Patti here. Have you ever had the experience of suddening falling back into the feelings and sensations of an old trauma? Out of the blue your logical mind has trouble distinguishing the past from the present? Smells, visual cues, strange thoughts transport you back in time. You are actually in present time, but you feel, act and think like you are in the past. Many people who have lived through significant trauma know this experience all too well. These experiences have the ability to completely derail the moment. But, if you can find your present awareness within them, they also offer a powerful opportunity for changing old patterning.
Let me give an example of when this happened to me. A couple of weeks ago I found myself swimming in the deep end of some painful past experiences, experiences I honestly never wanted to revisit. Without going into the nitty-gritty details of my past, let me show you how I used The 7 Tools to handle this. It was kind of magical to watch them work.
I was in the middle of a two week solo trip to Brazil. Normally, I love traveling alone. I love the chance to be with myself without the distractions of other people’s needs and desires. I get to choose what I do, when I do it and how I do it. I can just be with myself and no other. After so many years of mothering kids at home (32!), being alone generally elicits pure joy in me. But on this trip, instead of lounging in my bliss I got thrown head first into feelings of my old childhood traumas. Gone was my joy in being alone. Instead, my outer situation replicated situations from my past where terrible things happened to me; situations where I was hurt and tortured, where I felt hopeless despair, terror and an unbearable sense of aloneness. Only, this time I wasn't actually in danger. The danger only existed in my mind. The situation felt the same but in reality was not the same at all. In the strongest sense of the word, I was triggered.
My mind had me convinced I was locked in a room and couldn’t get out. I felt like I was left there waiting for bad things to happen. In that moment I reexperienced the sheer terror of my childhood. My heart was pounding, my lips were dry, my feet were numb. My forehead and hair dripped with sweat, a sweat pattern I hadn’t experienced since before puberty. I had trouble breathing and felt completely out of control. Distanced from my loved ones, I felt like nobody was there. I felt trapped and utterly hopeless. It was intense, to say the least.
And yet, in reality, I was lying on my bed in my hotel room with the door locked, resting, My family and friends were far away but I could reach them if I tried. I could unlock the door. I could choose to leave. This was not the same experience as my past. But try convincing my mind of that once it went into that dark hole of the past.
If this kind of experience is not happening to you, it almost seems ridiculous. It was so obviously not true. I was on retreat where I spent my days surrounded by nice people, meditating, and eating delicious food made by others. I had no responsibilities other than to myself. At that moment, I was laying in my room, a place where I had previously enjoyed being alone. But then suddenly my body and mind both acted as if I were somewhere else in a different time.
And while this may seem absurd to our logical mind, it is real to the mind we are living in at the time. The trick becomes how do we make our way back to the present. How do we unwind the neural responses we are having and live now, not then.
That’s where The 7 Tools come in. For me, in that instant, the two that were most helpful were compassion and awareness. Lying in my bed, completely freaked out I first was able to use my awareness to question my reaction.
Was I actually in danger? No.
Did I just feel like it? Yes.
Was I waiting to be hurt? No.
Was anybody liable to hurt me in that instant? No?
Where was I actually? A welcoming hotel in Brazil..
Could I reach out and connect with my loved ones? Yes.
Could I use texting to reconnect with myself by reconnecting with them? Yes.
Were my feelings grounded in the past or the present? Past.
Using my skills of awareness, questions like these helped me bring myself back to the present moment. Once I could find the here and now, I could wander back into the past and bring compassion to it.
Yes, that was a horrible time.
Yes, I needed it to be different.
Yes, it was sad, horrible and terrifying.
I wasn’t experiencing being loved then but could I bring some love to myself now? Yes.
Could I breathe in that love and let go of the terror and hopelessness in my body and feel the love instead. Yes. Slowly. Gently.
Little by little. As I brought love and compassion to myself, I could do these things and everything changed. My heart rate returned to normal. My breathing eased. I could relax again.
If the scary feelings started to rise back up, I could recognize them and acknowledge how hard it was back then. I could show myself (and especially my little people inside) that now is a different time and place, and that now I have many people that love me. I could show myself that I am enough to protect myself. I don’t need anything to be different. I can be here now and be okay.
Sometimes when we land in big old feelings like these, we can find ourselves going back and forth between the past and the present multiple times. We cycle: back in the past engulfed in hard feelings, remembering this is the present, feeling a little better and then sliding back into the past where we start all over again. This pattern can continue until we are done processing those big feelings. It might take multiple triggers to clear these old hurts. If this happens, it’s ok. In fact, it’s quite normal. We aren’t doing anything wrong. The releasing of old experiences can take a few go rounds. Keep using The 7 Tools every time it happens and eventually the old patterns will clear.
Most of us experience smaller versions of what happened to me in Brazil all the time. We get mad for what seems like no reason, but it’s actually our mind reminding us of a painful time we experienced when we were small. We get hurt by a spouse because their words unconsciously remind us of painful words from our past.
Once we apply our awareness to these situations (the ones where our reactions don’t match what is happening in reality) we begin to understand what is driving our responses. We begin to see this is our spirit’s way of helping us heal old hurts. When we can love ourselves a little more at these moments, we begin to heal.
Getting mad at ourselves or even ridiculing our exaggerated, ungrounded reactions only serves to reinforce the old hurt patterns. Responding to life’s triggers with love and compassion, loosens their hold on our psyche. We no longer need to tiptoe around them trying to avoid their pain.
It’s counterintuitive to lean into the pain like that, but when done with kindness towards ourselves, the results are astonishing. And the beautiful thing is, regardless of how we get triggered we get by life, we can use The 7 Tools to find our way back home to ourselves. And isn’t that where we all belong.