For many people who have experienced trauma, practicing mindfulness can bring up painful and overwhelming emotions that they don’t necessarily have the resources to deal with. The focused attention of mindfulness can send a traumatized person into a state of heightened emotional arousal, which can be disorienting and even trigger dissociation. Whether it’s from a single traumatic event, or from physical or emotional needs having been consistently not attuned to or abused, trauma leaves a lasting imprint on our physiology. Essentially, it means we are unable to regulate our nervous systems out of a state of emotional distress.
But mindfulness also has the potential to help build exactly the things that are useful in recovering from trauma: self-compassion, being in the present moment, and being able to self-regulate, and mindfulness definitely does have the potential to help ease PTSD symptoms. We need trauma-sensitive approaches to mindfulness meditation.
Enter: the body. Paying attention to body sensations is a classic element of mindfulness, but it is particularly vital to strengthen this element in the beginning in the case of trauma. Somatic mindfulness can be a way to increase our capacity for regulating the nervous system, forming an excellent bridge to becoming more present and connected, and allowing us to start discharging the shock states that we’ve been unconsciously held in. This article guides you through four sets of five-minute exercises in somatic mindfulness.
Trauma, Mind, and Body
Addressing the physical experience of an emotion is a powerful way to work “bottom-up” to change the cognitive associations of an emotional state. The past few decades of neuroscience research has revealed some of how the brain behaves related to fear and trauma, as well as how this affects our physiological and emotional states, and is in turn influenced by those physiological states. This is a complex feedback system, and it therefore makes sense to try to work both “bottom-up” with bodily experience, as well as “top-down”, noticing our fixed beliefs about ourselves and others, our self-hatred, self-rejections and judgements.
Traumatized people tend to disconnect from the body by numbing bodily experience or becoming overly cognitive. One way to think about this disconnection is that when we’ve been in a situation where we were threatened or where our core needs were not met, the sympathetic branch of our nervous systems gets activated. This is driven by the fight/flight response, and prompts us to try to change the situation. But if that reaction is blocked or not responded to, the sympathetic arousal cannot be soothed or discharged.
Without the nervous system being able to regulate back down again, we remain in states of high arousal, irritability and anxiety, but if this persists, the nervous system gets overloaded. We instinctively adapt by shutting down, shifting into the parasympathetic system’s freeze response. The undischarged emotion, however, stays bound up in the system, in the form of physical tension, alert and defensive states, or collapsed and frozen states. The high nervous system arousal and systemic dysregulation of trauma make it difficult to hold a state of open awareness such as in mindfulness meditation, and it keep us from being present in our bodies.
Steps towards Somatic Awareness
You could try these exercises in groups of two at first, building up to doing all of them in sequence. Try doing them once a week for a period of two months. Whichever exercises you do, give yourself some time afterwards before interacting with other people. Take a couple of minutes to be with your experience. Put some words to it for yourself: are there any different feelings that you notice about yourself now? Then open your eyes and look around the room for a minute, just noticing how it is to be there now, and if anything looks any different. It’s important to have this time after the exercises for you to integrate your altered body-affect state before going back to relating to people.
Begin by standing up, and taking a moment to notice how you feel, how your breathing is, and where your attention and energy are. Notice anything that’s there, and if you can’t notice anything, that’s fine too.
Set 1: Grounding
Heel Drops. Begin by standing, and letting your eyes defocus, so you’re not really looking at anything. Now, raise slowly up onto your toes, and then let yourself drop back down to your heels. Keep doing this at a slow rhythm, imagining that your entire weight drops down all at once through your heels. Let it make a loud thud! Bring your attention to the effect it has on your hips and lower back; maybe it feels as though the jolt loosens them. Try to let them relax. Do this for one minute.
Shaking. After a short pause, set yourself back in your standing position, and use your knees to create a gentle bouncing in your legs. Let your knees slightly bend, and then push backwards again into being straight, creating a soft shaking in your legs. Imagine this shaking can gently rock through your whole body, through your hips, up to your shoulders, and even your neck. Try to relax around your jaw, and your lower back and tail bone, as if the base of your spine is really heavy. Do this for one minute.
