The Importance of somatic practice in supporting emotional resilience
As one strand of their ‘Integral Activist’ training programme, The Ulex Project1 are involved in long-term, collaborative work, engaging with activist burnout and trauma.
Ulex’s resilience focused trainings2 aim to build participant’s capacity to reflect on and work with their personal burnout cycles, to provide peer to peer support to others and to build more regenerative collective cultures. Together, through experiential learning and shared reflective practices, we are beginning to understand and to prevent burnout, to increase our collective resilience and to develop more life-affirming and regenerative approaches to activism.
Since 2014, Ulex’s training work has been supported by participatory, action research which explores burnout and trauma experientially, by documenting and analysing the stories shared by some of the activists participating in our trainings.3 Through this research we have identified four interlocking conditions that can generate overwhelm, which over time can lead to burnout:
- Condition One; is sustained intense experiences that cannot yet be processed or integrated. By keeping going, without space for reflection, we accumulate too much unprocessed and un-reflected experience.
- Condition Two; is too much to do. Most activists have issues with un-boundaried workloads and most work with too few resources to ease the load. They don’ t say no. In addition, activists are highly sensitised to the multiple, complex problems in the world, many of which are overwhelming in their magnitude and impact. They take high levels of personal responsibility for addressing those problems.
- Condition Three; Too much stimulation. Activism is full of over stimulating, high adrenalin situations, within which it is hard to support ourselves and others to stay grounded. Burnout becomes a risk when we stay “over-activated” (at our highest tolerable level of sympathetic nervous system arousal) for too long and cannot or will not come down into rest. Our adrenal system becomes over-used and dysregulated.
- Condition Four is too much hurt. It concerns our relationship to emotional pain and our ability to stay present to suffering (our own and that of others) without suppressing and resisting what we feel (also see Macy, 2014)4.
This article mainly addresses conditions one and four, by exploring the role that non verbal, body-based (somatic) work can play in helping us to manage overwhelming emotional experiences. The article will signpost people towards ideas, techniques and resources that could help them to gradually and safely release tension built up around some of the painful feelings that accumulate when we come into contact with violence, injustice and ecological destruction in the course of our activist work. It also explores how ‘overwhelm’ arises, and makes suggestions as to how we could use a daily reflective and body work practice to increase our ‘window of tolerance’5
It suggests two vital areas of work;
Learning to be fully present with our direct, actual, felt emotional experience through meditative and awareness practices6.
Learning to keep the flow in our experience by learning to continuously process our experience alone and with others, thus preventing the build up and emotional blockages that leads to overwhelm.
In sharing somatic practices such as TRE (Trauma and Tension Release Exercises)7, the aim is to support people to process and release emotional material that may be being held outside of their conscious awareness and also to ease the ‘historic load’ of emotion held in their bodies that intensifies overwhelm. We can use trauma sensitive body work to help people process overwhelming experiences held in their muscles and nervous systems, and also to steadily learn how to prevent themselves from getting overwhelmed in the first place. Such self directed work steadily restores people’s sense of control and balance and enables them to retain a sense of agency when working with high stress situations.
Building up a “charge”
High- stress experiences which provoke embodied threat responses as well as activities that expose activists to suffering and emotional distress are commonplace. Indeed, they may occur repeatedly.8 Such experiences, if not given restorative space and time, can do tremendous damage to activist’s long- term mental, emotional and physical health, as well as impacting on their ability to work well together by heightening emotional reactivity and/or tendencies to shut down and disengage from relationship.9
When our own experience ( or witnessing the pain and disempowerment of others10) is too painful or overpowering for us to hold in our conscious awareness and later ‘process’— that overpowering experience literally has to be held unconsciously or semi-consciously in the body until we feel safe enough and resourced enough to look at it, fully feel it, and work through it. This ‘blocking out’ of something that is too intense for us is an important protective response, that helps us in the moment, but it can have consequences over time if the experience remains present but unacknowledged.
