Research shows that humans remember trauma and overwhelm with feelings through their bodies which play a big part in anxiety. I discuss anxiety with clients using the analogy of Cerberus the three headed dog found in Greek mythology. Cerberus, faithful servant to Hades was the gatekeeper to the underworld. The 3 heads of Cerberus to me all have different roles in keeping us safe and for the purpose of this I have referred to Cerberus as female.
Head 1, the reptilian brain – affects our physiology, our heart rate and breathing, it stores all our instinctive reactions and isn’t capable of words or emotions.

Head 2, the mammalian brain – the fierce defender, instinctual but has no access to words or pictures, only feelings, stored emotions and attachment experiences. Once alerted to danger it only remembers feelings, reactions and physical responses without any connection to the previous events. When this dog is in full attack the thinking dog below becomes unavailable or offline.
Head 3, the pre-frontal cortex – the thinking dog that gives us our words, reasoning skills, ability to plan and learn from the past, giving us our logic and facts. When head 2 is in full flow it shuts down head 3 so we cannot differentiate between the past and present.
Cerberus’ principle of protection is rooted in ‘better to be safe than sorry’ so she will always assume danger rather than safety. So what triggers Cerberus? This is where it gets interesting because sometimes she doesn’t actually know what triggers her.


Triggers could be from our direct environment, family member or neighbourhood, not from a particular event, maybe cumulative distress over time, it could be sudden, intense and slow to fade, it could last weeks and months. It may be a certain sound, a colour, a sight, a smell, change in light or temperature, a person, an animal, a time of day, a certain day, a certain month etc.… It’s that awful feeling on waking, feel panicked, overwhelmed, that churning tummy or tightness in the pit of your stomach so you can’t eat, it may be a low level buzzing throughout the body, you probably can’t think straight, have trouble remembering and focusing, you could develop twitches, be jumpy, have shallow breathing, feel like you are looking down on yourself, space out, feel physically numb to the touch, have pins and needles, shortness of breath, go to the toilet more, feel sick, feel on edge, feel ashamed, self-medicate to numb out, feel threatened and in danger (not just physically) and you may want to just run away.

Waking up the thinking brain

So how can we overcome this normal survival response that has gone awry? When Cerberus is in full scale defence she will shut down head 3 so we lose the ability to think and put words into feelings and our nervous system becomes dysregulated. To switch head 3 back on takes complex skills which start with being able to observe rather than react. Being able to say to ourselves “this could be a trigger and it isn’t necessarily something bad that’s happened” is a good starting place. Interestingly it is usually the response of the young wounded Cerberus followed by a part reaction from her teen protector.

Interact with head 1 and 2 by focusing on your breath perhaps using pursed lip breathing or breathing in and out using one nostril at a time which moves you away from fight/flight into your parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest). Go for a walk, the bilateral stimulation gets all three heads back working in unison. Name 5 things you can see, touch 4 things, notice 3 sounds, notice 2 smells and have a drink or eat something. Once all three heads are working together thank Cerberus for keeping you safe and say out loud “I am working on telling the difference between a feeling and a body memory from the past and a situation reaction in the present.”

Gail Donnan
June 2022

Disclaimer: Please do not substitute this information with advice from your medical health teams rather use it to compliment it. If you are concerned about anxiety seek out help from your GP and a professional therapist.

References: Fisher, J – The Living Legacy of Trauma 2022
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