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RELEASING THE SOMATIC RESPONSES TO TRAUMA

Paul Linden, PhD
Columbus Center for Movement Studies

Copyright © 2003 by Paul Linden.
This article is copyrighted by Paul Linden; however, it may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-commercial uses as long as the complete article (the text, the contact information, and the copyright notice) is included.

The essence of the body's response to trauma is constriction—constriction of muscles, breathing, posture, movement, and awareness. Imagine walking along, and all of a sudden a tremendous explosion happens nearby. What do you do when you hear the noise? Most people would stop breathing and tighten their bodies. This is the basic shock/startle response. It is designed to create a protective barrier and harden the body to withstand the threatening event.

The problem with the shock response is that it doesn't really work well in handling threatening events. Imagine someone frozen in shock on the train tracks. They are frozen by their perception of immanent death, but that freezing will itself cause their death. They'd be much better off being totally calm and simply stepping off the train tracks.

If the traumatic shock is serious enough, the body will maintain that constriction response on a long term basis. The traumatic shock can be serious in any many ways—from an intense event that happens just once, to a series of much less intense shocks, to a series of intensely shocking events.

The problem with maintaining the constriction response in the body on a long term basis is that it is weakening physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It leads to fatigue, hypervigilance, numbness, separateness, alienation, and a victim manner of being in the world.

However, it is possible to reverse the effects of trauma through body awareness training. By working with breathing, posture, movement and intentionality, you can replace the constriction of shock with a physical relaxation and expansiveness which leads to awareness, freedom, ease, and efficacy.

I have been working with abuse survivors since 1987, and I have developed a large number of body awareness exercises that focus on undoing the somatic responses to trauma. In this article, I'll describe a few exercises that are simple enough that readers can practice them on their own. This will allow you to gain a basic understanding and experience of how somatic tools can aid in trauma recovery.

Abuse always includes some kind of environmental threat or challenge, and this first exercise will help you experience and become aware of how you respond physically to a threat.

THROWING TISSUES

  • For this exercise, you will need a partner. Your partner's job will be to stand about six feet (two meters) away from you and throw balled up tissues at you.

  • As trauma goes, being attacked with a tissue is really pretty minimal. However, most abuse survivors (and also people who've not been abused) find that this mostly symbolic gesture does arouse some fear, but since the “attack” is minimal, so is the fear. When you have a minimal attack, you can afford to take your time to study it and learn about your responses to it.

  • Calibration is important, however. If your current stage of recovery is such that having tissues thrown at you is too stressful, then you can set up the exercise so that the attack is even more minimal. You could have your partner stand farther back so that the tissue doesn't reach you. Perhaps having him turn around and throw the tissue in the wrong direction will help. Or ask him to do the movement of throwing a tissue, but with no tissue. Or have him tell you that he will throw a tissue, but not move to do so at all.

  • Once you have chosen your preferred attack, have your partner attack you and notice what happens in response to the attack. Have your partner attack you a few times, so you have time to examine your reactions. What do you feel? What do you do? What do you want to do?

  • There are a number of common reactions to the attack with the tissue. People being hit often experience surprise or fear. They may feel invaded and invalidated. Frequently they tense themselves to resist the strike and the feelings it produces. Some people giggle uncontrollably or treat the attack as a game. Many people get angry and wish to hit back. People may freeze in shock or panic, and some people dissociate (space out).

  • In describing how they responded to the attack, most people talk about feelings as mental states. They were surprised, angry, afraid and so on. They had a desire to escape or fight back. However, a very different way of paying attention to yourself is possible.

  • Notice the details of your muscle tone, breathing, and body alignment, and the rhythms and qualities of your movement. Where in your body do you feel significant changes? What are you doing in those locations? By paying attention to the physical details of your responses, you will begin to see more deeply into the ways you handle abuse. And learning to notice what you do is the first step in changing and improving what you do.

  • Notice what you do in your throat, belly and pelvis. What happens in your chest and back? Notice what you do in your face and head. Notice what you do with your arms/hands and legs/feet. What happens to your breathing? Is there anything else to pay attention to?

  • Most people notice that they tighten up when they are attacked. They may clench their shoulders or harden their chests. They most likely tense or stop their breathing. They may lean back or lean forward, but it is a tense movement. Sometimes this tension is fear, and people shrink away from the attack. Sometimes this tension is anger, and people lean forward and wish to hit back. Do you do any of these things? Do you do something else?

  • Some people find that they get limp as a response to being hit. Their breathing and muscles sag; or they look away and space out, simply waiting for the hitting to be over. They may feel their awareness shrink down to a point or slide away into the distance.

  • Some people find the role of the attacker far harder than the role of the victim. Most people are not used to attacking people, and survivors especially often find it very difficult to use force on another person. However, one idea might help make the attacker role easier for you. It will help to remember that your attack is a gift to your partner. By being concerned and benevolent enough to attack your partner, you are allowing him the opportunity to develop self-awareness skills. Without your gracious cooperation, he would not be able to learn these skills, and when he faced real threats in his life, he would be completely unprepared.

