Tend and Befriend

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When our fight - flight - freeze response has kicked in and the danger has passed, we need to start actively returning the body to rest, recovery, and balance so that the trauma or stress doesn’t sink in to the body (click here to read my post on stress and yin/restorative yoga).

First steps: shaking the body vigorously (shake, shake, shake, dance, etc.), breathing exercises, and yoga are my go-tos, but any movement that can be meditative for the mind and vigorous enough to reset hormones will work. I’m not an expert, but I recommend that the first response be one that is individual (i.e. not sex with a partner, not a kickboxing class); one that’s just about you and your body, your heart, your mind, and your spirit. Reset it. Over and over, as many times as you need to. This is not a one time thing.

And then what comes next?

Faced again with my own struggles to shift the way I handle stress and trauma, I recently called together a small group of women who are, for me, strong, inspiring, practical, strategic, and loving. It was weird for me, and hard, to send an email and say “Hey. (This happened…), I’m a f*cking mess, and I need support.” Not only did I ask people who don’t know each other to make time on their weekend to come together as a group and focus on MY life, but I imposed on one of them to host it. Crazy, right? It felt scary and vulnerable, but also right. So very right. So I did it. And they said YES.

Leading up to the meeting, I googled “Recovering from Trauma” and other such phrases to try to open up new paths of healing for myself. In that search, I stumbled across an article from 2000 that studied the behavioral response to stress in females. You see, we all, male and female alike, kick in to fight - flight - freeze under threat or stress. And unfortunately, many (most?) of us carry around past responses / hurts / traumas / narratives / beliefs that condition us to go there too quickly sometimes.

This isn’t the full story, but what I learned is that in animals and humans across cultures, female bodies involuntarily respond to trauma or stress by secreting oxytocin, the female hormone that reduces pain and increases that “love” feeling. It’s present in men, too, but not like in women, for whom it plays a major role in childbirth and lactation.

Oxytocin and endorphin secretion in females as an involuntary response to stress and trauma has shown to produce the behavior of “tend and befriend.” When women are knocked down, we get up and reach out. We tend to our offspring (pets, loved ones, gardens, or if we’re lucky, our careers that are infused with joy and passion), and we connect with people around us. We let others take care of us, even if that means just being in their presence, but sometimes it means much more.

I knew that I was right to push past the fear of rejection and reach out for help, and now I have the science to back up what seemed mad at the time. The madness, fear, insecurity, you see, is the conditioning, the impermanent, the changeable.

But oxytocin? Love? Connection? Those are real. They are present. The natural response to oxytocin in the blood is to connect with others, to express and receive and BE in love. Our conditioning from past hurts and from social messages to stand alone are what we have put in our own way to block that natural expression.

First step is awareness, right? I can’t say that overnight I have turned into a women’s commune loving hippie, and intergenerational living is not an option for me, but I do know that I am on the right path; I’m rewiring my responses and creating memories and patterns of behavior that connect me with others when I listen to my body’s deep responses. I’m realigning with natural responses and actively trying to disconnect the conditioned ones that don’t feel good or right or separate from love.

Thank god I was born female.