I went to my very first ever hypnotherapy session a couple of weeks ago. The practitioner used a combination of biofeedback and neurofeedback to track my levels of physical activation and brain states as I practiced resonant breathing in the hopes of dropping into a deeply relaxed, pre-sleep stage, also known as a trance.
After about 40 minutes of Breathwork, the therapist told me I could open my eyes. He showed me the graph of my brain waves during the session and the way that, just as my body and mind would start to drop into deeper states of relaxation, something would happen and my mind would suddenly become highly active again, never allowing for the trance state we were seeking.
I can’t say I was entirely surprised.
I’ve known for many years that my baseline is much more highly activated than the average person and can’t remember a time when sleep wasn’t a struggle. Since I was a child, I would lie in bed at night for hours on a loop of almost slipping away to that other land and then feeling my body jolt myself awake, as if it was terrified of becoming unconscious. And on some level, it probably was.
I don’t move through the world thinking of myself as someone who experiences Complex PTSD. I don’t even, on a conscious level, believe the world to be a particularly unsafe place. But my body remembers the chaos and abuse that I experienced as a child, and, in its best efforts to protect me, is constantly scanning for any potential threats.
This makes deep relaxation fairly elusive and, when I tune into my thoughts during mindfulness practices, the most common theme I notice is a tendency to anticipate every single thing that could possibly go wrong, almost constantly. I can’t speak for others, but I feel fairly certain that these experiences are at the root of the anxiety I have managed for much of my life and intimately connected to the panic I experience in response to a handful of specific triggers, namely travel, the prospect of a new relationship, and any circumstance in which I perceive there to be a high degree of pressure for me to perform.
For many years, I tried to bully myself out of fear, throwing myself into extremely challenging circumstances to try to prove to myself that I could handle anything, to banish fear by sheer will. Another not so surprising thing (at least in hindsight anyway) is that that method didn’t work. In fact, I often ended up further deepening the grooves of trauma, learning that I couldn’t even trust myself and that even I would dismiss and run right over my feelings and needs. I spun out in this way for years, forcing myself to jump off of metaphorical cliffs, feeling briefly proud of myself for “doing the thing”, but then feeling shaky and unable to stand on my own two feet only a short time later, because overriding your body’s cues is not the same as learning to trust yourself.
So, in recent years, I decided to take a different approach. One of honoring. Of looking my fears right in the face, and saying, “I see you and your existence makes sense. I know you are only trying to protect me. Thank you,” and then to my own body and heart: “I’ll take care of you. You can trust me. I promise.”
To those who subscribe to the “fuck fear” culture, this might sound self-indulgent and counter-productive. But I’ve actually found the opposite to be true.
For me, this process has been a re-parenting of sorts. A way to create in myself that baseline sense of safety that, in ideal scenarios, our parents offer us through proper attunement, mirroring, and the meeting of our physical and emotional needs in early childhood.
It is not about saying that the fears should stay put, but instead about validating the truth of my own experience, the very rational physiological and emotional responses that I developed to cope with highly irrational circumstances, and the ways in which this actually did serve me as a child.
This creates an opening for me to choose a new way of being from a place of loving myself, rather than one of coercion or shame and allows me to be curious, both about what’s coming up for me and also about the possibilities that span out in front of me. It illuminates options for how to heal and move forward. Sometimes I hear the fear and I know that, in that particular moment or circumstance, I don’t need to push past my own boundaries.
Others times, with a little extra self-care and holding the intention to stay present, move forward at my own pace, and in a way that works at the edge of my comfort (rather than total disregard for my own experience), I find that I can work through fears that I know are no longer serving me.
This practice of gentle expansion, supported by embodiment work, somatic experiencing, mindfulness, shadowwork, and intentional grounding has completely shifted the way I relate to my own physical and emotional experience and has dramatically decreased the suffering I experience when old wounds find their way into my present life. It may take a little more time and investment than simply barreling through fears, but I truly believe it builds a much stronger foundation. One from which you can build great things. Things that won’t crumble under the slightest bit of pressure. And to me, that’s worth the slow build.