By Jennifer Delaney, MA, NCC
It was a pleasure speaking at the last brown bag lunch. RMBI members form a friendly and supportive group. In the following article, I summarize the benefits of a practice of presence, and I offer exercises to use as resource tools throughout the week.
Echoing Dr. Bob Scaer’s words in The Body Bears the Burden, Dr. Grand encourages us to remind clients that trauma reactions are physiological and not psychological. When they react rather than respond, there is no point in blaming themselves. Compassion is imperative to heal as clients recognize their programmed triggers, and then, we can teach them body-centered exercises for support as they come into deeper awareness of the emotions being held in their bodily, as well as the resulting “feelings.”
We all know that the effects of Brainspotting continues throughout the week, but body-centered exercises also serve the purpose to help support the client in an ongoing way, so that the resourcing is not just happening in the session. In his book, Brainspotting, Dr. Grand includes a final chapter detailing how a client might practice Brainspotting on her own.
The body can only be in the present. It cannot be in past trauma or future worst-case scenarios. Spending even two or three minutes fully embodied gives clients a new reference point. I give exercises as homework, which expands the possibilities for healing.
The first exercise that I demonstrated at the brown bag lunch was a gravity meditation. This is particularly helpful for clients who dissociate or who cannot tune into their body easily. Essentially, one moves from head to toe, feeling the effects of gravity. It is very simple, but highly effective.
Peter Levine also recommends tapping each body part to feel how one part of the body feels different than another part. I like rubbing and tapping combined. A great book that comes with a CD of exercises is Levine’s Healing Trauma.
Another helpful technique is TRE (Tension & Trauma Release Exercises) created by David Berceli. Local therapist Jeff Jones offers an open and donation based class on Fridays at 5:30 at the Pine Street Church to learn the technique. It is so effective that TRE Practitioner Chris Balsley was invited by the Syrian and Philippine governments to lead groups of hundreds through the technique.
About 6 years ago I began interviewing somatic practitioners, such as Mr. Balsley, for a blog I called Somatic Network Exchange, in the hopes of continuing the project. You can see his interview, as well as interviews conducted with creator of Jin Shin Tara, Dr. Stephanie Mines, and energy healer, Kimberly Jonas, on this page of my current website: http://owlhearthealingarts.com/coach/interviews/
Clients also respond to EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique – tapping on the meridian points. After I teach the technique (that can be learned online), I ask that clients move slowly from point to point, suggesting that they chose one or two favorite points to tap or hold either when they get triggered or as part of their daily morning practice.
Even just taking one’s pulse is calming. The key is that these exercises need to be incorporated, first, into a regular practice, helps clients to sense and then trust their bodies’ cues which leads to recognizing feelings sooner and honoring emotions. I suggest 3-5 minutes. In order to successfully add any practice, it needs to be short. As people feel the benefits, they are more likely to expand the practice. Secondly, if a client can remember to practice a tool, like taking her pulse, when she is triggered, often she will notice that she can think more clearly and take steps to advocate for herself in a situation that once caused her to defend (fight), run (flee) or shut down and not use her voice (freeze).
Along the way to becoming a counselor, I studied a form of authentic movement led by Kimberly Jonas, and I was thoroughly impressed by how effective it was in accessing emotion. To allow my body to move in whatever way it called, and not giving it any choreography, felt exceptionally gratifying and therapeutic.
In Brainspotting, we understand this nonverbal healing to be subcortical. Until we become body aware, we live with a perceived split – our bodies are an experience that our brains are having, which is so contradictory since, as Dr. Grand likes to say, the brain and mind ARE the body.
In my own personal practice, as well as work with clients I have discovered that while people may think they are embodied or attuned to body, this way of being present is a threat to the mind, which is quite creative at distracting us. For instance, one day recently, when I was in a rush to do my morning practice, instead of feeling my feet on the ground, I was imagining my feet in my mind. I was imagining grounding, which is so what it is not – as much as I love my mind.
For anyone who did not attend the brown bag lunch, I am happy to send you the 10-minute Grounding and Boundary mp3/CD that I recorded. Just send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with “MP3” in the subject line, and I’ll send it right out. The grounding exercise is inspired by Peter Levine’s work, and the Boundary visualization was informed by Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotion.
