Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn. When we resort to one of these responses, they are usually because we were triggered by unprocessed trauma. You probably have heard of these terms in the past, but I wanted to talk about what they look like and what happens when they show up, as they can be mistaken for other problems and are often misunderstood.
Fight: This one is identified by raised voice, tendency to block out or overpower others, tendency to not listen, leading with anger, can lead to fighting/ altercations. Symptoms can manifest as feeling physically hot, especially in the face, tense muscles, dilated pupils, clenched fists, feeling overly stimulated/alert.
Flight: This one manifests as feeling uncomfortable in the present situation, may feel urges to empty bladder, bowels, or vomit. Urges to to run away or leave the situation and never come back (quit a job, end a relationship on a whim). It can also lead to disassociation; checking out if you can't physically get away.
Freezing; Identified as physically freezing, this one can manifest as the breath and heart rate slowing down, finding it hard to move, or your body getting heavy and sleepy, feeling timid, and afraid to speak up. When the prefrontal cortex shuts down it can be hard to remember or recall things while you are triggered, and you can find that you can't focus or recall things in the moment, making it easy to get tongue tied or stutter, and easy to zone out and disassociate.
Fawn: This one is common in cPTSD/childhood trauma, and is most easily explained as a way of surviving childhood abuse. Fawning is resorting to people pleasing; focusing on getting the abuser or someone who you perceive to be angry at you on your side. Fawning is not meant to be intentionally manipulative, but it can be viewed that way by outsiders. It often looks like dismissing your needs in order for the other person to stop the perceived abuse, and can show up as people pleasing or telling lies to hide the truth or the possibility of confrontation.
After effects: After experiencing one of the four F's, it's normal to feel emotional, overwhelmed, tired or embarrassed, and this is our clue that our prefrontal cortex has come back online and we no longer feel threatened. Often with unprocessed trauma, a memory or flashback from the trauma will trigger the nervous system, but the nervous system is unable to tell that the trauma isn't happening right now, so will take action and switch on the vagus nerve, which will trigger one of the four F's. I have noticed that we often will resort to one of the four F's when experiencing a perceived danger, and this has a lot to do with what has worked in the past. So, if freezing kept you alive as a child, then our hind brain may resort to freezing when we feel triggered to "help" us out of the perceived danger.
EMDR can help permanently stop these reactions by processing the traumatic memories that cause our vagus nerve to activate and "turn on" one of the four F's. In the meantime, polyvagal exercises can help by stretching our vagus nerve and increasing our tolerance to triggers. Next time you feel that one of the four F's are coming on, try going outside for some fresh air, splash cold water on your face, sing a Disney song (trust me, it works!) or make a cup of tea.
I noticed recently that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a processed memory and an unprocessed memory, so wanted to write this article to help explain what the differences are. Most importantly, if you are experiencing negative and distressing effects of an unprocessed memory, you don't deserve to suffer and EMDR can help.
Our body and brain have the ability to process the things that happen to us in our life, but sometimes if the incident was too overwhelming, we lacked support, or are operating on a negative core belief that we don't deserve to heal, the event will turn into trauma.
A processed memory will generally be something that you know has happened, don't regularly think about, and when you do, it doesn't have any emotional charge associated with it, and you feel no need to bring it up regularly or think about it for a prolonged time. When memories are processed through EMDR, this will be the end result.
An unprocessed memory and a good candidate for EMDR can be identified by all of the following things:
-The event is something that has already happened and is not ongoing.
-The event was upsetting and stressful and causes you to either think of it often without being prompted, have nightmares about it, or see it in your minds' eye and experience the distress over and over again, either when you are alone, such as when you close your eyes or when prompted; an example of this would be that you hear about something similar happening to a friend or in the news, and all of a sudden start thinking about what happened to you or perhaps reliving it like it's happening again.
-When thinking about the event, it causes emotional distress or a "flooding" of negative emotions or memories.
-You tend to avoid things, people and places that remind you of the distressing memory
These are all symptoms that the memory has not processed on its own and that EMDR can help.
One of the great things about EMDR is that it can be used in tandem with other theories. In my practice, I find that adding CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) techniques help focus the EMDR sessions when healing childhood trauma, and by using them both together create a much more powerful target with lasting results. This post explains how I use CBT in my practice.
Negative core beliefs from childhood tend to be tinted in black and white, have an absoluteness to them and often are ego based. For instance, say a friend cancels their plans with you and your first thought is that they canceled because they don't like you. Notice the strong presumption around the thought. It offers only two options, that you are either a likable person, or not, and it is focused on the assumption that the person is only thinking about you when making the decision. These are all clues that it could be coming from a negative core belief from childhood.
