presence. You can let go now.
- It was like prison bars made of thoughts suddenly vanished.
- It was like the crack in a vinyl that forces the needle to play the same song over and over again was suddenly repaired.
- It was like my cells were saying: “Oh! If we would have known earlier.”
I can’t explain how Ayahuasca does it. And I can’t say if Ayahuasca can heal ptsd – post traumatic stress disorder, stress symptoms, depression or social anxiety. Some say a traumatic experience or emotional shock is stored in the limbic brain, exactly the part of the brain where Ayahuasca goes into. For me Ayahuasca brought to my attention how I behaved in a way that didn’t suit me anymore. Then Ayahuasca ripped off the Band-Aid so the wound would heal and I finally could move on. And now I’m enjoying life even in the darkness.
What trauma experts say
Trauma experts like Peter A. Levine suggest, that our bodies instinctive safety precautions like immobilisation and agitation are just the first two steps of several of the bodies natural defence mechanisms. When we are stuck in trauma our bodies and nervous system never had the chance of completing the whole defence reaction and experiencing the successful and rewarding energy release and escape.
Immobilisation itself is not a traumatic experience. Ask the kittens that are in a freeze state when their mother transports them by grabbing them on the neck. Panic attacks evolve from situations where people feel trapped and can’t escape in combination with fear. The body provided the energy to rocket launch the escape but the energy was actually never used up. Stuck in trauma could be stored fight or flight energy in the body. That’s why traumatised people experience energy release in the form of shaking, jittering or trembling.
Why this is crucial for holistic health?
Being trapped in our inner emotional clutter and experiencing fear and helplessness is unbearable. We’d rather ignore what happened and try to avoid to get into the same situation again. But when we are stuck in one of the first steps of our natural defence mechanism, we are also stuck in the analogous energy system. Fight or flight for instance is fed by the sympathetic nervous system, which means the energy supply and blood flow to our intestines is restricted. Now you know where the saying “feeling a knot in the stomach” comes from when we are under stress.
With today’s daily stresses we are all more in the fight and flight state then we should be. However, being in a fight and flight mode results in an inhibition of growth-related body functions. Meaning our digestive system stops its life-sustaining work like digestion and absorption of all those essential nutrients, energy production and excretion. Your heart beats faster. Your adrenals get exhausted. And our immune system is shut down. All this could lead to gastrointestinal disease, migraine, weight gain, asthma or chronic pain, just to name a few.
Emotions and feelings are molecules in motion. They can hurt and they can cause physical pain. An interesting book for further investigation: “Feelings – buried alive never die” by Karol K. Truman.
Evolution wants us to grow and to build a better and grander version of us. This is the purpose of life. We are constantly asked to making Ernst (remaking of decisions). That’s why we have to face our fears and realize, that fear (and anger and ….) are only a condition of the human mind.
Huh! What an epic experience, don’t you think? And I learned so much more during my Ayahuasca ceremonies. For instance the crucial truth about love. I can tell you. I got it all wrong.
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Happy to have you on this journey.
In preparation to my blog post about my emotional trauma the universe led me to this post on Facebook. I read it and thought: “Wow! Exactly!” Note that she is not talking about my article here. She is one of many beautiful practitioners out there that offer a helping hand.
Jungle time traveling to 1995. Reliving my emotional trauma by Tanja Knapp