The impact of this protective ‘holding’ or ‘blocking’ pattern is particularly strong when our bodies have mobilised our primitive fight, flight or freeze reactions in order to respond to a perceived or actual threat. For the period of time that we are holding such intense experiences out of fully conscious awareness, the charge or energy of that un-processed experience continues to disrupt our thought patterns and to do damage to our embodied wellbeing. This is particularly the case if we were unable to complete an action or response, or if we found ourselves helpless and powerless to respond to what was happening.11 The impact of such suspended or incomplete actions does not go away.12 The energy of this incomplete response and intense activation remains held in our bodies as tension, pain, energetic agitation, anxiety and depressed feelings. It may cause inexplicable health problems and symptoms, particularly around the digestive system and breath/lungs. Besides, holding un-processed experience out of conscious awareness is exhausting and blocks our energy, leaving us drained and heavy.
By having such intense experiences over time without space or resources to process them, we may gradually build up a tense ‘charge’ in our muscular and nervous systems. In our day to day life we can feel this ‘charge’- some of it is ‘historic’ and lies deep in our muscles and habitual tension patterns, some of it is more momentary and transient, as our body responds instinctively to what is going on in our experience in the moment. Much of it is only semi-conscious, and our body can express mysterious patterns of pain, numbness, freezing and ‘holding’ that we do not fully understand. For example, after or during periods of stress we may become aware of deep tension patterns, core muscular contractions (this will be explained below with reference to our instinctive muscular defence, the psoas system), limb rigidity, knots and blockages, frozen areas of numbness and immobility in body parts. Some key areas to explore are the feet, the thighs, the lumbar region, the pelvis, the perineum, the solar plexus, the jaw and the shoulders.
A simple way of expressing all this might be that ‘trauma’ is the energy of intense experience trapped in our systems. It takes up a lot of ‘space’ in our bodies and awareness, and can leave us feeling under-resourced to respond to our present experience.
Understanding overwhelm and restoring agency
Both past and present experiences are active and influential when we experience ‘overwhelm’. Overwhelm, is what we feel when the ‘charge’ in our experience becomes almost too much for us to bear, and our systems shift into a hyper-reactive state where we can no longer respond in a completely conscious and aware way to what is happening to us. Our fight, flight and freeze responses begin to come back into play, making it harder for us to choose appropriate responses. Characteristic feelings related to feeling overwhelmed are disproportionate emotional reactions to small stresses, mental confusion, high muscular tension, trembling, going cold, feeling shaky and numb and/or disconnected feelings.
People close to overwhelm can be very reactive and can struggle to relate to others and to do tasks they would normally complete easily. The temptation when experiencing overwhelm can be to temporarily “discharge” by venting our anger and pain at whoever or whatever is in front of us, which can be very damaging to relationships. It can also be tempting to seek to numb out the discomfort by seeking intoxication or distraction.
Agency is our sense of conscious choice and control over our experience. We feel agency when we feel able to direct and respond effectively to our own experience and to choose how to act. Repeated overwhelming experiences, sustained over time can have a cumulative impact on our personal and collective sense of agency. That is, our felt, embodied sense of power to act effectively. Many people experience burnout as a form of deep despair mixed with the loss of the will and/or the ability to continue to act. Experientially, burnout feels like all inner space has gone, all energetic resourcing has gone and all power to act has gone. It is the loss of a sense of joy in life.
The restoration of a felt sense of agency, is key to both trauma and burnout recovery13. This involves learning how to recognise, manage and recover from overwhelm. A core aim of Ulex’s training work is to build, support and, if necessary, restore this vital sense of agency.
This suggests that being able to peer support one another to safely process and recover from overwhelming, potentially traumatising experiences, using a variety of verbal and non verbal tools, empowers us greatly, helping us to make more informed choices about risk and enabling us to restore our balance when it has been disrupted, helping to prevent burnout. In response to this need for peer to peer support, since 2017 our trainers have been developing and offering more trauma focused trainings that help activists to work more skillfully with painful and overwhelming experiences, including learning to work in a more aware and non-pathologising way with our bodies natural reactions to suffering, stress and high stimulation/arousal.14
Rebalancing and resilience
It can help our resilience greatly if we can begin to support our bodies to release and ‘discharge’ blocked painful feelings from the distant and recent past, helping us to feel more spacious and resourced in the present.