At the brown bag lunch, I read an excerpt from Richard Strozzi Heckler’s book The Art of Somatic Coaching, another book I highly recommend. At the end of this article I include a list of references, as well as some of the quotes that were included on the Power Point or in my talk.
In the February 2015 issue of Psychology Today, there was an article about interoception. The authors discovered that if people could alter their sense of or become aware of their body’s physiological condition, they could be empowered to potentially shift their emotional state. So high interoceptive awareness would be someone who could sense their own heartbeat without taking their pulse or feel the first signs of hunger. Having low interoceptive awareness has been associated with clinical problems including depersonalization disorder, eating disorders, depression and the experience of unexplained physical symptoms, such as pain. An attendee at the brown bag lunch astutely pointed out that often people exhibiting the symptoms of hypochondriasis demonstrate interoception. This seems to be an anomaly specific to that diagnosis, because it is the thoughts about the sensitivity that contribute to the problem. In other words, if someone is prone to hypochondriasis, they will use their keen awareness or interoception to validate their fears, so it’s the thoughts that feed the problem, not the interoception itself.
Dan Siegel promotes meditation as one of the “seven daily essential mental activities to optimize brain matter and create well-being.” Here’s another fact he presents: “The more present we are in life, the higher the level of the enzyme telomerase in our bodies; telomerase maintains and repairs the life preserving ends of our chromosomes, called telomere caps. With the day-to-day stresses of life and the natural progression of the aging process, these chromosome caps are slowly whittled down. Building up more telomerase can help us to be healthier and to live longer.”
People have been talking about mindfulness for years now. Mindfulness is associated with meditation where we become aware of our thinking. But meditation can be a neck up experience and has an element of dissociation if people don’t involve the body as well. Granted, often breath work is a part of learning meditation and breath work is a necessary somatic component. One could also begin with the gravity exercise or another somatic tool.
Somatic psychotherapies, like Brainspotting, teach clients to become mindful of what’s happening in the body. As clients become aware of bodily cues, they can anticipate emotions and use new skills to feel and express them without allowing them to rule. At a recent dinner I attended, neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor said, “it takes 90 seconds for an emotion to process through and out of the body,” but it is the thoughts related to the emotion, or resistance to the emotion, that hold the emotion stuck in place.
In August, Wendy Conquest handed out a list of body-centered “options for spouses.” She addressed using scents. I use DoTerra essential oils, and I passed some of my favorites around to get a sense of how using scents can root one in the body. Becoming aware of all five senses is particularly helpful to clients who dissociate easily. If their dissociation is very extreme, of course they likely have learned to ask themselves the date as well as to name their location to pull themselves back to present time, but it also helps for them to carry essential oils for an olfactory boost.
Jin Shin Master, Mary Burmeister, recommends holding fingers to calm. According to Eastern philosophies, different fingers correspond to organs and emotions. Experiment with fingers on both hands to discover what works best for you or your clients.
It is likely that disconnect from our bodies begins at birth. I often ask my clients about their births and have them find out even more from their parents. For instance, once of my clients suffered tremendous abandonment on a Christian mission when he was suffering from debilitating depression and church leaders would not let him speak to his parents. When asked about his birth, he recalled being in an incubator and the abandonment he felt, so his trauma predated what he thought was his original trauma. This was verified by his parents. He also recalled a subsequent trauma at age 7. Because of the compounded nature of trauma this client suffered early in life, he could easily spin into a full-blown panic attack just by even slightly recalling details about these events. Our sessions were focused on resourcing him; however, once, when he went into an attack that would normally require him at home to smash a door with his fist or take a five mile run, I quickly rushed to my office’s kitchen and filled a pot with ice water and taught him the Dialectical Behavior Therapy technique of dunking his hands into the ice. It worked so well that he uses this at home, sometimes only holding a single ice cube.
As most of you know having someone anxious take a deep breath can often trigger a panic attack because the idea of calming is counterintuitive to a body that think it needs to be vigilant. The spiral of body trigger and anxious thoughts can be broken by finding a way to be pulled directly into the body and better a pot of ice than a broken fist.
I learned why ice is so effective as I was reading the work of Dr. Arielle Schwartz, a clinical psychologist and local yoga therapist, who writes about vagus nerve regulation. But before I elaborate about the vagus nerve and offer you lots of exercises to stimulate it, I wanted to do a brief overview of the autonomic nervous system.