Wave Breathing. Stand still again, and let your hands come to rest on the front of your thighs. Start noticing your breath. Now, as you inhale slowly, reach your chin forwards, glide your hips backwards, and lean your upper body forwards, creating an arch through your back. Pause for a moment, and then as you breathe out slowly, let your head relax downwards, bring your tailbone gently under and forwards, and round your back, coming gradually back into an upright position. Do this for around 8 breaths. This is a lovely way to extend and mobilize your spine. As you move, pay attention to the movement in your spine, and to how you feel your weight through your heels.
Bamboo Swaying. After these three movements, come back to standing, and allow yourself to sway gently back and forth like bamboo in the wind for a minute. This rocking movement helps to discharge built-up tension. You might also notice little tremors or shudders in your body, which might feel a bit unusual at first, but allow them to travel through you. It’s a way that the body releases tension.
Checking in. Finally, stand still for a minute, and pay attention to any internal sensations that you might be able to notice in your body now. Is there any difference in how tense or relaxed you are? Does you notice any difference in your legs and feet? Perhaps you can feel them as a bit more alive or with a kind of energy flow, or perhaps you feel connected to the ground differently than before.
Set 2: Quieting and Flow
Grab and Let Go. Begin by standing and letting your eyes defocus. Now, slowly step one leg forward, and plant first your heel and then your whole foot on the ground. Let your weight move forwards onto that front foot, even though your back foot doesn’t actually leave the ground. At the same time as you step forward, reach forwards with the arm on that same side, fingers outstretched. As your foot lands, close your hand into a first, as though you’re grabbing something. As you’re doing this forwards, active motion, you breathe in. Then pause for a moment, and step back again, bringing your foot back next to the other one, and release and open your hand, bringing your arm back to your side. As you do this releasing, backwards motion, breathe out.
Do this movement with just one side for one or two minutes, and then switch to the other side for one or two minutes. Try to keep your attention in the three parts of this movement: your breath, your hand/arm, and your foot/leg.
Checking in. Stand still for a minute. You might notice the swaying from the last set begins all on its own. If it does, follow this for a little bit, and then start checking in with your internal sensations. Pay attention to your body now, and notice if there are any different sensations to before. Focus especially on where there is a sense of flow, aliveness, or tingling. Maybe the flow feels like going down your body, like slowly moving water. Pay attention to that, as if you want these sensations of aliveness to have more space, to be allowed to be there.
Set 3: Breath of Life
Active Breathing. Begin by standing, and starting to focus on your breath. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, use your mouth to make the sound shhhh, as if you’re telling people to be quiet. Make a loud sound! Pay attention to how it feels in the area between your chest and your stomach. Do it until your breath runs out, and then do it again, for around 8 breaths. The sound shhhh is useful for opening the diaphragm, which is often stuck or tight in states of internalized fear, limiting our breathing. Opening it helps us shift from a frozen state into becoming more activated.
Calming Breathing. Now take another deep breath in, and make the sound mmmm as you breathe out. Press your lips together quite gently, and try to find the level of pressure between them that creates the most vibration through your whole head from the sound. Make the sound as long as you can, and then breathe in again. Do this for around 8 breaths, paying attention to the vibration feeling in your head. A humming sound is particularly effective in stimulating the vagus nerve, the main branch of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps an over-aroused nervous system to reset, allowing us to relax.
Checking in. As before, stand for a minute to check in with any body sensations that you might be able to feel now. If there are any tremors, or swaying, or the need to stretch, just let that happen. Can you notice any difference in your breathing now, or any difference in the sense of space inside? Can you give any images or words to the sensation or experience now?