Somatic practitioners teach body based practices and exercises, in combination with introspective work on body experience and felt sensations. Their aim is to increase our conscious body awareness or ‘bodyfulness’ (a word I should credit to Lucia Bennett Leighton)15 in order to increase our level of agency and authenticity in how we respond to life’s challenges. Several Ulex team members are training or trained as somatic practitioners in a variety of fields16.
Our somatic practice so far indicates that tools that can that build and restore mindful body awareness while supporting the gradual discharge of tension, are a vital resource when working to shift and release emotionally suppressive habits and tension patterns that can ‘lock up’17 energy flow in the body, affecting both motivation and mood. Somatic work (in the current piece TRE, or Trauma and Tension Releasing Exercises)18 can support non-verbal processing of nervous tension and emotional pain, steadily bringing relief to overloaded muscular and nervous systems.
So a regular, ideally daily, body work and meditative practice has the potential to help with two areas 1) managing high stress experiences and 2) working with painful feelings. We can use such work both to build spaciousness and energetic resourcing in our body so better decisions can be made in the moment, and also to keep ‘cleansing’ the body of stressful and painful experiences so a build up of historic tension is prevented. This “somatic hygiene”19 enables us to increase our overwhelm threshold, and also to notice more easily and more quickly when overwhelm threatens and to take preventative steps. It is our hope that by enabling greater sensitivity to embodied stress responses and patterns of emotional suppression, we will enable socially engaged people to increase their body awareness, enlarge their capacity to work with strong feelings generated by social action and empower them to change their habitual responses to stress.
There are three areas of burnout/trauma prevention in which somatic practice could be helpful:
in sensing and preventing overwhelm and maintaining/restoring embodied feelings of agency.
In processing unconscious feelings held out of awareness in our bodies.
In understanding our felt sense of space and boundaries, in order to protect our energies and our embodied sense of safety.
Creating space for our feelings
In the following sections we will explore some techniques that addresses points a) and b). Work on boundary setting, centreing and transforming the impact of power/oppression on the body is also very important work, with which many of the Ulex team area also engaged, but there is not space to explore it here. For those readers interested in point c) the following resources will be of use20.
To contextualise point b) (sensing and preventing overwhelm and maintaining/restoring embodied feelings of agency) it is important to understand something about the healing effect of being able to be present to our feelings, to actually fully live them and experience them and to address western, cultural taboos about pain.21
To become more resilient, conditions must be created in which we feel able to work with, rather than shut out or deny our embodied experience. Often, pain is maintained and intensified by our fear of it and a refusal to feel it. We also habitually ‘block’ feelings in order to continue working/responding. Only rarely do we give ourselves space to rest and digest what is going on. In becoming more resilient one learns how to connect with and trust what our bodies are telling us about what space they need to work through emotions and to act from this felt wisdom. Our subjective, embodied experience becomes an important resource in learning how to respond to emotional pain differently. Learning to create conditions in which people can express their feelings and emotions authentically, but with respect for others is very empowering.
Learning to not lock up ones muscles to resist pain, may require a shift of perspective that enables us to de-pathologise pain and vulnerability, as well as creating safe and supportive conditions alone and together that allow painful feelings to be fully felt and respected as the natural human responses that they are. It can be really helpful to us to learn how to be with our pain and rage in a non judgemental way so that we can slowly process and release it22 Things begin to flow as we begin to trust that we can hold our pain if we allow ourselves to feel it, while also learning not to add shame into the mix. We come to accept how we actually feel without judging it. Working directly with our bodies can be very helpful in this way, as the tendency to analyse and interpret can be minimised. Slowly we learn to simply be with what is there, with acceptance.
There are two ways in which this could be approached. One is through the practice of trauma sensitive and somatic mindfulness techniques23 which enable us to sit with our experience and steadily allow ourselves to feel what is actually there. The second is through releasing the embodied tension non-verbally, using somatic approaches to liberate the body gradually from its holding patterns.