CBT asks us to challenge this thought by coming up with alternate truths. Perhaps the friend is sick, or had a family emergency. When we are asked to challenge negative thoughts, we do so using our fully developed adult brain which has the ability to think rationally and empathize with others. This is another clue that the original negative thought of "they canceled because they don't like me" could be originating from a negative childhood core belief, simply because it was made before we had the ability to use deductive reasoning to form our beliefs.
The next step is to notice how you feel when you think of the original negative thought, and then notice how you feel when you introduce an alternate suggestion. When we think of the first thought, chances are that unpleasant feelings come up, whereas thinking about the alternate suggestion brings up more neutral feelings and some empathy for the friend's situation. This is another clue that the original thought could be coming from a negative childhood belief.
The key for EMDR is to use these clues to find out where the core belief is coming from and identify it as a target for EMDR processing. Take a moment to focus on the feelings that come up when you think of "my friend canceled because they don't like me." What feelings are coming up, and when was the first time you felt them growing up? Is there a memory attached to these emotions? Did someone say this to you, or make you believe that you are not likable? Take a moment to let your mind float back to that time. If more than one time/memory comes up, focus on the one that stands out the most and has a lot of negative emotion attached to it. Then imagine you are back in that situation and come up with an I statement that represents the belief about yourself during that time. Using our example above, it could be "I am a bad person." Then we want to come up with a replacement belief that comes from your knowledge now as an adult and ability to see things differently. The replacement belief could be "I am a good person". The replacement belief doesn't need to be 100% believable in the beginning, just something that you identify with a little bit, but perhaps because the intensity around the negative belief is so high right now, it's stopping you from being able to fully accept it.
EMDR works by turning the volume down on the intensity around the negative belief by processing any unresolved trauma around it. Once the intensity is at a 0 out of 10 (usually when we start, the intensity will be pretty high on a 0-10 scale) then it will be easier to focus on the positive replacement belief, which will be done through EMDR. Usually what happens in this phase is that we start remembering times throughout our lives where we were shown or learned that we are a good person and the belief becomes more believable as we remember it was there all along.
The difference between just using CBT without EMDR to change core beliefs is that CBT requires you to consciously replace the negative belief with a positive one every time you think about the negative belief. This can take a long time and perseverance on our part, as often these negative beliefs come from our subconscious and will float up to our conscious mind at will, and having to identify and then counteract it every single time can become exhausting. Also, as long as the negative core belief is still unprocessed, it often acts as a block to any sort of conscious progress, because it is a belief.
With targeting these core beliefs through EMDR, we are targeting the unprocessed trauma which served as the irrefutable evidence needed to form that belief about ourselves in the first place as a child. When the trauma is processed, the negative belief won't be so distressing, and will make room for other more positive beliefs to be entertained. Most likely you have built up enough evidence so far in your adult life to know the positive belief is true, but the intensity around the negative belief/trauma was so distracting that it was calling the shots. By using EMDR this way, often we see results much faster than by employing traditional CBT.
I was raised in a religious cult, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and left at the age of 18. I was recently thinking about the steps I took to separate from it and create a fulfilling life of my own choosing. It was definitely a journey with lots of trial and error, but as I was thinking about it, I identified 4 important steps that helped me a lot, so I wanted to share them below for anyone who is also struggling with this. These steps can also be used to separate from a harmful family dynamic or an abusive relationship as well.
Step one: Embrace the part of yourself that had the courage and strength to want to leave in the first place. The part of you that says hey this isn't right, the part of you that gets angry with the way the cult treats others, the part of you that questions their logic. This is your inner rebel and it will save your life.
Step two: Identify false core beliefs that were instilled by the cult. Cults operate by brainwashing; making us believe in false things to keep us from questioning the truth, separate us from the outside world and keep us placated. Usually this is by using fear, fear of displeasing a god or higher power, fear of death, or fear of ostracization. They also have a way of meeting your emotional needs and taking care of their community as long as you participate fully in the organization. It is important to look at these beliefs that were instilled during your time in the cult. Cults operate on black and white thinking, which can be very limiting, but gives us a clue on how to identify a belief. When we are doing some self reflection to notice our core beliefs, the ones that were instilled by the cult will show up as black and white, and usually will have some fear or shame attached to them. An example harmful belief is that other people outside the cult are dangerous, which will create problems once you are out of the cult and need to reintegrate in society. Another common belief in cults is that your individual needs and wants don't matter, that your purpose in life is to serve the cult.
It's also important to realize that most cults attract people by promising relief from overwhelming situations and will tend to their emotional needs. For example, the cult I was raised in would go door to door to recruit members and the people who listened and invited them in their homes were often sad, lonely, dealing with grief, and needing connection. The cult offered a way out of this torment, which was the promise of everlasting life on a paradise earth, and to someone who just lost a child or had something terrible happen, can be very tempting to believe. Nobody wants to be in pain and it is human nature to seek out ways to make it stop. But the reality is that believing in a lie like this interferes with the natural grieving process and can stop us from connecting with others or professionals outside of the cult, and halt our ability to come to terms with the loss in our own natural and healthy way.
