Strategies for not being physically afraid?
February 6, 2015 7:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm separating from my partner, and one issue coming up is how physically frightened I am during conflict. My partner of over a decade has no history of physical abuse, although he is taller and stronger than me, and this is coming from my childhood of repeated physical and sexual abuse, as well as being in situations as an adult where I was physically intimidated by strangers. I would like practical tips and ideas for how to build up my instinctive confidence that I'm not going to get hit.

I just had a work call where I had to outline problems to subordinates and push for a redraft, and I raised my voice slightly. I am generally the peacemaker/negotiator for relationships, and I take the emotional outburst and get people working together, but today, I was much firmer. What surprised me was how scary that felt afterwards and a flash of fear that the next time I met these people at work they would hit me in retaliation, which is totally ridiculous. I am going through long arguments with my partner as we sort out the separation details, and I find myself physically frightened and wanting very much to have my back against a wall or be in public, because a part of me expects him to lose it and punch me. This is exhausting and I end up giving in or refusing to argue when I need to because I am frightened. I am the person who doesn't complain at restaurants because deep down, I am convinced they will physically attack me.

I have a therapist and will be discussing this with her, but I would like practical things I can do to make myself feel stronger and less afraid in situations (not just with my partner) where I am in all likelihood safe. If it helps, I'm a short woman in my thirties.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you recognize that these are trauma responses? That's where the are outsized reactions to current situations, borne from experiences in the past. If you're not using that language in therapy, bring it up and take it from there.
posted by Sublimity at 8:00 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that you would benefit from discussing the details of your separation with a couples counselor or mediator.

It's hard to keep emotions out of these discussions, and having a neutral third party might help a lot.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:08 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a background similar to yours, and I'm still wrestling with these feelings. I'm sorry you're going through a tough time.

Something that has been hugely helpful for me is focusing on the the emotional truth of the fact that the abuse I went through was exactly that -- abuse. It was stuff outside the normal, acceptable course of how people treat each other. It is not how people are supposed to treat each other. It is not how the majority of people treat each other.

I also make a point of congratulating myself/treating myself for each time I stand up despite my physical fear of confrontation. Sometimes, I swear I can even feel my abuser's hand on my face getting ready to hit me, y'know? Even if I'm just talking to people on the phone, or working with people in the office.

Even if I'm scared, though, I always make a point to remind myself after a confrontation that it's OK to be scared. Given the way my abuser treated me, fear and trauma are totally normal. And I'm awesome for getting through that. And I'm even more awesome today for _______________[insert description of what I managed to do despite my fear.]

And then I buy myself a bottle of sparkly-ass nail polish. :D Feel free to substitute your treat of choice. :D
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:21 AM on February 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

When Anger Scares You: How to Overcome Your Fear of Conflict and Express Your Anger in Healthy Ways is a wonderful book that has good, concrete suggestions for how to physically and mentally take care of yourself when dealing with anger, your own or someone else's.
posted by jaguar at 8:27 AM on February 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'm sure you have a lot of work to do with your therapist about the emotional and psychological side of this, but as far as practical things you can do to make yourself feel stronger and less afraid?

Lift weights. And maybe take a self defense course.

Seriously, lifting weights makes me feel like a badass even though I'm a relatively small female. Feeling physically strong in turn makes me feel strong in all aspects of my life. A self defense course could teach you how to handle being attacked and give you the confidence that if you were attacked (however unlikely) you could respond appropriately and defend yourself.
posted by geeky at 8:33 AM on February 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can't address the therapy/trauma/PTSD aspects of this question, but I wonder if you would benefit from taking a martial arts or self-defense class in a safe space so you could get used to being in physical conflicts and learn that you are strong and that conflict doesn't mean the end of the world. It would have to be the right class, of course. Something where the sensei has a similar attitude as that expressed at Fighting Chance Seattle.
posted by matildaben at 12:09 PM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

This might help, the askmefi go-to for understanding your fear, esp if you're a woman: Gift of Fear
posted by lillian.elmtree at 2:53 PM on February 6, 2015

I am going through long arguments with my partner as we sort out the separation details, and I find myself physically frightened and wanting very much to have my back against a wall or be in public, because a part of me expects him to lose it and punch me.