  • The common denominator among responses of tensing or getting limp is the process of getting smaller.

  • Pay attention to your body as a way of paying attention to your feelings, and see whether an answer comes to you.

  • Why do people tighten up or get limp? Why do you do it? People often experience that they tighten up to resist, get limp to endure, or get smaller to hide.

  • What does this experiment say about abuse and your response to it?

Once people have identified the shock response in their bodies, it is possible to deliberately inhibit the constriction and replace it with a physical state of relaxed alertness. This process focuses on relaxing the core muscles involved in breathing.

RELAXING YOUR BELLY

  • Get up for a moment and walk around. What does your belly feel like? Do you suck in your gut? Many people hold their bellies tense and sucked in. If you do, how does that affect your breathing?

  • How do you feel about your belly? Many people are ashamed of their bellies and try to hide them or make them look smaller.

  • In order to increase your awareness of how you hold the core of your body, consciously tighten your belly, anal sphincter and genitals and then walk around. Really grip those muscles hard. How does that affect your movement? Notice how stiff and strained this makes your legs, hips and lower back and your movement as a whole. Notice how restricted it makes your breathing.

  • By the way, as you try this exercise, notice whether your clothes are comfortably loose. If they are tight, there will be a constant pressure on your body. Your muscles will actually tense up and fight the pressure, whether you notice it or not, and it will be hard to relax your belly. As a general rule, in relaxation and in everything else that will be discussed in this book, it will help to wear clothes that are as comfortable as possible.

  • Now, stand and alternate tightening your belly and relaxing it. When you relax it, let it plop out. Next try releasing your belly—without doing a preliminary tightening. Whatever is your normal way of holding your belly, just let it plop down. Along with softening your belly, for greater relaxation, consciously allow your genital and anal muscles to relax. Was there tension to release even when you had not consciously tensed your belly? What does it feel like to let your belly relax fully?
    Most people experience a noticeable release even when they had not first tightened their bellies consciously, and they realize from this that they had been unconsciously holding themselves tight and that they probably do so most of the time.

  • Try walking around again with your belly soft. How does that feel? Most people experience greater ease, fluidity, and solidity in their walk. And that is how walking should be—not tense and constricted. (Occasionally, people who are very stiff will experience discomfort when they relax their abdominal muscles. That is generally because they didn't relax the rest of their body when they relaxed their belly. If you are feeling such discomfort, as you relax and free up the rest of your body, you will feel more and more comfortable.)

  • Have you ever been told to suck in your gut? That's anatomical nonsense, though it seems to be a cultural imperative. Sucking in the gut produces a feeling of physical and emotional tension and constraint, though it may be so normal and familiar that it is never noticed. Why should we all be encouraged to do something which makes us stiff and uncomfortable? We have been taught that it looks trim and beautiful/handsome to keep the belly tense.

  • Think about it for a moment. When do we normally and naturally suck in our gut? When something startles us! Tensing and sucking in the belly is part of the fear/startle response. Isn't it strange that we are all encouraged to live in a permanent fear/startle pattern? Abuse survivors often tense their bellies to feel impenetrable or to resist their feelings altogether.

  • Holding tension in any area of your body makes your entire body uncomfortable, but the muscles in the belly, anus and genitals are especially important. They are the core of the body and the center of movement and balance. Holding tension in these body areas makes it impossible to relax and move freely, strongly and comfortably.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once you have freed up the core muscles, your can begin transforming your breathing from the shock pattern to a state of ease and empowerment. The purpose for learning to relax your belly was to get ready for learning to relax your breathing.

Before you learn the following breathing and relaxation exercise, you need to understand how breathing actually works. The key fact is that the lungs don't do the movements of breathing. The lungs are passive sacks that allow contact between the blood and the air so that oxygen can be taken in and carbon dioxide released.

The diaphragm muscle is the mover in the action of breathing. It is a dome-shaped muscle that stretches across the chest, and it functions like a piston. When it pulls down, air is sucked into the lungs, and when it relaxes and goes back up, air is expelled. Below the diaphragm is the stomach, liver and intestines, and that all has to go somewhere when the diaphragm pushes down. Flesh, being most water, is incompressible, so it can't be squeezed smaller. It can't move up because the diaphragm is there. It also can't move down because below are the pelvis and the web of muscles that comprises the floor of the pelvis.

When the diaphragm pushes down, everything below is displaced outward, primarily to the front where the abdominal muscles can allow movement (but to some extent to the sides and back since the rib cage allows some movement there as well). This is how infants breathe, and it is the anatomically natural way to breathe, but it is not how most adults in our culture breathe.

In particular, it is not how most abuse survivors breathe. When would someone normally breathe by inhaling high in the chest and tensing their abdomen? When they are startled or afraid. The way most abuse survivors breathe both stems from and maintains the shock/constriction response.

BELLY BREATHING

  • Stand up. Now, put your hand on your belly and notice whether you suck in your belly or let it expand when you inhale. Then touch your low back, and touch your chest. Do they expand when you inhale?

