A familiar feeling has been creeping up when I start to read about budget cuts, austerity, climate change, the end of the world. A block in my chest and lump in my throat appears. I have an urge to crawl into bed, put on a rerun of 30 Rock and then laugh, but not really laugh. I know that I won’t even really be there while the episode runs. I just want the comfort of sounds and voices and plotlines and characters and endings that I already know, while I float. With great effort and a few deep breaths I close my laptop, opting instead to go to a hustle dance class with my partner. We make eye contact, dance (mostly) in sync, laugh and spend time with kind people. I get home and I feel re-grounded, ready to work for the world I believe in again.
I can remember the first time I floated. I was around seven, and I was enthralled. What a neat trick, I remember thinking as my little body experienced physical violence. I must be magical! In a way, I was. When I floated, my spirit would come out of my body and I would stare down at it, impervious to the pain I was experiencing. I felt like a superhero, like a divine spirit was on my side and helping me out. In the years that followed this floating trick frequently saved me from irate family members who did not know how to manage their anger and let it out on me.
The clinical term for this experience is dissociation. I prefer excellent survival strategy.
In a very simplified nutshell, neuroscientist Stephen Porges describes dissociation as a person’s last resort to protect themselves from danger. When someone feels unsafe, they first try to use eye contact, intonation, smiles and other communication tactics to placate the situation. This is known as the social engagement system and it is unique to mammals, who possess the capacity to communicate with and soothe each other. If that doesn’t work, they will down-regulate to a fight or flight response. We are all familiar with what happens when we are overcome by the urge to get rowdy or get away. However, if for whatever reason we can’t run off or fight back (as is the case for most children in volatile situations), then we further downregulate into our most ancient response: freeze. In humans, this often manifests as collapse or dissociation. Like lizards on a rock, our reaction is to play dead, hoping that the danger will pass if we just make ourselves as invisible as possible.
I was 19 when I finally left home. Even though I knew intellectually that I was safe, my body did not. I continued to float: through university, through a relationship that was not good for me, through friendships that did not serve me. It was as though the connection between my mind and my body had been permanently severed. This is the greatest and deepest legacy of trauma. It tears the unity of your own being apart, leaving you to contend with a fragmented sense of your own self. I had been separated into pieces for so long, and this survival strategy that no longer served me kept me from being a whole person.
When we imagine trauma, we think of wars, strife, abuse, adverse childhood experiences. We build an image of the traumatized adult, thinking of all the terrible and awful things that happened to them. What we fail to realize is that this understanding of trauma limits our capacity to heal from something that we had no control over.
Dr. Gabor Mate refers to trauma as not what happens to you, but what happens inside you. With adequate support, community, nourishment, care, play and love, people are better able to withstand the impacts of life’s events.
With adequate support, community, nourishment, care, play and love, people are better able to withstand the impacts of life’s events.
In my case, my constant floating and ignorance of what was happening inside me led to an autoimmune disease that impacted my digestive system. The trick that kept me shielded from the deepest kind of pain and hurt for so long had gone haywire and had turned my own body against me. I had mastered my floating trick so well that I still did not feel pain, even though my insides were ulcerated and bleeding.
And then one day at a rave, I danced for the first time in my life. Not the kind of dancing where you’re so in your head and consumed by thoughts like do I look dumb right now or I wonder what I’ll have to eat when I get home tonight. I danced a kind of dance where I felt like I was possessed, as though I was no longer in control of my limbs. I felt the edges of my fingers and the tips of my toes, a sensation I can’t ever remember feeling. It was as though a dull light that was flickering in the centre of my body became a bright flame, and I was aware of every single cell I had been neglecting. As my body woke up again, my spirit came tumbling back into my body and I began to feel everything.
As my body woke up again, my spirit came tumbling back into my body and I began to feel everything.
Trying to reason or rationalize with our fight, flight, or freeze response is a futile task. These responses exist in ancient parts of our brains and bodies, in places where language does not exist. These are places of sensation, not words. In our reason oriented culture, we often find ourselves unable to sit back, take a moment and just honestly feel what is happening inside us, instead choosing to label and logically understand our internal states. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory posits that rather than trying to use language to regulate ourselves, we are better equipped to tap into and regulate a lack of internal safety through movement and connection to other beings. We heal when we are dancing in a crowd, playing sports, pushing air through our lungs as we sing or chant together or doing yoga with a community.
Despite dancing and moving regularly, the urge to float is deeply ingrained, and some days it requires a great deal of effort to keep myself internally connected in the face of hardship or stress. Not all sensations are pleasurable. With the support of my friend Marie Claire, a student of dance therapy, I have learned to use movement to stay connected during unpleasant sensations, feel through the discomfort and let it pass, rather than hold onto it or jump to rationalizing it. This kind of mindfulness has allowed me to manage my illness in a way where it does not impact my life anymore. Seven years have passed since the first time I felt my body, and every day since has been an unlearning of patterns that kept me fragmented and disconnected for so long.
Once I started to understand the world as a place where people’s sense of safety is constantly being challenged, I began to see it everywhere—in interactions between politicians, internet arguments, fear of refugees and newcomers. No one is immune to this challenge, we are threat-seeking and sometimes threat-creating creatures. Traumatic response is a part of the human condition and our ancestors developed all sorts of useful ways of soothing our internal fragmentation and discomfort. Modern society has moved so quickly and has abandoned the traditions that were used to soothe our fear responses—meditation, breathwork, yoga, singing in groups, martial arts, playing sports, and so many other movement oriented activities all play a role in helping us regulate ourselves and regulate each other.
The very infrastructure of our being demands contact and connection that goes beyond words, yet the infrastructure of our technologies prevent us from being with people we would benefit from connecting with the most. Social isolation and loneliness is a public health crisis, particularly for people experiencing poverty. Even more alarmingly, our ability to build meaningful connection while accessing essential services like healthcare is being compromised by massive budget cuts and austerity. Here in Alberta, more than 5000 frontline health care positions will no longer exist in the coming years, as our population ages and the number of people experiencing chronic illnesses continues to increase dramatically. Regressive policies like these fail to recognize the crucial role that human connection and co-regulation play in a sick person’s recovery. Perhaps even more disturbingly, austerity fails to recognize the ease with which a front-line worker can end up in a float state when they are confronted constantly by stimuli that activates their fear response, but their workload does not give them the opportunity to regulate themselves or each other. Vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout are the harsh consequences of a nervous system that simply was not designed to bear the burden of so much suffering.
Vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout are the harsh consequences of a nervous system that simply was not designed to bear the burden of so much suffering.
Alongside policy grounded in scarcity and fear, we live in cultures that constantly inundate us with messaging about how unsafe the world is. Collectively, we are down-regulating into less useful ways of managing fear, as our social engagement systems fail us. News reporting is rarely generative or solutions focused, and instead consciously chooses to connect with these ancient non-verbal fear responses to generate viewership and revenue.
In many ways we are profoundly unsafe—climate change is a real threat, inequity continues to grow and the impacts of generations of colonization are demonstrated in every community across the world. It can be easy to float in light of these threats, especially if you feel like you’ve done all the reasoning and running and fighting you can. But our resistance requires more than words and conversation if we are to do this work with integrity. We must recognize the impacts of traumatic response on all people and offer education, as well as non-verbal methods of support as we move through these fear responses to get back into our social engagement systems. Fiscal and social policies are better when they are made with a deeper understanding of human physiology and neuroscience. Our work is to support all people in cultivating their internal safety so that every choice they make (regardless of political affiliation) comes from a place of love, abundance and compassion.
Let our movement guide our movements rather than our minds, and most of all, let’s dance while we do this hard work.