So I wake up in the night needing to pee. Before I get up, however, I notice that my back and neck are extremely tense and I am barely breathing. I’m not in respiratory distress, but I’m breathing shallowly and only through one nostril, my mouth closed. Flash of insight: Ok, it’s not the type of pillow I’m sleeping on that’s causing the pain I awake to each morning. It’s anxiety that I experience as I sleep! In this tense state, I breathe in such a way that my body barely moves. I know intuitively that this experience is connected to my infant surgery for pyloric stenosis at three weeks old. And I think it’s more than a pain control strategy.
When I get up several hours later, I decide that writing with my left, non-dominant hand could reveal more insights. Here’s what I wrote: Maybe left hand knows something about this rigid pattern. I hold myself oh so still so I won’t breathe–caught between life and death. Frozen. If I lie still, I live. Brain? What happened? Then I drew a sleeping bird and next to it wrote: Sleeping bird – dead bird girl.
So why am I a “dead bird girl” over sixty years later when the condition that caused the pain is resolved, I am in no pain, the trauma is over, and I am alive? What would Dr. Peter Levine say, author of Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma? Here are a few quotes from his book that are helping me to understand my situation:
“When neither fight nor flight will ensure the animal’s safety, there is another line of defense: immobility (freezing), which is just as universal and basic to survival. For inexplicable reasons, this defense strategy is rarely given equal billing in texts on biology and psychology. Yet, it is an equally viable survival strategy in threatening situations. In many situations, it is the best choice” (95).
“In post-traumatic anxiety, immobility is maintained primarily from within. The impulse towards intense aggression is so frightening that the traumatized person often turns it inward on themselves rather than allow it external expression” (103).
“When we respond to a life-threatening situation, hyperarousal is initially accompanied by constriction in our bodies and perceptions. The nervous system acts to ensue that all our efforts can be focused on the threat in a maximally optimal way. Constriction alters a person’s breathing, muscle tone, and posture. Blood vessels in the skin, extremities, and viscera constrict so that more blood is available to the muscles which are tensed and prepared to take defensive action” (135).
So it’s like being coiled up tight, like a spring. During the operation, I (and my nervous system) coiled to survive but I never unwound!
“Hyperarousal, constriction, helplessness, dissociation are all normal responses to a threat. . . . As these stress reactions remain in place, they form the groundwork and fuel for the development of subsequent symptoms. Within months, these symptoms at the core of the traumatic reaction will begin to incorporate mental and psychological characteristics into their dynamics until eventually they reach into every corner of the trauma sufferer’s life. . . . Eventually the symptoms can coalesce into traumatic anxiety, a state that pervades the trauma sufferer’s every waking (and sleeping) moment” (143-144).
So is my nervous system still playing dead? And what do I do about my PTS while I sleep? How cope? Can I change this pattern? Stay tuned for “PTS While You Sleep – (Part II).”