I once had a girlfriend in my late teens named Marlyce Greco. She was a starstruck fan of Arthur Lee and Love, and so one summer Saturday night we went to see him and the band at the Whiskey a Go-Go on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Around midnight, after we came over Mullholland and cruised down into the Valley on my Triumph motorcycle, a woman who’d had too much to drink, made a sudden left turn in front of us just as we entered the intersection at Coldwater Canyon and Moorpark. We broadsided her at 40 miles an hour, sending Marlyce and I flying over the top of her station wagon and out into the traffic trying to avoid us.
Miraculously neither of us ended up seriously hurt. In the aftermath, we were both able to stand on the street corner and speak semi-coherently to people who came to our aid. Except for one problem – I couldn’t stop shaking. Forty-plus years later, I’ve come to learn I was having a body and brain-stabilizing, Acute Stress Reaction.
The “Oh Shoot” Moment
In the moment when I realized we were going to smash into that station wagon, all my major muscles tensed. All thinking ceased, my breathing stopped and my whole body was flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. From studies of animals in the wild by ethologists like Robert Sapolsky and Peter Levine, we know that the shaking afterwards was my nervous system’s way of trying to move those powerful glucocorticoids out of my body and brain in order to keep them from doing neurological harm. Instead of loading me into an ambulance and taking me to the UCLA Medical Center and exposing me to the horrendous pain and suffering that abounds in any inner city Emergency Room on a Saturday night, probably better would have been to trot or walk me around the block a few times. It is lack of physical movement – the freeze response – that seems to play a significant role in traumatic experiences becoming intrusively fixed in long term memory.
Walk it Off, Shake it Off, Dance it Off
When my daughter was small, I noticed that whenever she fell or scraped her knee, her first response would be to look to me for a reaction. If I was cool and simply picked her up, brushed her off and walked her around, she was over the incident quite rapidly. My calm became her calm. I’m pretty convinced, and research from folks like Bessel van der Kolk, Bob Scaer and Pat Ogden seem to confirm that anything we do that helps us mitigate the Freeze Response in the wake of spills and trauma, provides great neurological benefits – physical movement in the wake of overwhelming experiences seems to keep us from forming “Dissociation Capsules,” those easily-acquired neurological snarl-jams that work to frequently float us away from the stress of the present moment.
The need for, and the power of physical movement, even “triumphant action” as a potential healing aid in the wake of traumatic experiences, is important to realize for parents and other caregivers in the world, especially those parts of the world where exploding IEDs and other traumatic assaults are a regular, unpredictable way of life. Anything we can do to support the physical and mental health of any one of us is invariably good for all of us.
Related to physically traumatic experiences are the neurologically similar experience of difficult conversations – those emotionally-laden, adrenaline-fueled discussions we find ourselves frequently faced with involving family members, friends and creative colleagues. Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen – members of the Harvard Negotiation Project – have written a book on just this topic. They present a series of flexible guidelines for deliberately and consciously engaging in Difficult Conversations.
They suggest breaking difficult discussions into three parts: the story part – what happened; the feeling part – how we feel about what happened; and the Third Story – the result that often emerges from deep listening and mutually inclusive, beneficial problem-solving. Missing from their guidelines is my feeling that these conversations should rarely be engaged in sitting down. Such conversations jazz up our neurobiology and then leave us with nowhere to go with all that vibrating energy. Moving that energy through our system in my experience is best accomplished by not taking such encounters sitting down. And this is probably a good practice for the rest of our lives as well.