One approach: releasing the PSOAS system
Trauma/pain processing work using body based techniques (alone and in combination with talking therapies) is an emerging and important field. Somatic practitioners and therapists work with the understanding that difficult experiences, emotions and memories are held in the body as deep tension patterns and energetic agitation. The theory behind TRE (and other approaches such as Somatic Experiencing24) is that animals and children, when faced with a high stress or life threatening experience ‘shake it off’ afterwards through a process of involuntary shaking and trembling that releases the intense energy that has been mobilised to respond to the threat and allows the body to return to feelings of rest and safety. If this process does not happen (usually because the person was unable to find a safe space or they unconsciously blocked the natural process of restoration and processing), or self protective movements that were attempted are not allowed to complete, then the body cannot release and return to rest with the support of the parasympathetic nervous system. The body remains ‘stuck’ in some level of sympathetic arousal response, which is very dysregulating and can mean a person feels unsafe and vulnerable to unexpected images and sensations as the body seeks to resolve and process the overwhelming experience. This further disrupts their sense of agency and wellbeing.
One place to begin healing processes, is to explore the specific role of the Psoas system in holding traumatic tension25. Things we experience as highly stressful and threatening activate our muscular and chemical ‘defence systems’. One of our key defence systems is called the Psoas system. These are the muscles that enable the automatic reflex of curling up into a ball to protect ourselves when under threat. It is an interconnected set of muscles that is activated and engaged whenever we feel under threat (or we think we are). The Psoas is the system in which we store much of the emotional energy and nervous tension we generate. It is common for people who have painful experiences to work through, to have contracted and rigid feelings in the core and limbs of the body. Key areas are the pelvis, lumbar area, jaw (teeth grinding), upper legs, inner thighs/perineum, and the solar plexus/abdomen. The chest and breathing can also be badly affected.
There are multiple approaches to liberate the body from this accumulated tension. TRE is just one form of somatic therapy designed to release the PSOAS system and lower the activation of the nervous system, thus helping the body find rest/de-activate. It uses simple exercises/postures to deliberately stress the PSOAS system and connected muscles to induce a gentle tremoring/vibration to release the tension gradually in a non- cathartic way. TRE is particularly helpful as it is self-directed, supports people to work with their own experience, is simple to practice (6 body exercises)26, and can be practiced at home in your own space. It was designed and developed to support people who had no access to conventional talk therapy, and can be taught to groups as well as individuals. The TRE provider will guide people through the activating exercises and accompany them as their body trembles and slowly releases the held tension, supporting them to ‘titrate’ (release things slowly and at a gentle pace rather than seeking cathartic sudden release) and self regulate what they are feeling as the process develops and unfolds.
I have worked with TRE personally for several years in order to increase my own resilience and interrupt burnout cycles and I am currently training as a TRE provider, steadily bringing somatic approaches into my training work with Ulex. My own experience is that my personal spaciousness, balance and capacity to work with painful and overwhelming experiences has hugely increased through this somatic work. I am accompanying TRE with somatic and mindfulness based meditation, yoga and focusing techniques. Gradually and patiently my sense of agency and power to work with my own experience has increased, to the extent that I feel I can now offer a grounded and well regulated approach to supporting others with their own process.
Somatic approaches teaches us that it is through learning how to hold more of our embodied experience, without needing to limit, contain or suppress it, that we can begin to live our experience more fully and authentically, steadily becoming more able to live and act from a more spacious, grounded and spontaneous place. It is our ability to stay centred and connected in the face of overwhelming and complex experience that could be the key to more resilient acting in the world.
Embodied resilience is felt as greater flexibility, spontaneity and adaptability. It is felt as a confidence to breathe, speak and expand into spaces. The felt experience of becoming more resilient is a slow process of opening and releasing embodied tension - freeing up a felt capacity for spaciousness and choice around how to communicate and to engage with the world, as well as freeing up the energy blocked through unconcious tension and emotional suppression. It is a process of creating and protecting a precious felt sense of ‘space’, through learning how to sense and establish boundaries and gently contain and process complex experiences, alone and with others. From this place of spaciousness, we can breathe deeply and turn to respond to what the world is asking of us.
2Roots of Resilience http://ulexproject.org/courses_events/roots-of-resilience/ Regenerative Activism http://ulexproject.org/courses_events/regenerative-activism-sustainable… and Resourcing Resilience http://ulexproject.org/courses_events/resourcing-resilience-trauma-2-2/
3These insights are based on participatory research work on burnout that formed part of the ‘Sustaining Resistance, Empowering Renewal’ Project hosted at ecodharma by Col:lectiu Eco- Actiu. www.ecodharma.com. The author was the main researcher and now forms part of the team developing Resourcing Resilience, Working with Trauma for the Ulex Project.