Regulation of the nervous system is imperative for mental health and relies on the goldilocks principle. (it can get too hot or too cold and, therefore, we strive to find balance).The peripheral nervous system has two components: one is the somatic nervous system, which is under our conscious control (like moving your hand) and the other is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) or some people refer to it as “automatic” because it acts largely unconsciously, influencing the function of internal organs and regulating bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. Actions like swallowing or blinking can be controlled by both.
The ANS is regulated by the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, as differentiated from the thalamus, regulates the body’s vital metabolic processes, affecting temperature, blood pressure, hunger, thirst and sleep. It controls the endocrine system by affecting the pituitary gland’s production of hormones – attempting to keep it all in homeostasis. The hypothalamus receives information about different parts of the body via the nervous system, enabling it to stimulate changes that bring systems back into balance.
The ANS is divided into three –Nerve fibers existing throughout your stomach and intestines are referred to as your enteric system (An interesting side fact is that 95% of serotonin is located in the bowels and that’s why taking an SSRI cause digestive issues).
The next part of the ANS is the sympathetic nervous system involved in escalation of everything – heart, breathing rate, etc and this is responsible for our fight or flight response. The final aspect is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming us down. However, in emergencies when fight or flight is not going to help, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in full force, and we experience what is called “dorsal vagal reflex,” wherein the whole system shuts down and either someone faints or and freezes. Until relatively recently people had little understanding of the freeze reflex, only referring to fight or flight.
Back to the vagus nerve. Vagus, is Latin for “wandering” because the nerve is quite extensive. It mediates the actions of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and is the gateway between the parasympathetic and enteric nervous system. It is involved in responding effectively to the emotional and physiological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the nerve fibers in the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around (and if the vagus nerve is severed, the gut continues to function just fine). This is another reason the enteric nervous system is referred to as the “second brain.”
So, vagus nerve stimulation is important when someone is highly activated. Other techniques that stimulate the vagus nerve are: the Diving Reflex, Convergence, Humming, Valsalva Maneuver, and Conscious Breathing. All of these are explained in more detail on the list that follows “Body-Centered Techniques to Soothe and Ground.”
Something to keep in mind while doing Brainspotting: I had a client who was easily triggered and did not like the bilateral sounds, so we turned the volume all the way down, but Cindy Smith also recommended using more activated sounds because the calmer sounds – like taking a deep breath – may feel threatening. For the record, her most recent CD, “Release” is more activating.
To paraphrase, Dr. Grand emphasizes that psycho-education accelerates healing because once something is brought into awareness the brain gets to work makes the changes necessary to heal. We are self-healers. Incorporating somatic understanding can be part of that education. When clients show up it is usually because their pain has gotten too difficult to bear and the thirst for change drove them on a quest for serenity and balance.
When we are embodied and present, free of past triggers and future thinking, we are at peace. What rises is a knowing that everything is perfect just the way it is. There is nothing that we are required to do to be better or more effective or worthy. We appreciate what it means to be alive now, on this planet, in this town, in this body; we respond to what is occurring outside of us, rather than reacting from conditioning that no longer serves us. Even when all Hell breaks loose, and it frequently does, when our bodies are grounded, our internal peace and joy is not reliant on external factors. The experience of freedom is beyond words.
Somatic specialist and body advocate, Jen Delaney, MA, NCC gives this nurturing talk regularly to local groups and organizations, such as TruCare Hospice and Pursuits Wellness and Coaching Network. She teaches body-centered tools that support Brainspotting and other modalities. These exercises can be passed on to clients to practice throughout the week in order to come into closer touch with their body’s language and to navigate intense emotions. A daily, somatic practice benefits counselors and clients alike, creating calm and helping to resource and maintain balance when tough times hit.
As a writing coach for 12 years working one-on-one with clients, as well as in group settings, Jen discovered that writer’s block and other issues were sometimes a result of trauma. Inspired to go back to school and become a counselor, now she sees therapy clients as well as working with psychotherapists who want to get their ideas onto paper or structure what they already have.