  • Let your belly relax, and keep it relaxed as you inhale. Let the air fall gently down into your tummy as you breathe in, and let your tummy expand. (Of course the air stays in your lungs, but this image will help you feel the movement all the way down through your body.) Your belly should be the focal point of your breathing, but it is important to let your chest and back also swell gently as you inhale.

  • Compressing your belly as you inhale rigidifies your chest and back and creates a lot of tension in your body. However, if you have gotten used to sucking in your gut as you inhale, breathing in a more relaxed. comfortable manner will feel strange. It may be so unfamiliar that you will feel uncomfortable breathing comfortably.

  • If expanding and inhaling is difficult, at first you may have to deliberately push your belly out as you inhale just to get the rhythm. Later you can give up this extra effort.

  • Some people find it very hard to figure out how to either expand or push out their bellies. A way to help with this is to lie down on your back, with pillows under your head and knees, put a fist sized stone (or something similar) on your belly just below your belly button, and concentrate on raising the stone by inhaling.

  • Once you have found out how to expand while inhaling, try standing and breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Don't purse your lips when you exhale, but rather soften your lips and open your mouth gently.

  • Let your whole torso relax and open, so that the air comes in and falls gently down to your pelvis.
    Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is useful for two reasons. It makes the absolutely ordinary process of breathing into something new, which helps you stay focused on it. Also, it is a bridge between an inner and an outer focus. Normally you breathe out through your mouth only when you are talking or expending physical effort. Both those tasks are directed outward into the world.

  • This breathing exercise focuses on what you are doing inside your body, but its purpose is to cultivate an inward relaxation which will allow effective functioning out in the world.

  • Ideally you should relax your belly and breathe from there all the time. However, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is just an exercise. In daily life, you should breathe normally, in and out through your nose.

  • Try walking around as you breathe from your belly. How does that movement feel? Most people feel that their movement is more relaxed, grounded and graceful.

Often abuse survivors feel that holding their breath is the way to push away their feelings of fear and vulnerability. As it turns out, we are much stronger and more resilient when we are gentle and soft. We can handle our pain better when we are relaxed and aware than when we are tense and unaware. This isn't philosophy. It's just the way the body is built, and the next exercise will focus on how relaxation is the foundation for empowerment.

THROWING TISSUES II

  • Let's go back to the tissue attack. It will be the same exercise but there will be one difference: as your partner throws the tissues at you, use what you have just learned about breathing. Relax your belly, let your breathing come from the core of your belly, and whatever your partner may do with the tissues, keep your breathing soft and steady.

  • You can try breathing this way when you act the role of the attacker as well.

  • What do you notice? How do you feel? What difference does steadying your breathing make?

  • Most people notice that they receive the attack very differently when they keep their breathing soft. The attack no longer seems so threatening. They don't react with constriction, fear or anger. Most people experience that when they stay soft, they don't dislike the attacker but can maintain a spirit of calmness. The attack becomes just an event to deal with.

  • As the attacker, most people experience that throwing the tissues becomes a less hate-filled act. It becomes just an action to be done.

  • In other words, steadying the breathing takes a lot of the emotion out of the attack. It reduces the attack to an event to be worked with. And it gives the defender the calmness and presence of mind that are the foundation for effective self-protection and healing. Of course, you may not have had these results from the breathing. In particular, you may not have been ready to use the breathing exercises successfully and may have needed more work before you could steady yourself and reduce the effect of the attack.

  • However, my experience teaching many thousands of people this and other similar exercises suggests that most people will have been successful with this breathing exercise.

  • For many abuse survivors this will have been their first experience of ability. I have seen many people fill with a sense of exhilaration and freedom when they realize that they do not have to stay trapped in weakness and fear, that they can in fact find strong and safe ways of being and living.

Once you have learned this process of core relaxation, you can practice it just about any time or anywhere, and you can use it to increase your ability to handle any stresses, from job stress, to the pain of remembering past abuse, to the fear that arises when you have to assert yourself.

This process of relaxation of the core is just the beginning of the work that is possible with a body focus. Beyond just relaxing and opening the body, it is important to achieve a positive sense of expansiveness and vigor. It is, for example, important to work with how will or choice operates to structure body and movement, and it is important to work with breathing, posture and movement in role plays of assertiveness and self-protection.

If you are interested in learning more about the application of body awareness training to abuse recovery, my website has a number of papers on the topic. In addition, I have published an e- book, “Winning is Healing: Body Awareness and Empowerment for Abuse Survivors.” For more information, go to www.being-in-movement.

PAUL LINDEN is a somatic educator and martial artist, co-founder of the Columbus Center for Movement Studies, and the developer of Being In Movement® mindbody training. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and a Ph.D. in Physical Education, is an authorized instructor of the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education, and holds a fifth degree black belt in Aikido as well as a first degree black belt in Karate. His work involves the application of body and movement awareness education to such topics as stress management, conflict resolution, performance enhancement, and trauma recovery. He is the author of Comfort at Your Computer: Body Awareness Training for Pain-Free Computer Use and the e-book Winning is Healing: Body Awareness and Empowerment for Abuse Survivors.