As a therapist I am blessed with the opportunity to witness the great healing that comes from, sometimes, major tragedies. One such moment was with a young girl I’ll refer to as Sara, who survived a life-threatening trauma. In the months following the event, Sara experienced heightened anxiety and we spent many sessions developing body practices to reduce her symptoms while addressing the root fears that the traumatic experience evoked in her being. For a time, she was constantly nervous and afraid. A year into her therapy she arrived in my office filled with excitement. She had just returned from her first trip to Disneyland and enthusiastically filled me in on all the details. Her story culminated in a crescendo as she described the terror of riding Space Mountain, a rollercoaster that is surrounded in darkness with only flashes of light. She leaned forward, speaking quickly and waving her hands as she told me how scary it was with great excitement.
As Sara’s story slowed I reflected, ‘you were terrified and it was fun?’
‘Yes!’ and she again described what made it so exciting.
‘So you were scared and it was fun?’ I asked again.
‘Yes’ she responded more calmly this time as she caught on. This was the first time since the traumatic moment she had survived that she had experienced fear and found it fun.
This was a huge turning point in Sara’s healing and she gifted me several insights. The first is that the physical sensations of excitement are very similar to the physical symptoms of fear and anxiety. This makes sense because both the sensations of fear and sensations of excitement occur from a response in our nervous systems.
Months earlier, when Sara was ready, she began to describe to me the details of her trauma. As she spoke, she practiced going slowly and stopping to describe the sensations she was experiencing. Sara described feeling her heart race, a buzzing in her arms and legs, a strong desire to run from the room, and difficulty focusing. She was intensely afraid. We coined this experience a Life and Death Fear. At the time of the event she was in danger and her fear was unfortunately warranted.
As Sarah retold her experience on the roller coaster, she described the sensations that arose. This time she felt her heart race, a buzzing in her arms and legs, a strong desire to wave her arms and hands, to jump up and down, to yell, and difficulty focusing. The major difference between this and her experience with trauma was that she knew she was safe and therefore felt excited. We coined this experience a Roller Coaster Fear.
Often times the focus of my work is guiding people to decipher the difference between our Roller Coaster Fears and Life and Death Fears. For those of us who have experienced a traumatic event as Sara did, or have a collection of ongoing, unnerving or traumatic experiences, it can become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between these types of fears. We begin to lose our ability to befriend and manage our Roller Coaster Fears. And this is too bad, because if we have a desire to expand, to heal old wounds, and to grow then we are likely to challenge ourselves with those Roller Coaster Fears. In my practice I work with several entrepreneurs who constantly live at the edge of fear. The appropriate amount of fear keeps us enlivened and active. Our buzzing nerves get us out of bed and help us get our tasks done. But when we mistake this sensation for Life and Death Fears our anxiety begins to feel out of control.
So how do we befriend our fears and use them to our benefit? The first step is calming our nerves when anxiety is beginning to overwhelm us. Here are a few basic somatic strategies. The key is to find what works for you, so try them out and see what you notice.
- Long Exhale Breathing. Bring your attention into your breath. Give yourself a moment or two just following your natural breath. Then begin a count so that your exhale is twice as long as your inhale. You can try inhaling for a count of 3 and exhaling for a count of 6. If that’s easy, extend the inhale for 4 and the exhale for 8. Repeat the breath for at least 10 rounds. If you get distracted, start over.
Why This Works: There are two reasons the long exhales have an impact. The first is that when we’re anxious or upset we tend to breath short and fast with more of an inhale than an exhale. Over time we consistently take in more than we let go. This breath helps to remedy that by having us consciously let go more than we take in. The second is that those long exhales have our belly begin to draw in and up and make contact with the vagus nerve. That little bit of contact sends a message to our pituitary gland that you’re safe and it’s ok to rest and relax. For more information on the vagus nerve go here: http://www.gaiamtv.com/article/wake-your-vagus-nerve-and-heal-your-body
- Self-Massage and Body Contact. Bring your attention into your breath. Start with your hands, holding them and then gently squeezing and massaging each hand. Move up and down each arm simply squeezing as you go. You can speak to yourself as you go, just reminding yourself that, right now, you’re ok, your safe, you feel scared and it’s ok. Feel your breath. And continue the gentle pressure and squeezing down your torso, to your belly, down each leg. You can add a little more pressure by rubbing. Come back up your body getting your neck, head, and placing your warmed hands on your face. I like to finish with a soft pull on my ears.
Why This Works: Similar to the previous exercise, this one speaks directly to our nervous system. Our peripheral nervous system is made up of nerves and ganglia that expand outside our brain and spinal chord. They reach out to the extremities of our body and send messages back and forth with the brain. As you gently make contact through self-massage, you are, again, sending a message that you are safe and it’s ok to rest and relax. You are also making clear the boundary between where you end and the outside world begins, separating yourself from emotions and energies that are not yours. Skin to skin contact is essential for promoting appropriate behavior and emotional and social intelligence. Self-massage is a tactile practice that comes directly from Brain Dance, a movement practice designed directly for the brain with the intent of improving focus and connection. For more information on Brain Dance go here: http://creativedance.org/about/braindance/
- Butterfly Hug & Visualization. Find a comfortable seated position and bring your attention into your breath. Cross your arms over your chest, so that the tip of the middle finger from each hand is pointing towards your face and your hands cover the top of your chest. Interlock your thumbs. Continue to take deep breaths and slowly tap each hand back and forth 8-10 times. When you are completed, return to your breath and notice how you are feeling. Take another breath and begin tapping again. Repeat the whole process 3-5 times. You can use this technique to build your sense of security and ease by adding a visualization. Bring to mind a happy moment when you felt safe, supported, joyful, or loved. Can you recall what you saw, who was there, how you felt? When you have them moment clearly held in your mind, take a full breath and begin tapping your hands back and forth 8-10 times. Take a moment to notice your experience and repeat the process 3-5 times.
Why This Works: The Butterfly Hug was developed as a self-soothing technique by Lucina Artigas while working with survivors of Hurricane Pauline in Acapulco, Mexico in 1998. It has since been included in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. One reason why this works is called the orienting reflex. Our nervous systems have a natural tendency to orient to new stimuli. If you are feeling anxious and your mind is spinning on a particular story, the Butterfly Hug provides a new stimulus through your tapping, that your mind can’t help but focus on. It brings you out of the anxiety and into the here and now. For more information on the Butterfly Hug go here: http://saferelationshipsmagazine.com/the-butterfly-hug