Jennifer Delaney, MA, NCC owlhearthealingarts.com
Somatic Specialist/Brainspotting Practitioner (720) 480-5145
Body-Centered Techniques to Soothe and Ground
With an expanded sense of compassion, we can begin to heal our physiology, which leads to increased physical and psychological/mental health.
- Grounding: Dr. Levine’s version is to stand barefoot, legs wide and feet firmly planted; place hands on belly and sense you center of gravity; sway gently feeling the connection between your feet and the ground. You can even take off your shoes to feel connection to the earth or imagine roots growing down out of the feet. (Set an alarm to go off 2-3 times a day to remember you are in a body.)
- Self Holding: (Peter Levine) This calms the nervous system and brings a person back into the body. Place one hand on your forehead and the other hand on your heart. Pay attention to what is going on in your body and the sensations under your hands. Focus your attention on the area underneath your two hands. Stay that way until you feel a “shift” or calmer. Leave the hand on your heart and take the hand that is on your forehead and place it now on your belly. Again, pay attention to any feelings between the hands or sensations where the hands are laying.
- Outside-In: (Peter Levine) Choose something in the room that is appealing to look at. Name two qualities/aspects that you like. Briefly describe the qualities. What is the feeling sense these qualities give you? Now imagine these feelings have a texture or color that could move towards and into you. For instance, if the warm light of a lamp comforts you, imagine the warm light moving into you like a golden stream. The act of focusing on something outside of you helps you to become fully present, removed from the past incident that continues to trigger you – whether the initiating incident is conscious or not.
- Convergence: Functions as a vagal maneuver. Moving from tip of pen to point beyond it on the wall or floor – 3-8 seconds at each spot. “Convergence Brainspotting activates the ocular cardiac reflex (OCR) which leads to rapid, deep processing.” (from Brainspotting by Dr. David Grand)
- Humming: The vagus nerve passes through by the vocal cords and the inner ear and the vibrations of humming is a free and easy way to influence your nervous system states. Simply pick your favorite tune and you’re ready to go. Or if yoga fits your lifestyle you can “OM” your way to wellbeing. Notice and enjoy the sensations in your chest, throat, and head.
- Conscious Breathing: The breath is one of the fastest ways to influence our nervous system states. The aim is to move the belly and diaphragm with the breath and to slow down your breathing. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 10. You can further stimulate the vagus nerve by creating a slight constriction at the back of the throat and creating an “hhh”. Breathe like you are trying to fog a mirror to create the feeling in the throat but inhale and exhale out of the nose sound (in yoga this is called Ujjayi pranayama).
- Breathing: (Andrew Weil) If you are stressed (and not seriously anxious), sit comfortably and take a deep, slow breath in through the nose and into the diaphragm for 4 seconds. Hold for 6 seconds and breathe out slowly through the mouth 8 seconds (place tip of tongue on the ridge on the upper palate of the mouth while exhaling). Repeat 10 times. If you are hyperventilating, cup your hands over your mouth (or use a small paper bag) and breathe slowly. Keep breathing as you would normally to regain the carbon dioxide levels in your system.
- Inhale/Exhale: notice the inhale and pause and notice exhale and pause. Notice if one is longer or shorter and try to make them equal length. You can also physically make small movements on inhale and then be still on the exhale.
- Valsalva Maneuver: This complicated name refers to a process of attempting to exhale against a closed airway. You can do this by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. This increases the pressure inside of your chest cavity increasing vagal tone.
- Diving Reflex: Considered a first rate vagus nerve stimulation technique, splashing cold water on your face from your lips to your scalp line stimulates the diving reflex. You can also achieve the nervous system cooling effects by placing ice cubes in a zip-lock and holding the ice against your face and a brief hold of your breath. The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body. An additional technique that stimulates the diving reflex is to submerge your tongue in liquid. Drink and hold lukewarm water in your mouth sensing the water with your tongue.
- Connection: Reach out for relationship. Healthy connections to others, whether this occurs in person, over the phone, or even via texts or social media in our modern world, can initiate regulation of our body and mind. Relationships can evoke the spirit of playfulness and creativity or can relax us into a trusting bond. Perhaps you engage in a lighthearted texting exchange with a friend. If you are in proximity with another you can try relationship expert, David Snarch’s simple, yet powerful exercise called “hugging until relaxed.” The instructions are to simply stand on your own two feet, place your arms around your partner, and hug until you quiet down.
