Tell me if this sounds familiar. You are pursuing a goal- while you can tackle some of the things that need to be done – there are others that just feel insurmountable- and every time you attempt them you are thrown into panic or rumination or zoning out.
You get frustrated, and start to wonder if you just don’t have what it takes. It feels like you are sabotaging your own dreams.
What we are experiencing is a narrow ‘window of tolerance’ with respect to life’s experiences. (1) Where a person who has not experienced trauma will generally require a truly life-threatening instance to be thrown into fight or flight, survivors of trauma are more easily thrown into this state. Thus, we may go for a job interview or a date, only to find ourselves panicking and shutting down.
Living life this way is like living on the ledge of a cliff. Anything we do has the possibility to push us down the emotional ravine. Thus, we try to stay safe by avoiding new things, new places, or pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone.
Yet, some part of us knows we cannot live a rich and beautiful life on this tiny ledge.
The risk is real
First, I want to say- the risk is real. Pushing your nervous system into fight or flight constantly is not how we heal. Such behavior has the risk of awakening things like depression, anxiety and maladaptive coping mechanisms.
We can expand our ledge, but we must do so safely.
Expanding the ledge
In ACT we call this increasing cognitive flexibility. The goal is to learn how to pursue our goals, while being mindful of the ledge. Through this work, we can expand our level of tolerance to new experiences- thereby giving ourselves more room in which to live our lives.
- ‘In spite of’. Acting in spite of means holding the understanding that we are living on a ledge and will likely suffer increased discomfort and fear. We make the decision to walk that ledge because it allows us to pursue our goals and dreams. Most importantly however, it means making choices to set yourself up for success. This isn’t needlessly tossing yourself into fight or flight. It means being mindful that you will experience discomfort and possibly be forced to self manage a strong reaction. It means practicing how to counteract fight or flight. It means interpreting our reaction as an over-reactive nervous system rather than as a personal failing. All of these things will allow you to navigate and grow your ledge.
- Counteracting Fight or Flight. When we find ourselves going into fight or flight, we must learn how to self manage and bring ourselves out of that state. There are 5 main steps to achieving this:
- Notice you are going into hypo or hyper arousal. This may feel like: panic, racing thoughts, rumination, desire to go to coping mechanisms like drinking, desire to zone out or lay down.
- Recognize that this is nervous system reactivity. Remove yourself from the situation to self manage.
- Self soothe. Your brain and body think you are under attack. Our goal in this instance is to promote our feeling of safety. There are several tools you can use to assist this:
- Use actions to convince the body- deep and slow breathing (this is consistent with being calm), rubbing your arms like a caring parent;
- Verbal soothing- tell yourself that you are safe. Say ‘I am not under attack. I am doing X in pursuit of X goal.’
- Manage shutting down. If you find yourself mentally shutting down, bring yourself into the present moment. Do a body scan to come into your body. Notice where you are in this moment. Remind yourself that you are safe from any past traumas, mistakes or problems. You are here in this present moment working on yourself.
- Do your homework. After you have a brush with the ledge, notice what tipped you off. This is where you can set yourself up for future success. Was it not knowing what to say at a networking event? Then go home and do research on how to network. Perhaps read a book or listen to podcasts about how to network effectively. Learning new skills will help you to overcome that particular hang-up. Practice what you learn with a friend or in the mirror. This will assist you in the moment.
- Reattempt the task in a safer way. Once you’ve assessed the issue and completed your plan to overcome it, try again. Perhaps speed networking will be less anxiety provoking than free mingle style. Perhaps try having a coffee with a single person rather than attending an event. Use trial and error to see what tasks your system can manage. As you have successes you will experience less stress and be more confident in your abilities.
We as survivors have two tasks in achieving our goals. First, we must manage the ledge. Second, we must do the work of achieving our goals.
The first step is simply being mindful of this reality. You don’t struggle with achieving your goals because you are lazy or incapable- you really do have more work to do than the average person. It isn’t about who you are, or what you are capable of. There are ways to overcome what you are struggling with.
A great next step is to check out Russ Harris’s book on mental flexibility- Reality Slap: Finding Peace and Fulfillment when Life Hurts.