By Kelly Wright
When I was five, a huge tornado ripped through my hometown, Sedalia. Thankfully our elderly neighbors had a basement that kept my mom, baby sister, cousin, and me safe.
Thinking about that day, the smell of the damp basement, the feel of the cool, concrete floor, and glimpsing the dark sky through the tiny basement windows flood my memory.
It’s incredible how intense memories can take us back in time with our senses.
Experiencing a tornado, that took off part of our roof, damaged my swing set, and destroyed neighborhoods, shook my world, literally and figuratively.
I would become intensely fearful when the sky appeared stormy. I was anxious when the tornado watch indicator was in the corner of the TV screen. Thunderstorms would unnerve me.
When any of these stressors occurred, I had the same response – I would go to sleep. No matter what time of day it was, I would curl up and escape.
When we are scared, stressed, anxious, and fearful, our natural response is to move into the survival state of our brains. We believe we are not safe, so we respond with fight, flight, freeze or fool. For me, I felt unsafe so in order to attempt to find safety, I would escape (flight) into sleep.
Our brains are wired to keep us safe and our emotions are indicators when we feel like we are in danger. The challenge is what we do when those emotions are triggered. When we move into fight, flight, freeze or fool, we slip into the cycle of self-sabotage.
When we slip into the cycle of self-sabotage, we can experience one or a variety of the responses. This defense mechanism of numbing out through sleep worked when I was five. But sadly, just because I got older, my fear of tornados didn’t magically go away. I had to begin to deal with my feelings instead of letting my feelings deal with me. My fear of tornados was put to the test when I lived in Texas. There were very few basements and lots of tornados. I couldn’t run off and take a nap every time there was a tornado watch. Instead, I engaged the steps for self-regulation.
When I felt scared, I would first recognize the trigger. I noticed that my stomach was unsettled or my heart was racing fast.
Then I would give myself some time to calm. Usually, our brains need at least 20 minutes to get untriggered. I would calm by taking calming breaths, listening to music, and saying this mantra, “I am safe. God is with me.”
Once I was calm, I would journal my feelings. This is where the feeling words vocabulary is very helpful.
After naming what I was feeling, then I would look at the truth and my options. With my specific fear of tornados in Texas, I would look at my options for safety and choose one to focus on as my truth. This practice helped me move out of my survival state and into the frontal lobes of my brain, accessing truth and a plan.
I still get a queasy feeling when tornado sirens go off and we have to go to the basement. But thankfully, the fear that drove me to escape by sleeping has greatly diminished. If you are interested in an infographic of the cycle of self-sabotage and the steps of self-regulation, please email me here.