Archive for the ‘hypervigilance’ Category

I am psyched. I gave my first talk out in the world beyond the classrooms of The College of Alameda and it was thrilling. Eight women from the Women’s Motivational Meetup in Sacramento, hosted by Griffin Toffler, gave me their attention, listened to my lecture, and participated in a writing exercise at the library in Fair Oaks. Afterward, I felt so happy because I was doing what I felt I was put here on earth to do—tell my story, invite others to find out what’s holding them back, and share some tools that might help them to break through to their power.

Two major points keep surfacing when I think of what I want to discuss in this first post of the new year: belief and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). At age fifty, from my exploration in writing about my infant surgery, I learned that I was living my life from a false premise—I was broken and incapable of being fixed. This thought or wrong belief about myself sabotaged me at every turn. It had been unconscious all my life, operating below the radar, and so this lack of belief in my strength and power undermined me mercilessly. It’s difficult to write about this even now; grief surfaces, sadness. How painful it is to accept that I believed this about myself and acted from this false and destructive premise.

Writing about my infant surgery also helped me realize that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had had it all my life since the operation for pyloric stenosis at 26 days old. Amazing!  I sensed that I might have it, my lover hinted that I might, but I was too frightened to investigate this possibility. In doing research for the memoir I was writing, I learned about the history of infant surgery and anesthesia, the nature of trauma, and the condition called PTSD. I read many books and scientific articles, which helped me realize what had happened to me. My hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, re-enactments, difficulty sleeping, jaw pain, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harming, eating disorders, and delinquent behavior as a teen were all explained by this syndrome. What a relief to finally be able to identify these symptoms and pinpoint a cause. And what a relief to know that these expressions of myself aren’t really me; they are actually due to a condition that is caused by unresolved trauma.

So here’s what I wanted the group of women at the library to know or get support for knowing—that it is possible to ReStory Your Life. It is possible to identify a deeply held belief or set of beliefs that might be holding you back. Talking is often not the best way to discover it. Through writing, artwork, and/or somatic work, allow yourself to learn what belief is obstructing you from being all that you know yourself to be. This idea was never yours in the first place. Work with this misperception to understand it and then change it. You are a most profound and beautiful soul. You are a creation of the universe. What is your real belief about yourself? Discover it. Find freedom after trauma.

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Here’s a photo of me at 13. I was called a hard girl or a hood, terms popular in working class New Jersey neighborhoods in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m mad as hell and I don’t know why. I smoke and carry a switchblade in my pocket. I glare at everyone I see in a dare and am constantly on guard. What’s the problem?

One day, my beloved, former fifth grade teacher, Mr. Rubin, stopped me in the grammar school hallway, just after I’d gotten kicked out of graduation practice, and asked me why I was making so much trouble. He told me that the principal wanted to expel me from school, making it impossible for me to graduate.

I thought hard about this question. Mr. Rubin had been my favorite teacher and I owed him an explanation because number one, he was going to talk to the principal and advocate for me to graduate and two, he cared about me and I felt his love. I leaned back against the wall and racked my brain, but nothing came. “I don’t know,” I said helplessly.

Of course I didn’t. No one even talked about Post-traumatic Stress in the ’50s much less knew about it. The closest people came was in discussing the hush-hush topic of shell shock that World War II veterans suffered. What I knew for certain was that as an adolescent, I felt vulnerable, terrified, and helpless. A gang, a switchblade, cigarettes, and a tall, strong boyfriend who protected me helped me cope. Drinking on weekends helped. I was drawn to the troubled kids. I was a troubled kid.

At this time, I was also cutting my arms with razor blades, trying to soothe myself, odd as this may sound. After slicing my boyfriend’s initials into my arm, I’d carefully wash the cuts, dab them with cotton balls, and apply ointment, feeling sorry for myself. I remember the satisfaction I felt covering the wound with a band-aid. Caring for my cut helped me have compassion for myself, a diversion from the messages of self-loathing and fear broadcasting in my brain.

When traumatized folks enter stressful developmental periods in their lives, the anxiety they already feel from PTSD is exacerbated. Since I didn’t know that I had PTS symptoms–hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty falling asleep, recurrent nightmares, anxiety–I didn’t understand my behavior.

When children are making trouble at school, PTSD may be at the root or be a contributing factor. In any case, blaming and/or stigmatizing the child or teen-ager is not the answer. Caring is the answer. A creative response is the answer.  Understanding and patience are required. Gangs are often how kids cope with PTSD when they aren’t getting help any other way.

