Expansion or Survival Mode: Where Are You Located?
Do you experience stretches of time when your brain feels like an old English manor filled with dozens of doors leading to unexplored rooms? Other times, does your brain feel like a cramped studio apartment? And like a Twilight Zone episode, you can be transported from the manor house to the studio in minutes? You can also spend years in the studio due to one traumatic event.
After my son fractured his skull three years ago, I spent two years in survival mode. Once the initial triage period spent focusing on my son’s recovery ended, I realized that the landscape of my brain was different. Assuming that my head would heal with my son’s, I sunk to a new depth when the doctor announced, “he can officially resume all normal 4-year-old activities” and all I felt was a claustrophobic dread.
When I am frustrated or threatened, my default setting is to use force so I picked up every heavy object I could find and banged it against the studio walls, trying to create an exit. When this didn’t yield any results, I reached for my AA tools. Surely I could coach myself out of this space after so many years of personal development work. This approach failed too because I still lacked acceptance.
Finally, a year later, I surrendered and saw a trauma specialist after reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. This book is easy to digest and should be on a universal required reading list. After a traumatic event, there is no returning to an old way of existing, the trauma must be integrated. If it isn’t, we subconsciously customize our life around it or numb out with the vice of our choice.
I was instructed to give up my warrior way and simplify my life so my brain could relax. Taking a break from triggers like crowded playgrounds was required so my brain could settle. Growth wasn’t possible if I was always cycling through some stage of recovery. I started to read fiction again, upped my AA meetings, drank tea, walked daily and consciously reframed the way I spoke about my son’s accident. Internally and externally, I had said “the time my son almost died” hundreds of times. Trauma cannot be healed by talk therapy, retelling the dramatic version of the story creates deeper brain grooves, not relief.
I started meditating which was a never for a New Yorker like me. Desperate, I took a friend’s suggestion and signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. I will write a thorough article about that experience next because the subject warrants more than one sentence. Slowly, something started shifting, and some days I was able to stop by the manor for an hour or two.
It doesn’t take a traumatic event like my son’s accident to activate our reptilian brains. They can switch over into survival mode at any time, registering small events as significant threats. Our amygdala’s get hijacked regularly by everyday occurrences. My children press all my buttons and by 8 am some mornings, I am already seated smack in the middle of the studio. Other days I am there due to a bad night’s sleep or an argument with my husband. What makes the difference is re-orienting myself as quickly as possible.
By identifying my location regularly, I can usually avoid prolonged periods in survival mode. Because my thinking is curtailed in the studio, delaying decision making as much as possible and scaling back on potentially triggering activities ensures that I don’t unknowingly extend my lease. Once I settle into the cozy simplicity of the studio, my journey back to the manor can begin.
I love feeling expansive and long to inhabit my manor house brain always. I have to watch my tendency to feel entitled to permanent residency due to my optimal routine and habits. Shouldn’t daily meditation, exercise, healthy diet, and service work provide consistent access? Doing these things regularly guarantee that I will one day return, but it’s a day by day invitation. Time in the manor house is a gift that I can never take for granted.