Step three: Identify what healthy relationships look like. If you don't know where to start, look at TV shows, movies, friends or coworkers that show examples of getting emotional needs met safely, like supportive mother characters, positive family values, portrayals of solid friendships and people that embody unconditional love and trust. Once we identify what these attributes look like and how they play out, it will be easier to seek them out in our personal relationships. An important clue is to pay attention to how someone makes you physically feel when you spend time with them. The nervous system knows who it feels safe around. Know that as an adult all of our emotional needs won't be met from just one person, the reality is that we will need to find them from different sources. The goal is to create a supportive environment for yourself of your choosing, which will help build inner trust, to know that you can change your life in a positive and significant way.
Step four: Learning how to support yourself independently and financially. In the cult I was raised in, it was strongly discouraged to go to college and develop a career, as members are expected to dedicate as much of their lives as they can to the religion, and going to college or pursuing a career was seen as too much of a negative distraction. It was drummed in my brain that Jehovah would not approve if I put myself first (and Jehovah not approving meant that I didn't deserve to live on a paradise earth after Armageddon and deserved to die/be wiped out of existence). Once I left the cult and had to start financially supporting myself, I noticed that the learned shame around choosing a career to get out of the rat race of shit jobs out there compounded with the shame of leaving the religion, causing me to feel "kicked while already down." What helped me through this shame was to learn to separate the negative false messages from the cult and see them for what they were. When I realized that they were lies constructed to keep me subdued and in the dark, I was able to feel justifiable anger towards them, and it helped me process it and move forward in my decision to go to college.
Choosing to go to college with no familial support (my JW parents and family had never gone to college and couldn't tell me what it was like) presented its own challenges and at times I felt lonely and like I was fighting an uphill battle. I realized that the college system is designed for students who already have their basic needs met (aren't worrying about paying the rent or eating) and have a support network, usually family, that can lead and encourage them through the tough times. Knowing that this was needed to help me succeed, I tried hard to create a supportive environment for myself to get me through. If I was going to write a recipe for success as a first generation college student, I would list the ingredients as follows:
1) Support and encouragement
I found a friend that had a Master's degree in my chosen field, so I asked him for a lot of advice on how to get through college. The hardest part for me was to get back up after I failed a class or missed a deadline, but my friend gave me some advice that I will never forget, he said "the only way you fail is if you give up." and I still take this to heart every day.
2) Mental and physical health support
This could be seeing a doctor to manage a mental or physical health diagnosis or talking to a counselor for mental health support and guidance. Try to find a counselor that is trauma informed. If you are low income you may qualify for medical benefits through your state (medicaid/medicare) to see a PCP or counselor or to pay for prescriptions. There's also openpathcollective.org which is a database for sliding scale mental health providers (you pay a one time fee of $49 dollars to use the site at the time of writing this) and its sister site https://healingarts.org/ which offers sliding scale access to holistic healthcare (naturopathy, acupuncture, body work).
3) Supporting yourself financially
It's hard to work full time and go to school. Look into federal and state grants and funding before you decide to take out student loans. Utilize your school's work study program, usually this will be awarded as part of your financial aid package, and work study jobs are like fake jobs just for students. The work study jobs I had were very supportive to my class schedule and were genuinely appreciative of the extra help and didn't demand that I work crazy hours. Also, check into state EBT and medicaid programs for food and health insurance. In my state of WA, the state allows students to take advantage of food and medical benefits as long as they meet state low income requirements for financial aid. Essentially, if you are poor, you qualify. Qualifying for state benefits also may make you eligible for free cellphone service through lifeline and or a discount on internet and electricity, so please check your local state requirements.
If you decide not to go to college and just find a job instead, try to dedicate some of your free time to explore a hobby or passion. Take some time to explore different hobbies if you aren't sure what you like. This is your time to focus on yourself and learn essential self love and self care techniques that were prohibited in the cult. Try to save a percentage of your paycheck for a safety net if your job becomes too hard on your physical or mental health and you need to quit. Remember if you quit, you are technically not drawing an income and can usually qualify for state medical and food benefits until you find a better job (if unemployment isn't an option). It is never worth sacrificing your mental and physical health for a job, and this is especially important to remember after leaving a cult, due to it being very easy to identify with a belief that you deserve to be punished for leaving and being independent. You do not deserve to be punished for meeting your basic needs! No human being on earth deserves this punishment! Remind yourself of this every day!
Remember, whatever you decide to do, it is worth it and you aren't doing anything wrong by becoming independent. One day you will look back and realize how strong you were to leave, and how strong you continue to be now that you have stepped into your authenticity and lead a life of your choosing.