Set 4: Taking Control
Progressive Relaxation. In a standing position, you’re going to tense up various area of your body as you breathe in and count slowly to 8, holding the tension quite strongly. Then let go of the tension as you exhale slowly, counting to 8. To make sure the relaxation part has enough time, inhale again for 8, imagining that this body area is expanding or taking up more space, as if all of the cells are glowing. Then exhale for 8, imagining that the area is relaxing, melting like butter. Do this tensing and relaxing twice for each area. It can be helpful to close your eyes while doing this, but if you’re more comfortable with them open, that’s fine as well.
Our bodies can tend to get stuck in certain patterns of areas that are overly tense (hypertonic muscles) or areas that seem absent (hypotonic). In order to shift these states, we must first become aware of them, and an excellent way to do that is to intentionally create and release tension. This exercise brings some attention to what your nerves are usually doing unconsciously, and lets those patterns start to shift.
Start by tensing your neck and throat. Many of us hold a lot of control in our necks, keeping rigid there as if it keeps us in control of situations. It is a great place to gain back some flexibility, in many senses. After doing this twice, rest a moment. Second, tense your shoulders, arms and hands, a bit like being ready to fight. Notice your muscles, and any sensations of strength in your own body now. Feeling your arms can give us a sense of how much space you can take up.
Third, tense your belly. Many people feel a tense knot in their upper bellies connected to anxiety, while others feel an emptiness or lack there. Connecting to sensing your belly can start restoring a sense of depth of experience, and quietness at just being. Finally, tense your legs and feet. Lots of us feel quite separated from our legs, which can be a source of feeling our strength, standing our ground, or feeling the power to run away if we need to.
Swinging. After all of this tensing and relaxing, do an extra movement to make sure you discharge any excess tension. Stand and turn your upper body side to side, as if you’re looking over first your right shoulder and then your left, gently rotating your whole upper body along the way. Let your arms be floppy, and follow the movement, so that they swing out in front of you and then knock gently at your sides at each end of the twist. You can relax your knees a little, and let your hips join the turning movement a bit. Feel the gentle twist of your spine as you move. Do this for around a minute.
Checking in. As before, stand still and check in with any body sensations that you might be able to feel now. How light or heavy do you feel? How are your arms hanging beside you now? What kind of energy do you feel now?
Disagreements are inevitable in a relationship but they don’t have to be destructive. The key to handling disagreements comes down to the nature of how you communicate your needs.
I break the process of having difficult conversations into three pieces:
Readiness to share/receive. It’s important to consider when you are ready to talk as well as when you are ready to receive communication.
Hint: You are NOT ready to share if one of the first three emotions you are feeling is ANGER. Remember anger is never a primary emotion it is always secondary; so feel it and move through it to get to a place where you are able to deliver messages to your partner without it blocking your true feelings. Often under anger we are hurt, frustrated, and/or sad; try to list out your three emotions.
Hint: You are NOT ready to receive information if your first thoughts are about how you can’t wait to get your point across or if you could care less what your partner is about to say. You can ask to take time but make sure you let your partner know when you are ready to listen, otherwise it will only frustrate them more.
Communicating using the rules of engagement. Here are some pre-established guidelines to keep the conversation ‘in-bounds.’ The top three rules I use in my office with clients are as follows:
Hint: Try to stay with ‘I statements’ as saying ‘YOU’ is full of blame and often sends the wrong message.
Own what you can and discuss how to do better in the future together.
We should be able to learn and grow in our relationship. Remember that we are just people trying our best to get by so- assume positive intent. I ask clients to consider, “What if your partner is doing the best they can?”
Hint: Validation. To valid we try to see the other person’s perspective. We do not have to agree with our spouse to validate their emotions. We just have to show that we understand their perception. For instance, a partner may say, “I can understand that you feel annoyed when I leave my shoes out.” However, this partner is not saying they too feel the same way, which is fine, we do not have to feel the same way.
What can you take responsibility for in this situation? Be genuine in this exchange. I have worked with a lot of people that felt they were very ‘right’ that ended up very ‘divorced.’ Instead of arguing as to why your partner should see your point clarify how you feel and what you need to move forward together.
By following these guidelines, you will learn and grow together and not fear disagreeing.
