It has been eight months since the Tubbs Fire gave me the opportunity to observe myself under intense, life-threatening pressure… and recovery. While I would not wish not this on anyone, it has given me an opportunity to use myself as a “lab.”
No question it was traumatic, and I suffered with a mild case of PTSD for about six months. I noticed last week when the evening winds picked up, my biology automatically perked up. I found myself going outside and sniffing the air. I quickly determined it was only wind – my biology relaxed, I felt safe, and I returned to my reading.
I have also witnessed in myself and the collective, the life force that is inherent in all of us – resilience. It is the automatic outpouring of our life force manifested as positive emotions – love, care and commitment to something bigger than ourselves.
Resilience is a somatic experience, not intellectual thought.
Resilience is also more than “good coping skills.”
As adults, we have developed strategies for dealing with upset, disappointment and the unexpected. Resilience is different. It naturally arises, leaving us feeling more connected, more open and with a greater sense of safety. We are ready to take action toward a better future for ourselves and others. We have a wider range of sensations and emotions with resilience; it is okay to feel more, rather than avoid and become disconnected from ourselves and others.
Resilience is not an overlay or bypass used to cover or avoid other emotions such as sadness, despair and shame. It is the way our life-force energies come forward in the positive, allowing our bodies to feel goodness, hope and renewal. Our nervous system is reminded that sensations, while sometimes generating negative emotions, can also generate positive emotions.
Building my own
In my case, it took seven months to be able to confront the deep sadness I had about the loss of homes, people, trees and plants in my neighborhood. Soon after the fire, I went to Ethiopia for three weeks. When I returned, I remember saying I was glad I got away and “missed” all the sad stories, the human despair of lost property and lives. It seems I really just put it off.
Nature is where my resilience is renewed. Seeing the devastation of the land and trees, people I used to wave to – the deep sadness I had been avoiding had to be felt. Three months ago, I started my walk up the hill and turned back sobbing. I continued to have this deep sadness that I knew had to be felt.
Last week I again braved my favorite hike, still sad and aching inside. I listened to John Williams’s music and felt the inspiration of one of his movie scores. It was then that I began to see the new growth, new homes being built and vacant lots for sale. I could imagine that the selling of a lot could be renewal for someone. My sadness moved through, replaced by fullness and I am able to engage wholeheartedly again.
Collective resilience can be seen when a natural disaster happens – people help others. They dig, risk their own lives, house strangers, donate money. When asked why, the response is often, “I just had to do it,” or “I didn’t think twice about it.” When this outpouring is stopped, usually due to governmental agencies wanting to assess the situation, this natural outpouring of energy can turn into violence. This is how deep and inherent this energy is in us, and the directing of it, not the stopping of it, is the wiser choice.
Staying connected when we want to run or hide
We live in extremely trying times, and not just here in the U.S. No matter what side or position one is on, people can feel misunderstood, deeply saddened, angry… so many different emotions. Some feel as if their personal or our collective values and ethics are being assaulted and they are helpless to stop it. From my looking, this is akin to a form of trauma, especially when we feel so helpless to effect change.
Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., has studied the brain development of children under six years of age who witnessed trauma or violence. These young people developed ways to “work around” those places in the brain most impacted by witnessing trauma. These children were able to stay connected to themselves and experience themselves and life in the positive through:
If you think back, you may remember as a child that special animal friend who was always there for you and provided a safe harbor when things got a bit rough out there in the real world. You may have run free on the beach, feeling as if you were as big and wide as the ocean and could do or be anything you wanted. I have clients who tell me that from a very young age music was where they went to escape. Others escaped to books.
In my practice, I have the great honor to work with clients to heal old wounds and trauma. Their body is not a source of pleasure and comfort. It cannot determine when it is safe or just uncomfortable. Their nervous system learned, sometimes at a very young age, to feel so overwhelmed that they cannot begin to know what it is like to feel at home in their own skin. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
It is important to note that this is not a psychological choice – it is a nervous system response that people have no control over. They feel unsafe, and it is not a mental choice.
Befriending the body
The courage it takes to befriend and re-inhabit their bodies is enormous. The body is where the pain, fear or rage is. To heal, they must get to know their pain, fear and rage and befriend it.
And we all need to know our own resilience. Resilience is a sensation – sensations that produce the emotions of hope, renewal and the ability to feel our own and others’ goodness and love.
As we face into these trying times, or maybe just our own daily life, remember back to that time when you found and knew your resilience. As adults, the reminder and cultivation of resilience is a practice well worth investing in. Feel the fullness and joy from those times when you felt yourself alive and free – nature, art, an animal or a spiritual connection. Know that you can bring those sensations and emotional response forward at any time. Take a few minutes daily to feel, imagine and know that from this body – full of aliveness and vitality – new ways of thinking, feeling and making choices are right there, ready to be used.
I’d like to acknowledge the work of Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., and Strozzi Institute, both having contributed to my understanding and appreciation of human emotions and biology.