Exercises to Relieve the Sympathetic NS (fight or flight) Parasympathetic NS (freeze)
Holding ice or hands dunked in ice Outside/In
Diving Reflex Tension Release Exercises
Tapping Motor Acts of Completion
Exercises to Relieve Both
Focus on Gravity
Identify what is noticed in the five senses
Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a Brain-wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company
Baum, B. (1997). The Healing Dimensions: Resolving Trauma in BodyMind and Spirit. Tucson, AZ: West Press
Grand, D. (n.d.) What is Brainspotting? Retrieved June 13, 2013 from
Levine, P. (2005). Healing Trauma, Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Berkeley, California: North Atlantic
Maté, G. (2011). When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, Vintage Canada
McLaren, K. (2010). Language of Emotions, Sounds True
Mellin, L. (2010). Wired for Joy, Hay House
Moseley, L. (2011) TED Talk: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDx-Adelaide-Lorimer-Moseley-W
NLP: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuro-linguistic_programming information from Ken Ward’s site: http://www.trans4mind.com/personal_development/mindMastery/anchoring.htm
Ogden, P. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company
Scaer, R. (2005). The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Schwartz, A. (2015) http://drarielleschwartz.com/natural-vagus-nerve-stimulation-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.Vg3-Fo9Viko
Siegel, D. (2015) Brainstorm, New York: Tarcher
Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2014). The Art of Somatic Coaching, Berkley: North Atlantic Books
“When we face into our conditioned tendency, we begin a process of ending a way of being that has outlived its usefulness. Instead of being ambushed by conditioning, we may feel a sudden exhilaration, a possibility of reordering our self toward fulfillment and not just survival. Our breath is deeper; more oxygen is transported to our organs, we feel more vital and contactable. Because we’re not justifying our reactions we’re more available for genuine contact. People make comments that we’re more authentic and accessible… less defensive.” ~ Richard Strozzi-Heckler
“We must access the messages of the body to complete the healing process. The wisdom of the body will inevitably lead us there.” ~ Dr. Bob Scaer
“Pain is an output of the brain designed to protect you. 100% percent of the time pain is a construct of the brain.” ~ Dr. Lorimer Moseley
“In traumatic stress a series of experiences – or, for that matter, a single traumatic event – can lead to an alteration of the cycle of homeostasis and produce a process that is self-perpetuating even in the absence of ongoing external stressors or threats.” ~ Dr. Bob Scaer The Trauma Spectrum
“Repeated freeze events without discharge seem to be cumulative, adding to a progressive worsening of posttraumatic symptoms and to the development of progressive helplessness in the face of threat.”
Peter Levine, Founder of Somatic Experiencing, Waking the Tiger
“This very body that we have that is sitting here right now… with its aches and its pleasures… is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.” ~ Pema Chodron
“The body isn’t usually seen as something to celebrate; it is often treated as something to master, escape, tolerate or subdue.” ~ Karla McLaren
“The neocortex cannot heal that which is stored in the nonverbal realm of the subcortex.” ~ Dr. David Grand
The word somatics derives from Greek somatikos, which signifies the living, aware, bodily person or “living body in its wholeness.” The notion of a unified who individual was part of early Greek thinking. Somatic psychology then studies the interface of mind/body-brain relationship, believing that they affect one another intimately.
Emotions are the “evolutionary biological intelligence or the raw instinctual reactions….Feelings are what our conscious mind offers, a perceptual take on what is happening to us.” ~ Dr. Antonio Damasio
“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” ~ Psychology Today website
“A key player in the body-mind connection, the vagus nerve is behind your gut instinct, the knot in your throat, and the sparkle in your smile. You can think of the vagus nerve as a two-way radio communication system helping you stay in touch with your sensations and emotions. What happens in vagus definitely doesn’t stay in vagus.” ~ Dr. Arielle Schwartz
“Emotions are not the enemy; they are necessary – even when they are uncomfortable or socially inappropriate. They are a part of your psyche, your neural network, your socialization, and humanity. Strong emotions increase people’s ability to stay focused in their own bodies…the upwelling of powerful emotions [is] the human version of the kicking, trembling, and struggling that animals do when they come back to their bodies after a trauma.” ~ Karla McLaren