I know that in times of great stress my body responds by sending me into survival mode. Sometimes it can be obvious, like for instance the time I was waiting to go down to theatre for major surgery and I had to suppress the sudden overwhelming urge to run screaming from the hospital with my butt cheeks hanging out of the gown (there’s an image for you).
Other times it can be subtle….well I say this however I’m not entirely sure that putting your house on the market and telling everyone you are moving miles away (as I did during my last period of relentless stress) would constitute being subtle; however what I have come to recognise is that when things get really tough my natural defence kicks in and I’m inclined to run.
I spend a lot of time in my role (particularly with schools) trying to explain the survival response in children. ‘He threw a chair’…..fight mode. ‘She ran out the classroom’….flight mode. ‘He just shuts down and won’t do what I ask him to do’…..freeze mode. The fact of the matter is, children who have experienced trauma and abuse are often in a heightened state due to their early life experiences and what may seem like a little thing (to some) can trigger an unexpected fight, flight or freeze scenario for the child at any moment.
I’d like you to take a moment to consider some of the emotional triggers adopted and fostered children may be faced with on a daily basis. The siren of a police car – flashback to the time I was removed from my birth family. The smell of a perfume – flash back to Mum’s boyfriend who used to touch me . A loud noise, flash back to my birth parents fighting. You get the picture? Each child comes with their own unique trauma triggers that their body has stored and some of them may be obvious and others may not.
So back to me (aka Forrest Gump) for a moment and how I have come to recognise my need to run. Well the last fifteen days (whilst our adoption has been on hold for legal reasons) has been pretty darn stressful to say the least. Reflecting back now I can clearly see that my first response to the news was…..’I need to get away for a few days’ (run, run, run).
Returning from the seaside days later the prospect of returning to work (on the day that my baby should have come home) was so stressful I awoke and spent the first five minutes hugging the toilet bowl. Ironically that morning I was running a relaxation work shop for children to help them to identify those moments where they are struggling and provide them and their parents with techniques to help with emotional regulation. The first exercise of the day involved explaining neuroscience to the children with the use of a meerkat, an elephant and an owl and I would like to take a moment to explain this to you.
The ‘Meerkat’ (amygdala) who is always on the lookout for danger represents the brains panic alarm system, which allows us to escape or defend ourselves in response to a threat.
The ‘Elephant’ (hippocampus) who never forgets represents the part of the brain where our memories are stored.
The wise ‘owl’ (pre frontal cortex) is responsible for our higher thinking and can act as our emotional brakes, telling us to stop and think before acting impulsively.
When the Meerkat panics the owl flies away (this part of the brain shuts down) hence leaving us temporarily without adequate impulse control and rational judgement.
This of course is explained in an age appropriate story (depending on the age of your audience) to help the children to understand why they act in the way that they do. By bringing this into a child’s awareness (no differently to you or I) they can start to recognise and respond to their own stress triggers.
That afternoon after the workshop I received a call to tell me that I wasn’t able to go and visit my baby (during the two week wait) as we had initially hoped. Cue another rush of stress and this is the point where I start to emotionally detach myself in an attempt of self preservation. Before I knew it, I was distracting myself by clicking on the Rightmove App and flicking through images of houses by the seaside (run run run).
It was actually my husband (who sometimes has to be my wise owl) that brought this behaviour into my consciousness one morning as I waved my phone in his face. ‘You know, you always do this when you’re stressed out?’ he said acknowledging the image of the house by the seaside. I heard him (as a I always do, however my response was) ‘Seriously though, look how cheap these houses are!!’
Later than morning there was another relaxation workshop which transpired to be around the theme of the seaside. Now the children understood how their brains worked we were working on activities that would help to ‘calm their meerkats’ such as breathing exercises, Yoga (it appears I’m I’m no longer very flexible), creative activities and connecting with others.
Workshop over and sat at my desk (my owl clearly present) it suddenly dawned on me (from memories provided by my elephant) that my husband was absolutely right and when things get tough I feel the need to run away. It was there and then that I came up with my survival strategy for my Meerkat.
Son 👶 or sun 🌞 fight 👊 or flight ✈️
The ultimate plan A (which I have no control over) is my son comes home. This may require a small amount of fighting.
Plan B (reserved for the worst case scenario) is that I allow my body to do what it does best and take a flight (with my fam a lam) somewhere very bloody hot!
Either way very soon one of these is going to happen and my Meerkat feels much calmer for having a survival plan in place.