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So I wake up in the night needing to pee. Before I get up, however, I notice that my back and neck are extremely tense and I am barely breathing. I’m not in respiratory distress, but I’m breathing shallowly and only through one nostril, my mouth closed. Flash of insight: Ok, it’s not the type of pillow I’m sleeping on that’s causing the pain I awake to each morning. It’s anxiety that I experience as I sleep!  In this tense state, I breathe in such a way that my body barely moves. I know intuitively that this experience is connected to my infant surgery for pyloric stenosis at three weeks old. And I think it’s more than a pain control strategy.

When I get up several hours later, I decide that writing with my left, non-dominant hand could reveal more insights. Here’s what I wrote: Maybe left hand knows something about this rigid pattern. I hold myself oh so still so I won’t breathe–caught between life and death. Frozen. If I lie still, I live. Brain? What happened?  Then I drew a sleeping bird and next to it wrote: Sleeping bird – dead bird girl. 

So why am I a “dead bird girl” over sixty years later when the condition that caused the pain is resolved, I am in no pain, the trauma is over, and I am alive? What would Dr. Peter Levine say, author of Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma?  Here are a few quotes from his book that are helping me to understand my situation:

“When neither fight nor flight will ensure the animal’s safety, there is another line of defense: immobility (freezing), which is just as universal and basic to survival. For inexplicable reasons, this defense strategy is rarely given equal billing in texts on biology and psychology. Yet, it is an equally viable survival strategy in threatening situations. In many situations, it is the best choice” (95).

“In post-traumatic anxiety, immobility is maintained primarily from within. The impulse towards intense aggression is so frightening that the traumatized person often turns it inward on themselves rather than allow it external expression” (103).

“When we respond to a life-threatening situation, hyperarousal is initially accompanied by constriction in our bodies and perceptions. The nervous system acts to ensue that all our efforts can be focused on the threat in a maximally optimal way. Constriction alters a person’s breathing, muscle tone, and posture. Blood vessels in the skin, extremities, and viscera constrict so that more blood is available to the muscles which are tensed and prepared to take defensive action” (135).

So it’s like being coiled up tight, like a spring. During the operation, I (and my nervous system) coiled to survive but I never unwound!

“Hyperarousal, constriction, helplessness, dissociation are all normal responses to a threat. . . . As these stress reactions remain in place, they form the groundwork and fuel for the development of subsequent symptoms. Within months, these symptoms at the core of the traumatic reaction will begin to incorporate mental and psychological characteristics into their dynamics until eventually they reach into every corner of the trauma sufferer’s life. . . . Eventually the symptoms can coalesce into traumatic anxiety, a state that pervades the trauma sufferer’s every waking (and sleeping) moment” (143-144).

So is my nervous system still playing dead? And what do I do about my PTS while I sleep?  How cope?  Can I change this pattern?  Stay tuned for “PTS While You Sleep – (Part II).”

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but we have been shaped by it. Case in point: Dead Girl.

That’s what I call this photo, my high school graduation picture. To my mind, there is no joy or aliveness in my face. There is image–who I was supposed to be. A mask. Was I happy to graduate? Sad? Full of pride?  Fear?  Truth is, I didn’t know how I felt, and no one else did either. Locked up, shut up, frightened, and in retreat, I’m holding my breath. If I move too quickly or spontaneously, I’ll break. There are many reasons for this, including what our society told girls about who they could be. But largely, I’m frozen due to unacknowledged PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, from infant surgery.

Next is my college graduation photo about twenty years later after a breakdown; a year living in a rehabilitation community; two years of a botched therapy relationship; four years working in therapy with a psychologist I loved; two years in couples’ counseling; a decade of living with my beloved partner Griffin; and twenty years of writing, drawing, and painting.

Ten years after my college graduation, I learned the words for what I had: PTSD. Because I can now identify my symptoms, I know that the fear, nightmares, startle responses, excessive cautiousness, frozen breath, rigid body, and panic attacks that I still cope with are not me; they are a result of PTSD. And I can transform them.

In fact, somatic and neural repatterning is happening as I write. I am literally making new connections all the time so that each day, my experience of life gets better and better. Yesterday, I floated anxiety-free on a lake under the blue bowl of sky. It was as if the sky were water and the white wisps of clouds waves radiating out from a center. When I found myself worrying about my wallet left behind in the canoe, I reassured myself, All is well. When I became concerned about my safety, constantly checking my surroundings, I told myself, You are safe. I was floating in harmony and trust with the world and the universe. I am not my PTSD. I am Alive Girl.

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Rather than post this piece last Wednesday on National PTSD Awareness Day, I wanted to leave Melissa Matheney’s powerful story, One Person Can Make a Difference, front and center for a few more days. I am so grateful to know her and be able to share her work. Moving on, in the spirit of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) Day, here are a few quotes to think about from Dr. Judith Herman’s classic book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror:

“The many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder fall into three main categories: These are called ‘hyperarousal,’ ‘intrusion,’ and ‘constriction.’  Hyperarousal reflects the persistent expectation of danger; intrusion reflects the indelible imprint of the traumatic moment; constriction reflects the numbing response of surrender” (35).