I understand you're seeking more generalized advice, but in the meantime, there is no reason for you to put yourself through this trauma. Only contact your partner through email or a lawyer and request he do the same. The other benefit is that you have written proof if there are disputes down the road.

I would also suggest contacting your local domestic violence resource; even if your current relationship has not been violent, they can often point you in the direction of groups for childhood abuse survivors. These groups will teach you skills to deal with the fear.
posted by desjardins at 4:07 PM on February 6, 2015

A physical discipline is a great idea because it will not only make you more physically confident, capable, and aware of your body and surroundings, it will help with the anxiety by doing something in which you can feel the progress, expending nervous energy and balancing your various chemicals. The idea of a discipline more than a class or exercise is that it will have components of mental and emotional control, so it's not going to be something where you can potentially cause someone harm without the tools to deal with that responsibility. Having been hurt, the compounded guilt that could come with causing harm should be a factor. Something where you use the other person's momentum against them rather than quick reactionary disabling blows that may go off in panic, for example. The ritual involved in regular classes, a group, the changing into an outfit, etc. can be helping towards the other main thing I think may be helpful.

In the way people and animals can be conditioned to fear (learned helplessness) there is, thankfully, a counterpart in learned safety. You can condition yourself to feel safe with consistent training much the way you can condition yourself to have good sleep hygiene or get hungry at the same time every day, and there are a variety of ways and methods. Think of it like how very small children will carry their blankie or toy or some totem when the entire world is a bewildering unknown or how a person has an amulet or lucky charm or having a safe spot like your bed or a mental image or a ritual-- as you have a therapist who knows you, they could help you think of what could work for you if something does not spring to mind or seem like something you can figure out logistically, even if they're not familiar with the concept (it's basically the same as learned helplessness but to the opposite end.)

For example, maybe a regular ritual of making a cup of tea where you are very mindful and present for every moment and it is pleasant, music you like plays, a smell you like, a certain time of day when the light is a certain way. The various elements will then help signal you to feel safe, wearing that scent, thinking of that music, familiar lighting. That's a loose idea off the top of my head and it will of course take time and effort and not be easy if you are having to battle random irrationally occurring bouts of fear, but some people get relief from the promise, potential and tangible elements before the training is set, like, say, having a familiar band of cool rose quartz beads to hold when you start to worry to signal you to stop worrying. You can contact me if you need practical ideas, help, or I haven't sufficiently explained. The research is fairly recent but the concept is simple, it's less fraught than delving into anxiety and trauma therapies, and practical in the sense of applied and pragmatic.

The only other things that might help more quickly are a mindful use of beta blockers or short term anti-anxiety medication in which you become practically aware of your reactions or, if you're one of the lucky ones it works on, hypnotism. With hypnotism, you'd also learn how to compartmentalize your emotions until you're able to properly deal with them as well as general relaxation. There are self hypnosis exercises but it's something else you might bring up with your therapist in case they know of someone or have training and then you can be taught in the process of it.

Good luck. Remember that feelings pass and can be dealt with, and in some cases of trauma induced anxiety resolved.
posted by provoliminal at 7:01 PM on February 6, 2015

This definitely sounds like a trauma response that's coming from an implicit memory in the body. I would strongly recommend seeing a good therapist who is trained in Somatic Experiencing and doing at least a few sessions to unpack the trauma.
posted by tacoma1 at 6:50 PM on February 8, 2015

It sounds like you are looking for an answer in 2 areas 1) physical & 2) confidence. So I would also suggest lifting weights, self defense, martial arts or boxing. I took boxing and the side effect was feeling less physically intimidated or at least I knew i could handle myself IF I were in a fight and increased confidence. I would definately recommend this. It was transformational.
posted by PeaPod at 6:36 PM on February 9, 2015

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