Soothing The Hijacked Mind
Soothing the Hijacked Mind
On Wednesday, January 6, 2021 I experienced an amygdala hijack. What is an amygdala, you ask? That is the part of the brain that is involved with the experiencing of emotions. The author and science journalist Daniel Goleman coined the phrase, which refers to “a personal, emotional response that is immediate, overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat”, in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence.
I have been a practicing trauma psychotherapist for over 30 years and I am also a shamanic practitioner. I have witnessed many times over the fear and shock that are often the result of traumatic experience. Also, on most days, I am aware of the bigger picture, the so-called Eagle’s view of our experiences on this planet and how often we cannot understand the events unfolding in our lives from an ordinary perspective.
The wisdom carriers of Peru talk about something they call “Manchuriska” which is roughly translated from the Q’echua as “the disease of fear”. They give us all kinds of tips and tools about how to navigate fear in personally and globally frightening times. These are wonderful rituals and practical processes to help us work with the fear that can invade our bodies and minds when we experience feeling under threat. They encourage us to confront our fears of death and to investigate how that fear might be permeating and organizing our lives right now, allowing fear to hijack us. I love these very practical hands-on ways of addressing fear and at the same time I know that working with fear in ourselves often requires personal immediate response before these techniques can be used effectively so that fear does not become chronic.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Just Pull Yourself Together!
We can’t simply stop feeling traumatically triggered by telling ourselves or having others tell us not to be afraid or by repeating affirmations or mantras rejecting fear. We have complex networks of memory that have wired our mind/bodies to respond with accelerated heartbeat, shallow breathing and a host of other metabolic changes when we are triggered by something that has sent us into shock or intense fear. We need the equivalent of a kind, internal mother/father to respond to this initial reaction in ourselves. This can look like acknowledging that I am afraid, that I am feeling shock and then allowing myself to be present with the entire reaction as it is happening inside, without judgment or debate.
Think of when a small child comes home from the schoolyard crying because someone was mean to them. If your first response to this is to tell them why they shouldn’t be sad or scared or even to dive into solutions for the situation, you are actively turning away from the intensity of their emotion, perhaps unconsciously protecting yourself by denying that their fear or pain is real. The first thing they need, 100% of the time, is to be held, witnessed and understood while they cry or shake as their young bodies react to what they have perceived as a threat, whether this is factually real or not. To tell them not to be afraid is to teach them that their emotions are not valid and to leave them with a feeling of not being understood and failing to be brave enough.
DNA Memory Speaks
This week, the world was suddenly confronted with images of the Capitol building in the U.S. being invaded by thousands of people. Waving Confederate and Nazi signs and symbols, and flags bearing the name of the outgoing President of the United States, they attacked police officers and vandalized property, shouting white supremacist and conspiracy theories and charges. We witnessed windows breaking, police being overwhelmed, rabid crowds pressing closer and finally, unbelievably, entering the halls and then the actual room where the Congress of the United States had been in the process of formally counting the votes of the Electoral College, the final step in certifying the winner of the Presidential election.
There is a lot to say about what happened, why it happened, and who was responsible, but that is not the story I want to share here. I would like to describe my process when it comes to fear and what happened in my amygdala, as it was taken over by my DNA memory. I felt myself become ice cold. I felt shock invade my body. For hours, I couldn’t turn away from CNN and I held onto my husband’s arm tightly. I felt the world tilt and couldn’t stop saying ‘what the f***?’ I started getting messages from family members and friends in the U.S. all having the same reaction. I did not have conscious thoughts of being in danger. But DNA memory doesn’t need consciousness or logic to operate in such moments.
My father’s side of the family came from Horodenka, Poland. When the Nazi’s invaded that town, scores of my relatives were taken into the streets, shot to death and dumped in mass graves. Some members of that town were taken to Auschwitz. Some survived only to later commit suicide because they could never process what had happened to them there and remained in a state of Post Traumatic Stress and depression. Another branch of that family came from a village near Kiev in Russia where they fled pogroms under cover of night as did some of the Polish family who had fled to Paris long before WWII. My mother’s family fled Istanbul at about the same time for the same reason.
I carry DNA memory of being hunted and killed. This information doesn’t sit in my daily conscious awareness, but it can be triggered in extreme situations. When Black people were demonstrating about being gunned down in the streets of America this summer, we heard all kinds of aggressive white supremacist rhetoric. I noticed that I felt a kind of fearful tension alongside my anger and sadness, echoed by many. Jews carry memory which tells them that once Black and Muslim people are being hunted or jailed, it won’t be long before they are next on the list when it comes to shouting white supremacists or even logical sounding white politicians who want to whitewash, pun intended, what is clearly institutionalized racism.
Many of us have similar DNA memories of some intergenerational trauma or of traumatic experiences we’ve had in our lifetime. When the trigger is pulled, so to speak, our minds and bodies can go into a form of shock, even when we are not specifically surprised. I was and am not surprised about what happened last week, but I do feel a sense of shock. Black and brown people live under this kind of threat daily and their fear is coming not only from generational memory, but from daily life on the streets of America.
Where’s Your Inner Mama?
What I notice then, is that first it’s important that I completely accept that I feel fear and shock. The loving mother inside me responds with compassion and an understanding of why I feel what I do in that moment. Next, it’s helpful for me to share these feelings with those who can understand and be with me while I process this experience. The beautiful thing is that when I go about this properly, the shamanic practitioner, the wisdom carrier inside me always eventually comes back online. Sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes days, but I can trust that when I allow the feelings and express them, I will remember that higher Eagle view awareness and in the end, this will be how I live and how I will operate.
I am not an enlightened master who is never hijacked temporarily by my fears or my anger or sadness. I did get hijacked last week and I can still feel the effects of it. At the same time, my higher awareness, the part of me that follows an ancient wisdom path, reminds me that all is happening as it must as the world undergoes enormous and necessary changes. This part of me doesn’t say that everything will be fine or that there will no suffering or death either in my life or the lives of others on this planet.
I might not remain safe, you might not remain safe. It is not our task to hypnotize ourselves into believing that all will be just fine. That is called dissociation or denial and we see enough of that all around us as people turn away from the pain of those suffering and try to spin a story that protects them or lets them or others off the hook.
It is my conviction that it is our calling as human beings to witness and acknowledge the experience of fear or any other intense emotion without turning away in that moment of amygdala hijack. Can we stand by ourselves or others when overcome by intense emotions? Can we heal Manchuriska, the disease of fear, by looking ourselves and each other in the eye, and offering comfort and understanding? Fear only becomes a ‘disease’ when ignored and suppressed. Only by having the courage to stay in true contact can we know and take the next best steps towards wise choices, even if the world is going up in smoke.
By Laury Naron