March 4, 2002
On the Edge of the Rabbit Hole
Last week in "The White Rabbit's Tips on Primal," I gave a perspective on how to focus on discomfort and "go down the hole" in order to get into primal feelings. Unfortunately, there are those who need no help in this regard. They live on the edge of the hole and struggle every day to keep from falling in.
It's exhausting and frightening when you have to work so hard just to cope and get through the day. Sometimes the depression is so heavy you can hardly move. Sometimes the panic is so great you feel your heart will burst. Sometimes the rage is so wild, you're certain you'll run somebody off the road.
When things are that bad, and you have an on-going relationship with a reliable therapist, it is possible to take those feelings to session and express them. If you don't have that opportunity, or your session isn't for a few days, there are two options - have the feelings at home or learn how to "back away from the hole."
The decision to do the feeling work on your own is a big topic and is something that needs to be worked out between you and your therapist. I do not recommend self-primaling without the supervision of a therapist because, depending on a long list of factors, it may be seriously destructive.
The ability to back away from overwhelming primal feelings is a very useful skill. Traumas are repressed behind psychobiological blocks, or defenses, and their purpose is to keep the painful material from invading working consciousness. Some children are able to create shields that are very effective and allow them to grow into a reasonably functional adult life. Others, due to the nature and severity of their traumas, are not so lucky. Their shields do not work so well, and they feel overwhelmed much of the time.
When we are awake, sensations flood in through our senses. We have the opportunity to respond to the world-as-it-is in ways that are appropriate to what is actually happening. If, however, we are carrying powerful traumatic imprints in our lower brain centers, they can rise into consciousness in fragmented ways and overshadow incoming, present-day sensations. It's similar to getting lost in the "inner" imagery of a daydream. When this happens, what we perceive is a mixture of the "old" imprinted material, and the new sensations - all playing out in the present.
At these times, if you want to suppress the imprinted material, there are a few things you can do:
• Try to see if the situation is really as bad as it feels. Ask someone else for a "reality" check. Then, if you aren't really in danger, repeatedly tell yourself something like this: "Although I feel terrible, I am not actually in danger. It's just an old feeling."
• Remove yourself from any situation which is too stressful and may be making the feeling worse.
• Know your non-destructive shields and use them. Anything that is distracting or enjoyable will do. You can get busy, watch TV, exercise, go for a walk, listen to music, visit people, talk on the phone, eat favourite foods, tell jokes, read novels, have safe sex, play sports - whatever works and doesn't make matters worse. You are focusing your attention on these things to create a comforting or distracting shield against the rising imprints. By using them, you shift your inner chemistry just as if you were taking valium or some other drug. The benefit over drugs is that you have the option of greater control.
• Focus on mundane things. Washing the dishes, cleaning, organizing, or talking about the weather can get your attention back on the present-day world and away from the painful inner imprints.
• Do expressive, creative things that you love. These favourite activities of yours are what Joseph Campbell called "your bliss." They can be very healing and supportive.
• Stay out of the dark. Go to bed with a light on. The dark is like a projection screen for our inner world. The light fills us with present-day sensation and can help shift our focus away from the old feelings.
• Breathe slowly and deeply. Painful feelings can cause us to hold our breath. Breathing slowly and easily can calm things down.
• Meditate. If you know a calming, centering meditative form, find a way to use it.
• Be with supportive friends who can let you be you.
Learn the things that work for you and think of them as tools in your emergency first-aid kit. The idea isn't to live this way, but to manage the flow of feelings so that your process can be balanced and not chaotic. If you are struggling to cope and don't have strong shields, it is an important part of the work to reinforce them.
Sometimes the rabbit hole needs a guard rail.