Moving Through the Fear

By Melinda Maxwell-Smith, MT, RCST, SEP

The #MeToo Movement has sparked many women to step into the light to tell their stories.

Sometimes when we allow something to surface that has been submerged in our depths for months, years, or decades, we might feel a little raw, as if part of our protective skin has been grated off. If this happened to you after confiding memories to one person or in a more public reveal, or if you know someone who may feel raw, this article may normalize for you what just happened and give you some self-help reminders of how to soothe your nervous system.

First, congratulations. The time for silence has ended, and painful as it may be for the short term, your heart, mind, and body will feel much more alive and healthy with the density of those old memories not weighing you down any longer.

When I handed over an article for publication called “Composting Incest: A Progress Report” in 1991, I was shaking. Getting into my car to drive home, I felt a veil lifting. A song flowed through me — music and lyrics intact — and creativity that had been hiding away under that veil of shame blossomed forth. It was a visceral feeling of release. That song, “I Cry For the Children,” and many more that followed charted my healing process from what happened to me so long ago.

We might feel an attachment to the secrecy and fearful that the secret is finally out. (That’s why I was shaking! I was thinking, Uh-oh! Now what?) Here’s the good news: The OTHER SHOE has already dropped, and we’re still here. Still ALIVE. Still contributing members of the human family.

When we feel fearful, we can slow down and examine the sensations of fear. Maybe it’s a hollow feeling in the belly. Maybe it’s a queasy, wringing sensation there or somewhere else. Maybe it’s a cold sweat. Whatever your sensation of fear, allow yourself to be with it (if it’s not overwhelming) and watch it. If you prefer to be in the company of a person you feel safe with when you face and feel your body’s sensations of fear, please DO THAT! Trust your knowing of what’s right for you.

Here’s one thing we know about the universe: Shift Happens. Change is the only constant. Nothing remains the same, even our fears. I can almost guarantee you that if you’re reading this, you are in a relatively safe place. No saber-tooth tigers or shadowy characters from your past are beside you. FEAR turns out to be, almost always, False Events Appearing Real.

Usually, we project our fears into the future: “If this, then that, and oh, won’t that be scary?” Fear is a fantasy of what might happen. Not what is happening now. Our mind is good at creating fear, long after what ever hurt us has gone away. Mind wants us to heal, but it usually leads us back to the darkest corners, which is not useful. If mind does that, try taking a slow deep breath and letting it out slowly. Try it three times and see what changes.

Our bodies are hardwired to survive. When scary things happen, they prepare us for any eventuality, whether that is Fight (if the predator is smaller or weaker than we are), Flight (if we’re faster than the danger), or Freeze (if neither of the first two options seems best for our survival).

When something now reminds us of an old event, we can be triggered to get all those FFF responses revved up and ready to go again. Right response; wrong situation. The old danger ended long ago, but we’re still, perhaps, stuck in the fantasy of what our body would have done had it had the opportunity... had we not been too little, or drugged, or frozen… or, or, or… The body remembers the story and wants to use up (discharge) all that bound survival energy.

Sometimes discharge will shake us, give us the shivers, and make our teeth chatter. This is natural. This is normal. This is a good thing. That’s what mammals do to get rid of the excess adrenaline of those Fight, Flight, Freeze responses. The little opossum that plays dead (freeze response) has the brakes on its nervous system — pedal to the metal. At the same time, it has the Fight and Flight all geared up, with the gas pedal to the floor. Once the coyote loses interest in the opossum and walks away, because it would get sick if it ate a dead animal, then the opossum slowly comes back to life, a bit herky-jerky at first, then with more fluid movements as it unfreezes.

In the aftermath, nature has provided an ingenious mechanism that lets all mammals slough off the excess charge of all that adrenaline running through the bloodstream: mammals twitch, shiver, and shake, run, and move big muscles to use up all that adrenaline that saved them. Shaking is a normal and very useful response to having survived a scary time. Not discharging the bound energy leads to rigid muscles, frozen shoulders, joint pain, and a whole host of maladies. You don’t see many opossums on Prozac or on the therapist’s couch. Humans are the only mammals who are too smart for our own good. We shut down our natural shiver-and-shake phase because we don’t understand it, are afraid of it, or we think it’s just for sissies. The opposite is true. The shaking off of excess adrenaline is what allows us to be free to move forward afresh.

Paying attention to the body’s response to a current trigger that’s reminding us of another time and another place, can free us from being engulfed by fear that doesn’t match the current situation.

Watch as the clench lets go, as the stomach softens, as the cold clammy feeling abates. Shift will happen. That I can promise you.

If it feels like too much, you can give yourself that support/boundary hug with one arm crossed over the other so one of your hands is tucked up under your armpit, and the other is holding the upper outer arm just below the shoulder. Tonya Pinkins and I both did this when she interviewed me for the Shift Network #MeToo Dialogues. Try it and any of the other techniques we talked about.

I’m rootin’ for ya.

No stranger to trauma, Melinda Maxwell-Smith, MT, RCST, SEP, grew up in Echo Park, near downtown Los Angeles in a family that mostly forgot how to put the FUN in dysFUNctional. Her early childhood experiences led her to seek healing for herself and for fellow humans. She has been a body worker since 1985, specializing in Trauma Resolution, using Ray Castellino's Pre- and Perinatal Birth Trauma Resolution Work, Franklyn Sills' Biodynamic CranioSacral Therapy, Jin Shin Jyutsu Acupressure, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, Embodyment®, Bodynamics(R), Shamanic Journey Work, and Somatic Experiencing(R).

Melinda teaches yoga and meditation and would like to put herself out of work as a body therapist by empowering her clients to care elegantly for themselves. She maintained a busy private practice in the Studio City area of Los Angeles for over thirty years. She now sees a sprinkling of clients in Oakland and is writing a memoir about having witnessed the ordinary miracle of healing in newborns to nonagenarians as she watched them shed the effects of past traumas from their nervous systems.

Along with her husband of 46 years, Melinda is a regular volunteer counselor at camps for kids who are medically fragile and their siblings. She's working on her gardening and guitar skills. She adores hiking, camping, and goofing around with her eight year old granddaughter, husband, friends, and two grown daughters.

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This article appears in: 2018 Catalyst, Issue 17: Your Most Radiant Self