Discover more from The Temple of the Body in the World by Michaela Boehm
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch #2
Drop, Cover, Hold On
It’s been an eventful week up here at the Moondog Ranch. Last weekend we prepared for the first Hurricane to come through California in 84 years. This involved some advance preparations like anchoring the Goat Shed, digging trenches and climbing up ladders to take down sun sails and windmills.
When the heavy downpour started, I smugly settled in bed with a cup of tea, feeling quite pleased about having prepared so well. My grand plan for the afternoon was to enjoy the rain by reading, taking a nap and having a bath. After all, a rainy Sunday afternoon in August is a novel experience.
Suddenly the entire house moved upward with a sharp bang followed by rattling, swaying and shaking. I made it out the door just as the tremor stopped. My phone screeched with an emergency earthquake alert prompting me to mutter “no shit!!!” as my heart was racing.
The next few minutes were a flurry of activity as I simultaneously put my clothes back on, grabbed my “go bag” (yes, I had put all important documents, money and supplies in a bag in preparation for the Hurricane - more about that later) and calmed the dogs.
While I looked up information about what just happened, my phone started its emergency notification screech again - this time with a Flash Flood warning - all the while aftershocks rattled the covered porch, where I suddenly found myself straddling the potentially unsafe inside and the potentially unsafe outside.
In the aftermath it’s always interesting to observe how the nervous system deals with potential survival situations. It’s one thing to know about trauma, de-escalation and how these things work in the body - something I teach about regularly - and an entirely different matter when the tunnel vision and insanely fast pulse are a reality.
While we all hope that we don’t find ourselves in emergency situations, it’s important to evaluate and prepare for those moments, knowing that when the survival mechanisms kick in there might be some unwelcome surprise reactions.
I found that out the hard way many years back when a random stranger with a sledgehammer started bashing in the front windows of my West Hollywood house at 1am, while I was home alone (there were bars on the windows, so he didn’t manage to get in, and it turned out he had mistakenly targeted the wrong house - it’s a crazy story).
I always fancied myself tough and able to deal with tricky situations, but as the glass started breaking I was reduced to a quivering mess. All I could do was huddle in the shower screaming at the 911 dispatcher in terror, barely able to convey the necessary information.
In the aftermath I realized that I didn’t do any of the things I should have done - like put on shoes and some clothes, grabbed a kitchen knife and locked myself into the sun room which had heavy barred doors and windows.
But alas, I went into total panic - neither able to fight or flee, I became utterly unable to navigate the situation - save for being able to dial 911 for the first time in my life.
And here is the interesting thing - even though I was in full on panic mode I knew who to call. Why? Because I had seen it many times, in movies and on TV. I had a go-to mechanism, rehearsed somewhere in my system through witnessing it many times over.
The human nervous system is built for survival. Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System - also known as “Fight or Flight” and “Rest and Digest” (sometimes also aptly named “Feed and Breed”) elegantly work together to allow us to survive as well as thrive.
When it comes to an emergency scenario - regardless if it’s a real threat or even just a perceived one - fight or flight grants us the best chance of survival by firing up all systems needed to either fight as hard or run as fast as possible.
This means faster breathing, higher pulse rate and increased circulation to supply us with oxygenated blood, narrowed, focused vision and increased tension to give us the proverbial fighting chance. Adrenaline rushes through our system and rational, strategic thought is replaced by pure instinct.
There is also another survival strategy called “freeze”, a mechanism that proved useful when early humans had to “hunker down” in the tall grass of the Savannah or the back of a cave, when fleeing or fighting was not an option.
In the “freeze” scenario our system immobilizes. Our lower body and limbs become heavy and still, our face barely moves (sometimes referred to as “flat affect”), we hardly blink and our gaze becomes wide and unfocused - that way we don’t attract attention through facial motion as well as being able to see the widest view possible.
In addition to the external “freezing”, our internal system eventually goes into “standby mode”. We feel emotionally stable (read: numb) and our heartbeat, breathing and metabolism slows down. Handy when you have to sit somewhere hiding for a long while, not so good when sudden action is required or the freeze goes from acute to chronic.
That all said, when we go into survival mode our rational, strategic thinking goes way to the back of the queue. We are not able to properly evaluate or navigate the situation when our sympathetic nervous system takes over, hence I didn’t do any of the things my rational mind later determined would have been good to do.
So when an earthquake hits, or a flash flood washes out the road, or severe wind downs a tree on top of a house, our reaction will be purely instinctual - unless we have previously rehearsed or prepared responses.
While the instinct will give us the immediate action for survival, it often does not give us the ability to make the next decisions crucial for managing a more complex and longer duration emergency situation.
This is why firemen, rescue crews as well as elite military and police teams train under the most realistic conditions possible. It takes practice (and guts) to go beyond the built in survival responses and make good decisions while under threat.
Only by acclimating to danger are we able to assess, function and navigate effectively.
Not everyone needs to train themselves to be able to enter extreme threat scenarios, but it is definitely worth considering, preparing for and mentally rehearsing potentially dangerous situations.
When we have been made aware of procedures that support an emergency, like “Drop, Cover, Hold On” which is instilled in any Californian child in school, or the “Don’t take the elevator in case of a fire” we see posted on every floor of a building, or the ever annoying “In the event of a loss in cabin pressure” on a plane, those procedures, very much like the dialing of 911, are stashed somewhere in the back of our mind ready to surface when needed.
So, back to what around my neighborhood is now referred to as the “Hurriquake”. Once the shaking had stopped, I was able to execute a series of actions I had previously considered and prepared for.
I grabbed the “go bag”, put the dogs in an area where I could easily gather them, put on sturdy shoes and a waterproof jacket, pulled the truck out of the garage and let my family know I was ok. Once that was done I checked on my neighbors and friends and did some basic de-escalation movements (and withstood the urge for a stiff drink!).
Turns out this wasn’t my “first rodeo”. A few years back my entire property, including house, stables and dogs had been destroyed in a wildfire. Since then I’ve been acutely aware that disasters don’t just happen to “other people” or “somewhere else” and with that I have managed to create some awareness and procedures I can fall back on when the going gets tough.
And while I still felt pretty shaken up - pun definitely intended - I was able to function enough to support my animals, friends, neighbors and eventually de-escalate myself.
That’s where the “other half” of our nervous system - the parasympathetic system - comes in. Once the threat has passed, the body has sophisticated means of releasing the tension, adrenaline and trauma responses.
Equally important as good preparation is our willingness to let the body release - by shaking, crying, fidgeting and connecting/sharing with others. Because we are not only built to survive, but also to thrive.
If we can allow our body to see through the entire sequence and not clamp down on the release, we can achieve a state of recovery - even if it’s just until the next aftershock, wind gust or downpour.
And yes, I did have a drink and a good debrief on that storm lashed porch a few hours later with my friend Dawn - because community and shared experiences allow us to cope in the midst of whatever disasters happen.
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