A lot of misbehavior stems from a strong emotion. Be careful not to be reactive; instead try to connect with the emotions underneath to better understand. It is best we try to help ease a child's struggle by helping them to express themselves in productive, health ways, and do our best to understand them.
Taking a moment to process does not mean condoning "bad behavior" or rewarding it or ignoring it.
When a child is in the throes of a big emotion, their very much consumed in the emotion leaving little room for logic and reason. However, how we respond to a child at this time is usually very logic and reason based. It is as though we are speaking two very separate languages. This disconnect can fuel greater reactivity in the child and increased frustration in the parent.
We must acknowledge the emotion and meet them where they are in order to bring about change.
* Reflective Listening
Reflect back the feeling you are perceiving from the child. "So right now you feel treated unfairly and are hurt and disappointed. Is this accurate?"
This can teach your child a greater emotional vocabulary and help you connect with where your child is at emotionally.
* Put your own emotions on hold. When dealing with these difficult emotional reactions we often get triggered ourselves. Our strong feelings can cloud our thinking and lead us to react impulsively, rather than taking the time to use each interaction as learning experience to help your child.
* Offer cool down strategies. Suggest the child take a minute to breathe, draw, take a walk to calm down so that you can work together on a solution. Getting the child back to a balanced state will be the most productive means to move through these difficult emotions. They may be resistant - make it easy for them by already having a "chill out" spot or their favorite activity handy. You can sit near them or if they ask for space allow it. It doesn't hurt to model the behavior you would like your child to engage in. Don't poke the bear. Give them time. Be a safe person they can come to when they are ready.
Quarantine Proof Your Relationship
by: Dana Hall
With so much uncertainty around us and an ever changing landscape; it can put a lot of strain on family and relationships. We rely on connection, autonomy and routine; however, we find those very things are temporarily not present for the majority of us. These unprecedented times can take their toll on our intimate relationships.
How can you ‘quarantine’ proof your relationship? These tips can help.
Discuss Expectations. No one has experienced this new norm before. How do we pull together to make sure our emotional and physical needs are met along with the new household demands? This can put quite a strain on our relationship. Especially when we consider there exists a gender-bias in our role distributions leaving women generally picking up more of the household responsibilities. This is only amplified during our shelter at home/ quarantine restrictions. If you feel your relationship is lacking equity speak up. Sit down together and make a list of responsibilities and discuss as a team how best to accomplish the tasks.
What can each of you bring to the table to ease the responsibilities brought on by the new norm?
Establish Routines. Routines help our emotional health because they establish predictable events. It gives us structure and consistency which can ease anxiety. A routine also helps forge intimacy when couples support the general workings of the household dynamic. When we wake, have a meal together, take a walk together or just have a date night binge watching SVU-routines give us connection and something to look forward to during times of uncertainty.
What would you look forward doing together each day?
Implement Protected Time. Protected time may seem contrary in that it means alone time without your partner; it is not. When we can step away to do some self-care we come back re-charged and ready to re-engage. Some people require more time alone than others and our need for space should be honored as much as our need for connection. Especially when our interaction is limited to our home it is imperative we carve out time to read a book, take a bath, video call a friend or just take a nap. What can you do to honor your need for individual space each day?
Keep Connecting! Feeling isolated can lead to sleep impairments, lower immunity, depression and anxiety. It is important that you check-in with your partner on how they are doing. Schedule a virtual date night if you are not in the same home. If you are physically together why not have a game night? Go for a walk and make sure you make an effort to hold hands, hug, and keep your intimacy alive. Many organizations are offering free viewings of plays, art exhibits, botanical gardens, and many others are offering free classes and/or lessons. There are plenty of creative ways to keep connecting together and with the [virtual] world.
In what ways can I keep our intimate relationship a priority?
There are definitely things that we still have control over. One of those being not only how we choose to respond to our current situation but how we choose to show up in [and for] our relationship. We can use this time to come together and even heal aspects of our relationship that we may have overlooked. How you choose to respond to life’s challenges together can define the future of your relationship and your bond. Remember, after every dark night comes the birth of a new day together.