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Trauma Informed Somatic Hacking: How to bypass the mind and access the healing power of your body.

Updated: Dec 5, 2023






This article was originally featured in the October Edition of OmYoga Magazine 2022


Those of us who practice yoga know the power of movement, but learning to tap the healing power of the body moment to moment is a very different skill. We live in a world that is mind centric – we even refer to anxiety, depression, addiction, and low self-esteem as “mental health” issues. The idea that we can change how we feel by changing the way we think has been heavily propagated over recent decades. Although there is undoubtedly a psychological aspect to these issues and a cognitive approach is useful to a degree, most of these symptoms are more somatically driven (body based) than we might think.


To apply a somatic approach wisely, we need to know a little about the autonomic nervous system (ANS). I promise not to get too science heavy, but it’s important, so bear with me. The autonomic nervous system has two branches, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. In yogic terms we understand these as Ida and Pingala - the Feminine and Masculine channels. The parasympathetic side acts like the brake - cooling, calming, slowing, soothing. The sympathetic side is our accelerator, activating and energising. It provides our get up and go and what we call our “fight or flight” mechanisms. When the ANS is relaxed, stable and both branches are in balance, we feel calm, creative, compassionate, alive and connected to ourselves, others, and the world around us. In this state known as ventral vagal we have an excellent sense of perspective – akin to what we might call witness consciousness - and tend not to feel too overwhelmed even by challenging circumstances or emotions.


When the system is stuck in a stressed state, the sympathetic adrenaline producing side of the nervous system stays in overdrive. This suspends us in what we call sympathetic dominance which manifests as anxiety-based symptoms – worry, addictive patterns, overthinking, restlessness, insecurity, digestive problems and so on. Our fight response can make us shout when we don’t mean to and our flight response can cause us to scroll avoidantly on our phone or run away from confrontation, obsessively pleasing, and swallowing our needs.


It isn’t sustainable for the body to stay in this state so invariably it will periodically go in to collapse. In this state, known as dorsal vagal, we experience symptoms like fatigue, depression, shame, voicelessness, the feeling of being stuck, trapped, or not having a choice, as well as low blood pressure and metabolic issues.


Most of us don’t realise how dysregulated our nervous systems are because we don’t have any experience of what it is like to be in balance, to feel authentically energised and at ease in our bodies. Some of the stress we experience is because of current life pressures – the modern world is undeniably demanding. However, most of our stored stress and nervous system dysregulation tracks back to traumas of varying kinds. In the words of Dr Peter Levine “Trauma is a fact of life”. Some of us have experienced acute trauma, for others the trauma is harder to see without a well-trained eye to assist us. What is important to understand is that even if we were well loved, very few of us grew up in emotionally healthy homes. Our parents were dysregulated and therefore so are we – we inherited their stress. I remember a wise and kindly doctor once telling me I was suffering with acute anxiety and responding with “Not at all! I feel so good at the moment!” It took me another decade to understand how right he had been and to discover that almost all of my symptoms – anxiety, depression, eating disorders and addictions - were related to acute states of emotional disturbance and stress I had simply become accustomed to living with.


There are many ways we can learn to master the art of nervous system regulation and train our bodies to rest in a more relaxed state, but here are a few simple somatic hacks to get you started.


Please note that we often need to work with the body gently. Using the voice for example has a very soothing effect on the nervous system and can be incredibly healing for those of us who struggle to express ourselves. Equally, it can feel quite frightening to work with even simple sounds like sighing because the silence has served to protect us at some earlier stage in our life. So, although these tips are superficially simple, go easy and don’t hesitate to seek the support of a professional if need be. Hacks are useful, but the real healing also isn’t something that we can usually shortcut.


1. SOFTEN

In a stressed or collapsed nervous system state the muscles in the body are tense. Noticing how often throughout a day you are holding subtle tension and simply letting it go – softening - flicks the switch of your nervous system and allows it to move back toward ventral vagal balance. Softening isn’t about trying to synthesise a relaxed state – it’s about creating room for the feelings. We might be stressed, but we aren’t stressed about being stressed – softening allows a felt sense of space. Rather than letting the tension build, we begin to interrupt the accumulation of stress simply by relaxing the muscles in our body every time we notice we are triggered.


2. RUN!

Running on the spot discharges a huge amount of energy and allows us to access a healthy flight response. Rather than running from our feelings in addictive behaviours or obsessive thought loops – we literally run, hard and fast, for about 30-60 seconds. When we struggle with anxiety-based symptoms, we often focus too much on trying to soothe the feeling rather than allowing it to express and discharge itself. Equally if our nervous system is in collapse and we suffer with fatigue, depression, or feelings of being stuck, then the thing that feels the hardest is the fastest way to create change - we have to move. Running on the spot breaks us out of immobilisation and moves us back toward healthy activation.


3. THROW A FEW PUNCHES

We tend to think of our fight response and anger-based symptoms as being inherently bad, but they aren’t. Our fight response is vital – it exists to defend and protect us. I often say that anger is self-love in the making - the beginning of boundaries. When we feel frightened, insecure, or disempowered, spending a minute or so each day throwing some strong punches is very healing and begins to connect us with the aspect of ourselves that feels capable, strong, and decisive. Equally if we have an overactive fight response and are excessively tetchy or feel angry a lot of the time, it is important we learn to listen to that emotion and channel it somatically in healthy ways.


4. TAKE A POSTURE OF SURRENDER

When the nervous system is in hyperdrive it can be incredibly hard to stop or slow down. I never start clients off by saying “do 20 minutes of yoga or 10 minutes of meditation a day”. First I teach them to find the gap, to simply introduce the nervous system to the experience of space. If you ever feel stressed, overwhelmed, or notice that you struggle to just be, practice taking a posture of surrender for just one or two minutes a few times a day. Hang forward like a rag doll, lie down on the floor savasana style or take a child’s pose with the forehead to the floor with the palms upturned. Breath. You will notice this is a lot easier than sitting for a few minutes. The postures themselves generate feelings of relief.


5. PUT YOUR HAND ON YOUR HEART

When we are suffering the impact of emotional trauma a lot of our symptoms are connected to repressed emotions and the fear of feeling. Over years of personal process and working with others I have also noticed that we also mostly think what we feel - which isn’t possible: feelings are felt and they live in the body, not the head. We tend to think ourselves in circles. So, when we notice we feel out of sorts in any way, just placing a hand on our heart will bring our awareness out of the head and down into the body. We might ask ourselves quietly “what am I feeling” or “how am I really?” It also encourages us to let go of shame-based attitudes and the inner critic and teaches us to have a more tender and compassionate approach to ourselves.


Aimee Rai is a trauma specialist and holistic practitioner. She is the creator of Soul Medicine Somatics©, TIIA© Therapy & The Founder of our school. You can learn more about her personal work at www.aimeerai.com






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