Yet another Over whelming Day
and what to do about it – Somatic Experiencing
Two days ago was quite the overwhelming day. However, rather than wallow in self pity, I thought: perhaps I can extract a tiny speck of good news from this unpleasant day? I imagine that there are many others out there who have experienced their version of a day that overwhelms them and leaves them prostrate and gasping for air. Of course, while the details of this anguish may be titillating the more important aspects of this type of experience which we all go through from time to time are: a} how do avoid being overwhelmed & b} how do deal with and recover from being overwhelmed. As for the obvious question as to what this has to do with Ecological Overshoot my reasoning goes thus: when people are overwhelmed in their personal lives they do not have the extra bandwidth to deal with the unravelling of the world around them. So now we have that out of the way, here goes!
The Saturday started off beautifully. My wife and nephew went of to work together, even though it was a Saturday – there was more work to be done. [warning sign #1!] I worked on my new hobby – wood carving and wood burning [hint: this is a very necessary type of activity]: – here is my latest project:
After that good start to my day it got even better: I got to visit and play with my new grandson Oliver and have lunch with my daughter and her husband. It was a lovely day. After lunch my wife and daughter went for a walk with the baby. I coached my son in law as he put on his winter tires. During that time I decided to help out a bit by trimming some small branches on a bush with some old garden shears. Mistake. I used a lot of force and then handles smacked together, crushing a fingernail together and causing a lot of pain. I thought nothing of it, as I figured the pain would just go away. [Wrong – things just don’t “fix themselves”.] But the story continues on a good note a while longer. We picked up our nephew as we returned home and shared a lovely dinner. Unknown to us 2 disasters were lurking. I don’t want to get into details but the result was that 2 of us ended up in 2 different emergency rooms. Me, because of my smashed fingernail. Over the hours blood had pooled under the nail creating pressure which eventually caused me so much pain I went to the ER. Four hours later, at 3 am, a Doctor made a small hole through my fingernail to relieve the pressure. No sleep that night. It was not the ending to the day I had envisioned. It took us all of Sunday to recover.
Now, the point of the story is not the ER drama itself; it is simply a concrete example of what happens to all of us. The interesting bit is how do we recover from these kind of days without being depressed and an anxious mess? Right now I am going to focus on a technique that I new to me, one that is popular among those who recognize that the “Great Unravelling” is happening now and that we are mostly [but not completely!] helpless to stop it. It is called Somatic Experiencing. When you read the 3 basic techniques employed you will probably recognize them as things you automatically do. The big difference, like many good things, is that knowing the details of how and why you do these activities raises your level of awareness as you do them, thus making them more effective, and also hopefully giving you a reason to be more disciplined in employing them as our lives keep being overwhelmed by our societal unravelling.
Somatic Techniques seek to shift you from going outside the boundaries of the “window of presence”
Which means you are properly self-regulating yourself
Somatic Experiencing® (SE) is a body-based approach to healing trauma, developed by Peter Levine, PhD.. SE focuses on supporting optimal functioning of the nervous system given the primary importance this system plays in the maintenance and resolution of traumatic symptoms. Resourcing, Pendulation, and Titration are three methods used in SE to guide the nervous system towards increased equilibrium. This is a brief introduction to these methods to give you an idea of somatic principles that I integrate into therapeutic work.
Our brains have a negativity bias, meaning they are more likely to pay attention to threat than safety. This is a survival mechanism. The problem is, that if trauma is part of our history, our mind/body may be responding to threats from the past that are no longer present. Approximately 80-90% of the way our brains detect safety or threat comes from the state of our internal organs (via afferent motor neurons sending messages to the brain by way of the vagus nerve). The threatened mind/body may remain on high alert to keep the system safe based on outdated holding patterns in the body. This perpetuates a feeling of threat.
Resourcing is the practice of inviting our mind/body to attune to sensations of safety or goodness, however small they may be. The process of attending to a felt sense of “okayness,” begins the process of teaching our nervous system that it can experience stress, and then come back to a state of calm. I am continuously supporting clients to resource during sessions. It is preferable to maintain as much presence or ground in the body as is possible during psychotherapy sessions. When stress is high, it is especially helpful to have someone guide us in consciously connecting to resilient states.
Pendulation is the natural pulsation between states of expansion and contraction in the nervous system. This is a basic principle of life, seen in the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, the wings of birds opening and closing in flight, etc. A resilient nervous system is one that can move back and forth between alertness and action, and calm and rest without getting stuck at either extreme. Pendulation introduces “resourced,” states into awareness to help us develop confidence in the ability of our nervous systems to move between inverse states. We can then practice moving back and forth between more and less resourced states.
“In renegotiating trauma via Somatic Experiencing we utilize “pendulation,” the shifting of body sensations or emotions between those of expansion and those of contraction. This ebb and flow allows the polarities to gradually be integrated. It is the holding together of these polarities that facilitates deep integration and often an “alchemical,” transformation.” – Peter Levine, PhD
Titration. Less is more, slower is better in trauma work. Our brains don’t like this, (or at least mine doesn’t.)
Titration means that we slow things down. Because trauma is “too much, too fast, too soon,” we want to counter this in trauma renegotiation. Slowing down looks like working with only small bits of difficult experiences at a time. It also looks like pausing, and taking time to notice sensations in the body that correspond to what is being spoken about. When we do this, the sensations of the body will often move towards completion of protective responses that were unable to be carried out in the past. https://sarahrossphd.com/resourcing-pendulation-titration-practices-somatic-experiencing/
Want to Learn more on how not get overwhelmed? Tell more stupid jokes like the one above. Also there are thousands of websites that try to help those who are over-whelmed – which these days means almost all of us. For example:
Why does overwhelm leave us so paralyzed?
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD describes this attentional hijacking in saying, “Your brain doesn’t just see a to-do list; it sees a threat. It sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into twenty-four hours. Or it sees the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling incapable.” Our response to threat is fight, flight, or freeze, and in these moments of overwhelm our brain might defer to overt avoidance and inaction as part of a “freeze” response.
How might we stave off overwhelm paralysis?
Start small: Mary Walker Baron, LCSW describes this action by referring to narrowing our focus; “If I find myself unable to move away from the enormity of the forest, it’s time to focus on just one tree. If that one tree seems like too much, it’s time for me to focus on one branch or even on one leaf of that one tree”. https://wellsanfrancisco.com/overwhelm-paralysis-freeze-response/
So what can you do? Make conscious self regulation a daily routine. Do less. Do 1 thing at a time. Limit the bad news or negative energy every day. Find an activity that recharges you – every day. Listen to your body – its smarter than your head. Socialize and chat and enjoy life with family and friends. Don’t try to escape the harshness of reality – it will eventually catch up with you. Do Yoga or walk in the forest or… whatever gets you out of your tiny self centered bubble and makes you realize that you are part of a much bigger story. Realize that, when we get it right, life is REALLY, REALLY good.