Fight or flight and emotional regulation
The desert of the Southwestern United States has a strange, stark beauty all its own. Gorgeous sunsets, rock formations and deep canyons accented with spiky cactus resemble another world. If you grew up back east like I did, your previous experience with plant life will be of no use. I once asked a friend if I could dig up some of her innocently named “bunny ear cactus.” She failed to mention I should use protective gloves. As I planted the cuttings, I noticed a painful prickly sensation in my hands. It spread to my shirt collar and up my arms. Though there are no obvious thorns, the bunny ear cactus is covered in hair-like needles called glochids. I had to use masking tape to remove the painful spines from my skin. My gardening clothes ended up in the trash.
I have an orange tree in my backyard. It doesn’t belong there. Rainfall of seven inches per year is plenty to support the cactus, not so much the transplanted bushes and trees brought by retirees and residents. While the rest of the country sleeps under a blanket of snow, we’re out in the desert picking oranges. When we first arrived, it was such an oddity, I didn’t know quite what to do. The tree began to droop, and I asked our neighbor if she knew how to keep it alive.
“Oh, your irrigation system is probably broken. The tree just needs water.”
Sure enough, the PVC pipe needed replacing, so I went old school and hooked up a hose from the house to the tree. Three times a week, I faithfully turned on the spigot. Our orange tree rewarded us with a harvest of gigantic, navel oranges. Fresh-squeezed juice every morning. We were in heaven! Sitting on my back patio admiring my orange tree, I thought about the desert. Without the water from the hose, that twenty-year-old citrus tree would quickly die. It is completely dependent upon me.
Emotional regulation requires a felt-sense of safety, of belonging, of being loved. I thought about my parents. Their abuse threatened life-giving necessities. In essence, they stood at the back of the house with their hand on the water spigot. Comply, and the water gets turned on. Defy, and the water is turned off.
One of the first steps to emotional regulation is changing the heart-felt belief that our abuser is still in charge of the water spigot. The automatic fight or flight response kept us alive. Later on, it becomes an intrusion. Forward Facing Trauma Therapy is unique in helping us regain control of the one thing we truly own; our power to choose how we react to the people and situations around us. In technical terms, FFTT enables us to shift from an external locus of control-one of powerlessness and victimhood-to an internal locus of control in which we are empowered and free.
Self-empowerment is vital to the healing journey. Our abusers used our dependence to gain control. It is one of the ways they kept us in their delusional system. Cultivating skills like body awareness, breathing techniques, yoga as well as others, and using them in our daily lives gives us the power of self-regulation. We can learn to moderate and even control our threat response with practice.
The time for oranges has passed and now my tree is filled with delicate white blossoms. Their sweetness fills the desert air and reminds me of the fruit that is to come in winter. When we begin to practice self-regulation techniques, it seems as if they will never bear anything but frustration. Our stops and starts are the delicate blossoms of what will be. A life filled with joy and peace, producing the things we always dreamed of.
Eric Gentry, Forward Facing Trauma Therapy, Sarasota Florida, Compassion Unlimited, 45.