4 Steps to Recognize Internal “Alarm signals”: A Pathway to Forgiveness
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

By: Dr. Susanne Babbel, Ph.D, LMFT

Learning to recognize and respond to our internal “alarm signals” which assess every situation and inform us about appropriate reactions to follow, might help us to let go of grudges and to forgive another person.

A woman, whom I will call Laureen, expressed that she noticed getting upset at her friend’s comment made a day ago. Time had passed and rehashing their conversation did not seem to be the right solution. She believed that her friend had no intention of hurting her, yet her anger would not subside. Laureen explained that she just wanted to forgive her friend but did not know how.

Forgiveness is accepting what happened in the past and what someone did, not holding on or dwelling on it anymore. Forgiveness does not mean denying important feelings such as anger or sadness. In fact, in order to access forgiveness, connecting and paying attention to anger is often a necessary step. Yet people who have been abused or had poor role models in their lives are often not comfortable with their own anger. Because anger was not safe to express but necessary in the circumstances to suppress, feelings of anger were avoided. Not showing anger could be a conditioned cultural response as well.

Ideally, Laureen would have felt comfortable to talk to her friend and express her feelings, if not immediately, a short time after their encounter. However, she wanted to look at her anger and her difficulty in forgiving. Forgiveness is not an act of kindness for others; it is the coming to peace for ourselves. According to Frederic Loskin’s research, holding grudges can negatively impact one’s health, whereas forgiveness has beneficial] health effects.

With a method called somatic experiencing, Laureen discovered that her friend’s comment had triggered Laureen’s childhood memories when danger was a reoccurring theme. She discovered that holding on to her anger was a subconscious survival method -- an attempt to prepare her for a possible reoccurring “attack.” She noticed that her state of anger put her into a fight mode whereas forgiveness would have meant being relaxed and not ready to act. Her session revealed that because her “alarm sensor” did not indicate her hurt and anger immediately, her subconscious decided to hold on to her delayed emotions so that next time she would be ready to protect herself.

Everyone has a built-in alarm system, monitored by the limbic brain, that indicates when we might be in danger or not. This alarm system prepares us to react quickly with a fight, flight (escape), or freeze (shutting down feelings) response. When the situation appears to be danger free, we go back to our “base” state. Over time our experiences form associations so that we can analyze new situations even faster. However, childhood trauma or conditioned cultural responses may result in a delayed reaction of our “alarm sensor.” People can find themselves reacting hours or days later rather than reacting in the moment. Because it was always dangerous or they were not allowed to express their emotions they might have learned to suppress their alarm system.

On the other hand, with repeated trauma the limbic brain might also habitually overreact and perceive a threat when there is not one. For example, a combat veteran might jump into a bush when he/she hears a car backfire even though there is no current danger.

Laureen realized that she needed to recognize her alarm signals so that she could react in the moment.

What follows are 4 simple steps that she used to improve her “alarm system”:

1) She visualized her conversation with her friend.
2) Then she began noticing what she was sensing in her body when her friend made the comment. Laureen became aware of tension in her stomach. It is not only our thoughts that give us our warning signals but our bodily sensations as well. These sensations might appear in different forms such as headaches, shoulder pain, and other physical symptoms. This exercise can also help a person to differentiate between the here and now versus past painful memories.
3) Laureen paused and became the kind observer of her tension.
4) She now knew that her stomach would send her warning signals she needed to listen to. Laureen reported that she felt her stomach again in another conversation but this time she paused for a minute and recognized she was getting irritated again. This time she had the choice to speak up and decided to address her irritation immediately. Her tension and anger were resolved and she no longer needed to hang on to her feelings of anger towards her friend in order to protect herself.

Forgiveness is part of a healing process in which we take responsibility for what we are feeling. We free ourselves of the people who might have hurt us.

Recognizing our internal alarm signals and paying attention to our “warning” sensations can pave the path to forgiveness and, as a result, have additional health benefits.

Follow these 4 steps for an alarm signal tune-up:

1. Visualize the situation that is distressing.
2. Notice what you feel in your body.
3. Observe your sensations without judgment, especially if they bring up painful memories from the past.
4. Return to the original situation or picture another similar situation. Notice what you are feeling. Recognize sensations that signal an opportunity to make a new and different choice. Appreciate your body’s wisdom and commit to noticing its alarm signals earlier, honoring them (not suppressing them), and expressing yourself honestly with kindness toward others and yourself.

Author : Dr. Susanne Babbel Ph.D, LMFT
Dr. Susanne Babbel, PH.D., LMFT is the founder of Integrative Trauma Therapy, a presenter, workshop leader, and author specializing in the area of trauma and post traumatic stress.