“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment. Physiological arousal continues unabated. In this state of hyperarousal, which is the first cardinal symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, the traumatized person startles easily, reacts irritably to small provocations, and sleeps poorly (35) . . . Patients suffer from a combination of generalized anxiety symptoms and specific fears . . . their bodies are always on the alert for danger” (36).


“Long after the danger is past, traumatized people relive the event as though it were continually recurring in the present. They cannot resume the normal course of their lives, for the trauma repeatedly interrupts” (37).

“Adults as well as children often feel impelled to re-create the moment of terror, either in literal or in disguised form. Sometimes people reenact the traumatic moment with a fantasy of changing the outcome of the dangerous encounter. In their attempts to undo the traumatic moment, survivors may even put themselves at rick of further harm” (39).


“When a person is completely powerless, and any form of resistance is futile, she may go into a state of surrender. The system of self-defense shuts down entirely. . . . A rape survivor describes her experience of this state of surrender: ‘Did you ever see a rabbit stuck in the glare of your headlights when you were going down a road at night. Transfixed–like it knew it was going to get it–that’s what happened” (42).

“. . . traumatized people run a high risk of compounding their difficulties by developing dependence on alcohol or other drugs” (44).

“In an attempt to create some sense of safety and to control their pervasive fear, traumatized people restrict their lives” (46).

PTSD is a disorder that many people endure: combat veterans; rape survivors; victims of domestic violence; witnesses of drive-by killings; car crash survivors; those who have experienced invasive medical procedures, especially if administered without adequate pain relief; the list goes on and on.  Do you have PTSD?  You may and not even know it. Or someone you know may be suffering from its symptoms but be entirely unaware of their source.

I believe the brain can heal from this disorder. In any case, awareness is the first step in coping in a positive way. Let’s help each other.

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I have lived a life that is very different from what most people must experience. I have lived in the Land of Hypervigilance.

Each morning shortly after waking, I do stretches that an osteopath taught me. These movements manage a painful hip that cries out when under stress. Yesterday lying on my back, having finished the first set of stretches, I happened to tilt my head and notice a beautiful sight out the window behind me:  the tips of several tall branches golden in sunlight waving in the wind, framed by blue sky. I was mesmerized by this image. How many times had I lain on the floor to do these stretches and never looked up in this way. It was a gesture of freedom, of abandon, of a lack of hypervigilance. It was an act of simply looking without trying to control anything, without trying to protect myself from any circumstance. Relaxed is what most people call it.

But I have lived in the Land of Hypervigilance. Life in this place is very, very different. When I was eighteen and home from college for the Thanksgiving weekend, I decided to go to for a walk and check out the high school football game. I stood outside the fence and reflected back on my senior year; I had been a baton twirler and had often performed at half-time. The field looked small. I only recognized a few people. My life had moved on. I left the stadium to walk in the neighborhood and sat down on a rock at the side of the road, where I happened to tilt my head back and look up. I saw the most amazing sight: golden-leaved branches, each leaf shaking in the wind, causing the light to reflect in an amplified and excited way. The entire sky seemed filled with intense, shimmering gold. I sat entranced.

Suddenly the sound of a car approaching scared me out of my revery. I sat up straight, berating myself. How could I have let myself drift like that?  How long had I been daydreaming?  Time had lost its tick; I had been living in eternity, but this type of freedom was alien and threatening. What foolishness, I scolded myself!  That car could have run over my feet. Had anyone noticed my lapse?  Worried, I scanned the streets, driveways, and windows of the nearby homes. I must have looked so silly! Hypervigilant self-consciousness was my address, and I was scrambling back home at fast as I could.

What is the difference between my experience of beauty when I was eighteen and that of yesterday?  This recent lapse was a joyful one that filled me with gratitude and wonder and hinted that more beauty awaits when I stray from my visual patterns. I am becoming aware of a new way of being. When I was eighteen, I was on guard 24/7, my body on somatic sentry duty, each cell brandishing a sword ready to strike. I had no idea of the armor I wore. After all, the incision at three weeks old was something my breath and body remembered; I had no conscious memory of the assault.

Now I have these life-saving words to help me understand and manage my experience: post-traumatic stress (PTS). Recognizing a symptom of PTS is the first step in coping. When I become aware of my hypervigilance, I can calm my racing heart and release my held breath and body tension. I can feel compassion for myself and feel grateful for having access to the Land of Reality. Responding to a symptom rather than reacting unconsciously is the difference. I am no longer an unwitting prisoner of the Land of Hypervigilance. When there, I can leave. I no longer have to live there.

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