For many years, I felt like I was watching my life being lived from somewhere outside myself. I could see all these interesting things happening – wonderful learning experiences, fascinating conversations, exciting career advancements, but it was almost like I was watching them happen to someone else.
It wasn’t until I learned about how trauma works on the nervous system that I understood the idea of “range of resilience”. I could finally see why I often felt stranded outside my own existence. By increasing my range of resilience, I have been re-inhabiting my own life. And I must say, it is marvelous in here.
Your range of resilience is how much you can handle in daily life before you get maxed out and react from a more primitive survival urge. Basically, it’s how long you can stay calm and centered before your sympathetic nervous system turns on to defend you against possible threats.
Each of us responds differently to threats, so I’m going to offer up a few examples to see if any of them resonate with you. You’re in a conversation with someone and…
Fight ~ they say something that makes your chest heat up, your fists ball up, and you want to shut them down or cut them down in some way, verbally or physically.
Flight ~ they do something that makes you suddenly want to turn away, move to a different part of the room, or leave altogether.
Freeze ~ they say something that causes you to go numb. You “space out” and have trouble pinning down the right words to respond. You might even have a hard time hearing them.
There are two other main responses that come with getting pushed outside your range of resilience: feed – you suddenly grab a handful of chips to be able to handle the conversation continuing. And fornicate; out of nerves, you find yourself humping the corner of the sofa. (Just kidding – I don’t really understand that one in more casual situations.)
Your range of resilience is somewhat related to the amount of unresolved trauma you have in your system. Think of a dog that has been abused: The tiniest threat and it might get set off in a fit of barking, go hide in the corner, nervously pee on the floor, or immediately roll over and become submissive. As that dog regains a sense of safety, those survival responses will get triggered less and less frequently. It becomes friendlier and more social.
You are wired very similarly. If you go into your survival response quickly, it’s likely because you have a buildup of un-discharged trauma in your system. And just like the dog, you need to gradually regain an inner sense of safety in order to be less triggered, and have a fuller life experience.
So how do you do this? I’ll give you a little exercise to try right now.
- Find a comfortable place to sit. Place your feet evenly on the floor, and let your back rest against the back of your chair.
- Feel the support of the floor and chair. Notice how gravity is holding you safely here on planet Earth. Notice the feeling of safety that comes with letting yourself be physically supported.
- Look around the room and orient yourself in this space. See the walls, the ceiling, the floor.
- Look for possible threats. Are there any? Or are you safe? If there is no immediate threat to your physical survival, clearly note that. Register it in your mind and body.
- Now, consider something that makes you feel nervous (a situation at work, in a relationship, anything that makes you feel dis-ease).
- Simultaneously feel the support of your seat, while you touch into the “up-regulated” energy of that thing that makes you nervous.
- Notice that yes, the thing that makes you nervous is creating a physiological response in your body… maybe a knot in your belly, stiffening neck, shortness of breath, faster heartbeat… take note of those natural responses to the perceived threat.
- Just let yourself feel a little bit of that threat, while feeling the support of your chair. Stay with both, until the threat changes or dissipates.
- You’ll know you’ve possibly increased your range of resilience if there is a sign of discharge such as: a natural deep breath, a feeling of “tingling” on your skin, a sigh or yawn, warmth in your legs or arms…
- When the “wave” of nervous energy has passed, again look around the room, orient yourself, and notice that you are safe.
Ideally, if you have a very small range of resilience (you get angry, scared, or frozen quickly and easily), you will seek out a great counselor to help you process and discharge those trauma responses. Not a counselor that encourages strong emotional catharsis – that can just re-activate your traumas, spike you past your range of resilience, and cause your body to experience that pain again and again.
Find someone who deeply understands the behavior of trauma. Find someone who can help you “titrate” the process – just working with traumas one drop at a time. This way you can dissolve that nervous charge over and over into your ever-expanding range of resilience.
My therapist says this so beautifully. She says, “we are increasing your capacity to hold more of the divine”. After working with her for two and a half years, gradually increasing my range of resilience, I know exactly what she’s talking about.
This work is so exciting, that I’m now one year into the Somatic Experiencing training myself. It is enriching my offerings as a yoga teacher in immeasurable ways. (And causing me to take things in life much less personally!)
By increasing my range of resilience I am able to hold more life inside me, without checking out. I am able to share more of myself. I am able to more courageously live in the world. I can feel the difference between an imaginary threat and a real one.
Of course I sometimes spike out of my range of resilience (such as in the previous entry in the post office!), but I know the way back home to center inside myself. I am not held hostage by perceived threats.
How about you? Are you quickly triggered? Do you ever feel like you’re watching your life from somewhere outside your body? It’s so much more common than you might think. Almost everyone I meet displays this kind of survivalist reactivity when there’s no actual threat. But the cool thing is, there’s something we can do about it. We all have the capacity, and the ability, to expand.
Photo: Ming Jun Tan