Those of you who know my work are well familiar with my ongoing lifting-up of SOMATIC exercises and meditations. (Somatic - Relating to the body, specifically as distinct from the mind) The reason I am so fond of such practices is that they are a safe, easy-to-learn and share, and direct way to move us out of both acute and chronic trauma responses. They are useful when dealing with current, present moments of intense stress - and also in beginning to mitigate the effects of long-term traumatic injury.
In the late 1070's, Peter Levine, PhD, (You can learn about Dr. Levine HERE) developed and began sharing widely his research on use of somatic exercises for managing intense emotional experience. It had been known for some time that while traditional "talk therapy" was helpful in offering people cognitive awareness of their situation, it often had little or no effect on their emotional and physical sense of well-being. In trauma, our sense of safety is lost as our body/heart/mind/spirit is overwhelmed internally and we are unable to cope. We trauma survivors often separate from our bodies as a way of surviving the intensity of what we are unable to process. Using somatic, soothing exercises is a way for our traumatized selves to begin to reconnect to a sense of safety. THE "SURVIVAL" BRAIN SPEAKS THE LANGUAGE OF SENSATION. It is through sensation that we may re-claim ourselves and activate our natural self-regulating systems.
Bessel Van der Kolk, in his classic "The Body Keeps The Score; Brain, Mind and Body in The Healing of Trauma" Says:
"In our studies we keep seeing how difficult it is for traumatized people to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. We measure our subjects’ by placing tiny monitors on their arms during shavasana, the pose at the end of most [yoga] classes during which practitioners lie face up, palms up, arms and legs relaxed. Instead of relaxation we picked up too much muscle activity to get a clear signal. Rather than going into a state of quiet repose, our students’ muscles often continue to prepare them to fight unseen enemies. A major challenge in recovering from trauma remains being able to achieve a state of total relaxation and safe surrender.”
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from them selves.” (p.97)”
Somatic exercises offer a way to reconnect with those lost pieces of ourselves.
While I know literally hundreds of somatic exercises - from simple to complex, from whole body to small movements - probably the simplest to share and one of the quickest to have effect in any traumatic or high stress situation is one we will name "The Container". it is also accessible to most bed-bound people, and thus can be a comfort to people as they traverse the often fearful moments associated with end-of-life transitions.
You can read the instructions below and give this practice a try, or, if you prefer the calming effect of closing your eyes and being guided, you can go to the MEDITATIONS page and listen as I talk you through it. (Look for title "The Container")
1. Settle into or onto whatever surface supports you. (Floor, bed, chair, sofa, subway seat. . .)
2. Focus for a moment on the sensation of the places your body touches what supports you (floor, chair etc). Notice where your bones are heavy as they rest down onto or into the surface. Notice the gentle weight of your flesh as it settles toward the source of gravity.
3. Gently lower or close your eyes or close them if you are comfortable doing so.
4. Now, place your right hand under your left armpit, on the side of your body where your heart beats. Feel, with your hand, any pulse that might be palpable there.
5. Next, place your left hand on your right shoulder. Again, feel the warmth and shape of your shoulder under your palm and fingers.
6. Feel now with the left side of your chest, the warmth (or coolness) of your hand snugly and gently resting there. Feel also the warmth and pressure of the hand on your right shoulder.
The right hand, connected to the left/linear thought and action-based side of the brain, comfortably CONTAINED under your armpit, signaling to that "thinking brain" that it may rest for a moment and be still in the SENSATION of containment.
The left hand, connected to the calming, expansive right side of the brain, offering the universal symbol of "All will be well" - a touch on the shoulder.
Really focus on the PHYSICAL SENSATIONS of CONTAINMENT.
7. Notice if, perhaps, you feel a yawn, a sigh, a shake or stomach gurgling, or slowing of the breath; these are all signs that your system is regulating. . .
In trauma or stress, we often become disembodied. Containing and feeling the body helps the brain re-find our bodies. This will always feel like relief.
Again, THE "SURVIVAL" BRAIN SPEAKS THE LANGUAGE OF SENSATION. Focusing on sensation in the body allows enough safety (sometimes it is only a tiny drop of safety at first) that we can cope with the emotions or situations we are faced with.
8. Stay in this position of containment, rest and safety as long as you need to, and return to it whenever you feel yourself disconnecting from your body, or feeling spacey, emotionally or mentally overloaded or simply need to recollect yourself.
You can listen to this meditation or an extended version with more physical actions on the MEDITATIONS page.
Inner Safety and Deepest Self-Connection to you and yours,
Rev. Maya Massar