The day my son was headed back to New York for his last semester of college we embarked on a conversation that pointed out some of my most glaring attachment patterns and protective coping skills. As I sat on the new teal couch in my living room, feelings of sadness engulfed me while I thought of my son’s departure.
This was his last extended break at home. My thoughts began to flood:
- When will he be back?
- Will he find work?
- Do I continue to pay for his flights home after he graduates?
- Why did I allow him to go to college in New York!!
Yes, I admit it – I went downhill quickly! I immediately felt a flood of adrenaline fill my veins. I wanted to flee the room for self-preservation. More accurately, as I thought about my own attachment style, I wanted to flee in order to protect my son and our relationship from the intense level of emotion I was feeling. A tactic I had learned early in life to preserve the relationship I had with my own mom.
I sat there looking at my son. Six hours until his plane leaves and this is where we are. I feel the fight, flight, or freeze response of my reptilian brain kick in and I am certain I need to flee. For a few moments, I do. I run to my bedroom and shut the door. My routine excuse of, “hold on tight, I have to go to the bathroom,” is my old reliable friend right now.
As I’m in my bedroom, I’m thinking, “oh crap, what now!” I sit in the chair by my bed for a minute and take some deep breaths. My heart slows, tears begin to flow down my checks and before I know it, I am on my way back out to the couch.
I open the door, having only been gone 5 minutes (record time by the way), and I head over to the couch. I look at my sweet boy and I’m certain he sees my ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look. He opens his arms wide as I open mine and we hug. He says to me, “You do know this is really hard for me too don’t you Mama? I hate being away from my family!” I tell him that I do know that and we begin to talk, and cry, and talk some more.
As your adult child leaves your home, you send a piece of your heart out the door with them and for me personally, that created a flood of difficult feelings.
I have spent enough time in reflection of my emotions, reactions, and thoughts to realize my whole system was responding to his impending departure, and logic was not going to provide me a complete answer in this moment. This was deeper.
Having all of these reactions made me want to flee and contain my emotions, but the truth was, in this moment all I needed to do was stay present, express my feelings, and love him unconditionally. How do you stay present when your whole nervous system is screaming at you to flee?
5 Ways to Stay Present When You are in a Fight, Flight or Freeze Response:
Fear responses to stress are hard wired into our brains, causing us to either confront in an attack mode (fight), flee the stressor (flight), or become paralyzed and still (freeze). Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) are networks of nerve fibers that connect the brain with our various systems and organs in the body. Two branches are key for the fight, flight, or freeze response – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic tells our body we are being threatened and the parasympathetic branch prepares our bodies to relax. I needed to find way to engage my parasympathetic system.
Being able to recognize our distinct body reactions to stress and fear is an important first step to staying present. Here are five other behaviors that will help you to calm your nervous system:
- Take a Breath – As I sat in the chair in my bedroom I knew I needed to find a way to help myself slow down. Breathing is a natural relaxant. Sometimes we just need that reminder that we are in control of our breathing and not the other way around. Inhale and exhale…
- Notice Your Surroundings – As I sat back on my couch, I felt the soft velour fabric under my fingers. I allowed my hands to rest there for a moment and I sat with my son. I also focused on the slight scent of the sandalwood candle burning in front of me on the coffee table.
- Using tactile and sensory methods to regain presence is a practice that has been used for centuries by Buddhist monks as well as others. Draw upon your senses of hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, or seeing to guide you back into the present moment.
- Move Around – As I sat there listening to my son I could feel myself start to drift away with the sadness of him leaving. I found that moving on the couch, crossing my legs and shaking one of them, helped me attend to the discussion. When we move we naturally ground ourselves to our surroundings, which helps us connect.
- Carry a Grounding Object – Whenever I feel stress I often play with my watch. It has quickly become my constant grounding object. It is a cherished gift from my husband and children and to me it means safety, love, and their unending support. When I have my watch on my left wrist and hold it with my right I imagine I am with my family and feel my body relax.
- When I talk to my clients about carrying a grounding object they all quickly light up with different ideas of what would bring them comfort. Some choose rocks, precious stones, coins, tokens, a book, stuffed animals, or little reminder note, or picture of a loved one. Choose an item that makes you feel safe, something you can hold onto at times of stress, something that will remind you that you are OK and not alone.
- Tell the Truth – Take a deep breath and tell your truth. You are the only one who truly knows what is going on inside of you and no one can better state it than you. It takes courage to be known but you and your relationships are worth it.
As I sat on the couch with my son he looked at me and said, “Mom you’re a therapist, don’t you just want to sit here and talk it out until we get it all out?” I had two thoughts; the first one is, “HELL no! – Mayday, Mayday! — I have to save myself and save you from me,” and the second thought is, “Wow look at this kid, he sure is amazing. Something went really right.” I looked at him and chuckled and said, “No sweetie, that’s not the way I work.” I went on to explain how when I get really sad, stressed or scared I need time to process what’s going on before I can respond. I tell him that is why sometimes I need to move away from a situation for awhile so that I can process what is going on inside of me. I am real. I am vulnerable. I am human, and yes I am a therapist, but most importantly, I am his mom. Today I stayed.
Contact Trish at firstname.lastname@example.org or (562) 810-0449.