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Peggy is a Psychology Instructor and administrator at Chemeketa Community College.

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9.12.2006

How I became Invincible

Today's UPI column

So There I was...

On the counter top considering taking refuge on top of the refrigerator. The initial screams of terror had given way to rapid shallow breathing. My eyes were dilated, my heart was pounding. My brain was sending our signals about imminent death. My adrenaline level was high enough that ripping through a wall to escape seemed sensible - anything - to get away from the nauseating, skin-crawling horror before me.

I was Jackie Kennedy crawling over the back of that Cadillac.
Oh, God, save me!


The mouse on the kitchen floor was perhaps two inches long, if you included the tail.


My seven-year-old daughter was standing nearby laughing hysterically.

There were some parts of my brain that were fully aware of how stupid this whole thing was. But those parts were totally trumped by my old brain. And my old brain was attempting to save me from a saber-toothed tiger.

Welcome to the world of phobias – fears that don’t make sense. The problem here is that wires get crossed and the feeling of danger and the actual level of danger are severely mismatched. It can get you laughed at by children, but it isn’t funny if your alarm bells are going off.

The old brain is arguably useful if there is a real, imminent, life threatening danger and the best answer is running or hitting. But for most of us, this situation is rare to the point of non-existent. Yet so many of us spend so much of our time afraid. And there are plenty of hucksters and worse who want you to feel afraid even when you don’t need to because the old brain makes you very obedient. They want to make you phobic of life.

Actually, most of the time, we need our fancy new brain with all its reasoning capacities and creative problem solving abilities. When the old brain plays it’s trump card you lose everything that makes you human; reason, speech, altruism, relationships and the ability to pray – they all get thrown off the back of the wagon like granny’s pump organ on the Oregon trail – so much baggage.

But there’s nothing you can do about it? It’s automatic, Right?

Wrong!

I found out that my brain, even my old brain, is within my control.
A brilliant guy who trained me to listen to trauma survivors taught me this.

Listening to detailed stories of rape, genocide and torture is not fun. But I learned that I could be present to people in their horror without becoming horrified. I could be that resilient by choice and by a very simple procedure.

All I need to do is take a deep breath, and soften and expand my abdominal muscles and pelvic floor muscles. It’s harder work than it sounds, but if you can do this you can take the pressure off the vegus nerve at the base of the spine. That nerve it what sends the signals that tell the brain to panic. This procedure is the exact opposite of the gasp and clinching that we do when frightened.

Anything that I receive thus – softly – cannot, will not, and does not hurt me. I practiced this for a few years and got really good at it in counseling sessions. I became very resilient, my burn-out risk plummeted.

Then early this year I saw that smart guy again. He listened to my report and he said

“Um, Peggy, you do know that you can do that all the time if you like, right?”

“What, just live soft? Like, all the time?”

Uh, huh.

First I tried it on some times when my feeling of safety didn’t match my real safety. It worked. It was work, but I could turn off my fear response if I wanted to. I did not have to face the ridicule of children, HA!

Then I waited for a chance to try it out in a setting of actual threat. I found I could quiet my old brain and keep all my capacities on line. Present. Mindful. Dangerous instead of endangered.

“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall not fear evil – You prepare a meal for me in the midst of my enemies, and I sit down and eat.” Pslam 23

If I forget, and I do foregt, I still get freaked, but I don’t have to, and I can turn it off, if I want. If I don’t take care of myself, and sleep and eat and play, I loose some of my strength to do what I know I can do. But it is my choice.

I am resilient with the option of invincibility. It is what I was created to be.


“For we are more than conquerors, through Him who loved us” Romans 8:37

I have always known this theologically. I am a child of God. I am safe when things are quiet. I am in the palm of God’s hand when things are nutty. I am safe if you don’t agree with me, if you don’t like me, or even if you are actually out to get me. I am safe if I am dead because I am not my body and I live in God. I can choose to feel that foundational safety any time I want to.

“For right now we are children of God, what we will yet become remains to be seen”
I John 3:2

So there I was…

just a couple of months ago – in a pet shop – holding a rat in my hand – and I was laughing.


(With deep and abiding gratitude to God and Dr. J. Eric Gentry of Sarasota, Florida)


Comments:
I have a son with anxieties. I have copied your post and have sent it to his OT. This may do a lot of good -- thanks.
 
Nancy, hope it does help. Just the idea that you can have more control than you think over fears, stress, anxiety and phobias helps. This is not new, but it is simple and it works if you work at it. I got good at it over the course of a couple of years.

Itis hrader the explain expanding the pelvic girlde to men than women. I have found that this explanation works.

"Imagine a softball sitting right at the bottom of your belly. Now take a deep breath and inflate that softball to the size of a basketball"

This produces the desired affect.
 
How wonderful to be able to explain
this in concrete physological terms instead of the abstract religious or psychological language that is so often used.

I first heard of this phenomenon from Alan Watts, I think, who made fun of "thinking hard" as a way of reducing the inherent creativity of the mind -- of the brain -- by freezing it in place, as something "hard" instead of soft and flexible.

I've experienced it in my own life in a very mundane way: Solving crossword puzzles. I've learned, though practice, that when I get stuck, I just have to think softer; it's as if I have to back my way out of the maze I've gotten stuck in, going back past all the roads not taken (or even noticed), until, in a flash, the right road to the right answer appears and there it is.

Playing music can be like that, too.
 
so does this mean i can have a pet hamster now?
 
Peggy,

This is good. I'm going to use this technique.

Paula
Who is learning to be free.
 
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