Framing: Life’s Magic Wand (for better or worse)
Many unimaginable cases came across my desk when I was an SVU prosecutor. One, in particular, is etched in my mind. A young girl of about six was forced to live in a war zone. That’s right: forced to live in a war zone. She awoke every morning to shrieks and screams, the knowledge that bombs were exploding around her, killing her neighbors and friends. She was lucky to wake up at all. At her very young age, she was taught that the enemy was constantly sweeping the area looking for her and her family to take them away and hurt them. To kill them. She was accustomed to hiding in her home and holding and aiming a rifle for protection.
Now here’s the kicker: this young girl grew up in a prosperous, reasonably peaceful city in the US. There was no actual war. Nevertheless, her fear was real. The trauma was real. You see, her mother was constantly strung out on meth and truly believed she was in the midst of an active war. To “protect” her daughter, she told her and trained her about this “war.” It was, unfortunately, psychological abuse of an epic proportion.
Now, you’ve probably heard that fear is felt in the amygdala, which then spurs the fight, flight, or freeze response, and that that response, in turn, is what keeps you alive in dangerous situations.
It turns out this is only partly true. The amygdala does react to danger — or perceived danger — but that doesn’t mean it feels fear. More likely, fear is actually felt in the neocortex, a part of the mammalian brain responsible for several complex functions, a part of the brain associated with conscious thought.
The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated.
Your conscious brain feels the fear. The amygdala simply makes your body react. Consequently, the way you frame your experiences can affect your physiological responses and, in turn, the level of stress your body has to deal with.
This issue is close to home for me because of the way I ended up framing an experience I had when I was young. An intruder broke into my home and attempted to sexually assault me. I was twelve. Unfortunately, the worst part of that abuse came through the false teachings of my past religion which detrimentally affected the way I framed that experience. One teaching said that sexual abuse stemmed from pornography use. Another teaching said that pornography should be treated exactly like the plague. A third teaching explained that approximately 80% of the men around me used pornography. Enter my own personal war zone.
I have since looked at the best science we have to date about pornography, and I see that, from what we know so far, there’s actually more danger in encouraging secrecy and shame than there is in pornography. Now, don’t get me wrong, some pornography creation stems from non-consent and inhumane business tyrants. But much is simply a tool to use to celebrate an innate human expression. There is no known causal correlation between pornography use and perpetrating sexual crimes.
I was living in a reasonably peaceful city in the US, but I thought I was in a war zone. And the trauma was real.
Consequently, despite therapy and redirection (which have done wonders at healing and reducing this), my body still sometimes reacts like a bomb is going off.
There is a bright side to this dichotomy, of course. It’s one I practice nearly every morning through meditation. If the way we frame things can literally induce feelings of war at times of peace, perhaps it can induce feelings of peace in times of war.
Hell or Heaven might be just as much in the mind as in reality. To that end, the mind might be a magic wand with which we can do great good or great harm. I vote we keep studying this phenomenon.
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