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Defining the four F's

My heart was pounding all morning. My legs felt weak and my head was swimming. As I felt myself moving into a panic attack I realized I was having a trauma response.

My daughter was on her way back to the city where I ended my abusive marriage. She was with my husband, her step father, so I knew she was physically safe but my nervous system did not. This was the place where the abuse was at it's worst. This city was where I thought he was going to end my life. My nervous system remembered that. It was a lot.

Our nervous system doesn't understand time and space. It reacts to our memories, our surroundings and the responses that are happening in our body. For my nervous system my child was in an unsafe place hence the racing heart, weakness in my legs and the swimminess in my brain. I was reacting to the threats my nervous system remembered.

There are four states your nervous system can move into when it feels threatened; fight (prepare to fight the threat), flight (flee the threat), freeze (freeze in place feeling there is no way to escape) and fawn (appease the threat). If you have experienced any of these responses there are ways to bring your nervous system back to homeostasis and feel peace and safety again.

When your response is fight mode you might feel your jaw is clenching, you are balling your fists and/or having angry outbursts. Your core need is to know there isn't an emergency. You can achieve this by telling yourself out loud that you are safe, lay on your back or sit comfortably and breathe deeply. Take a breath in through your nose, deep down into your belly and slowly exhale out of your mouth. Do this at least three times.

When your response is flight mode you can feel anxiety in your chest, have shallow breathing, and/or a desire to run from the room and/or intense restlessness. Your core need is to feel grounded and anchored. What you can try is playing Gratitude as an "I spy" game. Look around you, be in the present moment and name the items around you that you are grateful for.

When your response is freeze mode you will show signs of shutting down which can involve flat, blank stares, a dampened sense of excitement and isolating from activities and people. You may also have a distorted sense of time. Your core need is to be shown warmth and nurturing. You can try washing your face with cool water, ice dives, drink a warm drink and/or tightly hug yourself.

When your response is fawn mode you can find yourself pacifying others for safety, please those around you, develop co dependency and lack boundaries. Your core need is to feel nutured and avoid conflict. You can try increasing awareness of your emotions, validate yourself and your needs and be self-compassionate (journal during tough times, practice self-care by getting out into nature, exercise or nap).

As I did my own breathing exercises I started to feel more grounded and I told myself that I and my daughter were safe. Even though I am a therapist I am still human and have my own reactions run by my nervous system. The trick is to have an understanding of what is going on in your body and be kind with yourself. I got to the other side of my trauma response and I am feeling much better. I will continue to monitor my emotional state and be compassionate to myself. I hope you are able to do the same if you are struggling.

I wish you safety and peace on your journey. 💙


Janet Rhodes


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