4 Macy, Joanna and Young-Brown, Molly (2014) Coming Back to Life, Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. New Society Publishers.
5 ‘Window of Tolerance’ is a technical term from the trauma field that refers to our ability to work with stress optimally. People experiencing some “dysregulation” due to traumatic experiences have a tendency when stressed to shift to either “over-activated” ( panic, over-agitation) or “ under-activated” ( freeze, passive) states in unpredictable ways that they cannot choose to control. Our window of tolerance is the balanced ‘space’ between in which we can still work with stress consciously. https://www.nicabm.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/NICABM-InfoG-window-of-tolerance-revised.jpg
7Berceli, David (2005) Trauma Releasing Exercises. Book Surge Publishing.
8Our trauma and burnout prevention work builds on the excellent ground work of organisations such as Activist Trauma Support and Out of Action ( now inactive) and informs work such as the Support and Recovery groups in the Netherlands. See their archive here https://www.activist-trauma.net and https://supportrecoveryteam.wordpress.com/
9 See Activist Trauma Support’s excellent resources on how to spot the signs of trauma in friends and colleagues https://www.activist-trauma.net/assets/files/ats_a5_flyer_dec16_rightway.pdf
10 Laura Van Dermot Lipsky ( 2009) Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self while Caring for Others, is an excellent book length exploration of vicarious trauma, Trauma Exposure Response and Compassion Fatigue.
11 Bessel Van der Kolk ( 2015)The Body Keeps the Score, Mind Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma
12 Peter Levine (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books.
13 The best resources about this process, give accounts of the important somatic and trauma work happening in the anti-oppression field. Key authors here are Lucia Bennett Leighton, Rae Johnson Adrienne Maree Brown and the Generative Somatics team. www.generativesomatics.org
14http://ulexproject.org/courses_events/resourcing-resilience-trauma-2-2/. From November 2019 the author will be the key researcher in a project working on trauma, burnout and resilience among activists working on Migrant solidarity, which will generate new written and training resources in this field.
15 Lucia Bennett Leighton, The Trauma of Oppression: A Somatic Approach in Oppression and the Body (2018)
16 TRE, Generative Somatics, Somatic Experiencing, Focusing ( Gendlin, 2003), Somatic Meditation, and Wen do
17 This is a term commonly used by dharma teacher Reginald Ray ( 2014) Touching Enlightenment and ( 2016) The Awakening Body: Somatic Meditation for Discovering our Deepest Life. It describes how tension related to our ego defences and investments can accumulate when we lose touch with our bodies.
18 Berceli, David (2005) Trauma Releasing Exercises. Book Surge Publishing. Berceli has also written several other more theoretical books on the TRE approach. This text is the most practice focused.
19 This is a term used by Hakomi practitioner Manuela Mischka Reeds to describe a process of maintaining a grounded, well regulated, tension free body that is as ‘clean’ as possible of ‘triggers’ . She advises therapists and support practitioners that this is the greatest resource one can offer a traumatised person. She describes this in her training “ From Trauma to Dharma” https://hakomica.org/trauma
20 Rae Johnson ( 2018) Embodied Social Justice. Routledge. All contributors to Caldwell and Bennett Leighton (Edited) ( 2018) Oppression and the Body: Roots Resistance and Resolutions and Adrienne Maree Brown (2019) Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.
21 On this topic I find Reginald Ray’s podcasts really excellent. For example Dharma Ocean Episode 259, June 2019 Pain is not a Problem.
22 See for example Pema Chodron’s ( 2005)“ Start where you are: A Guide to Compassionate Living” for a more in depth explanation of such an approach.
23 see footnote 6.
24 Peter Levine (2010) In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.
25 Here is a good image of the Psoas system and explanation of its activity https://hopechiroyoga.com/the-sacred-psoas-muscle-of-the-soul/. In addition to TRE, Yoga that supports Psoas release is also very helpful to many people.