Article by Rachel Preibisch
Stress is an experience shared and understood by individuals everywhere. It is familiar to each of us whether we face it from societal expectations, the busy structure and demands of our lives, or as the result of traumatic experiences. The external causes of stress and the bodily manifestations of stress are entirely different things. One is a subjective experience and unique to each person: What one person may be able to endure without feeling stressed may be related to genetics, generational occurrences, and events; and the catalyst for stress is different for each individual. Meanwhile, the physical manifestation of stress is more objective, a lived physical experience. Thanks to research, we are able to understand how stress works and can explore methods of addressing and coping with it.
Dr. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, defines stress as a stimulus, and persistent malfunctioning of the nervous system is the essence of the stress or trauma state. He describes the “inability of the complex, dynamical system of the autonomic nervous system to recover to normal functionality[i]” as a hallmark of stress. While not all stress is trauma-related, stress can affect us on a physical level in ways similar to trauma. Common physical manifestations of stress include being on edge, experiencing sleep disturbance, irritable bowel and other gut problems, pain, depression, and headaches. In the face of an ongoing or intense stress experience we may collapse, whether we experience that mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Related to Dr. Levine’s findings on Somatic Experiencing is Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which asserts that mammals have evolved brain structures that modulate social and defensive behaviors. This theory defines three developmental stages: The highest of these is a social state, one where we experience ease and connection. Our second state is fight or flight, which we revert to when we feel discomfort or threat, and finally, we can experience a most primitive state, which is immobilization, and is experienced when we feel deep fear. Polyvagal Theory suggests that under conditions of stress, our fight, flight, or immobilization responses can be activated and respond as if we were in real danger. Understanding what we are going through can help us to respond to these states and calm our overexcited nervous system.
Experts such as Dr. Levine have addressed stress as part of trauma treatment methods through Somatic Experiencing. This is a highly effective method of trauma therapy because it addresses the energy that is trapped within the body when its biological stress response has not been carried out to completion. As Dr. Levine explains, we experience an innate fight or flight reaction in response to traumatic experiences. When we are not able to act, to “run away” from the trauma, this energy remains inside and we become stuck in a trauma response. Somatic Experiencing is useful in processing trauma because it allows individuals to complete their instinctive defensive response through practices related to the body, which allow it to soothe itself through expelling this energy.
When an individual becomes stuck in the trauma response process, this often cannot be resolved through talk therapy or cognitive processing alone. Effective trauma processing on a physical level can take the form of shaking, tearing up, or crying. However, according to Levine, barriers to experiencing these kinds of energy release can come from cognitive appraisal of ourselves, and control of our reactions to events might not take our emotional and physiological needs into account. This might look like not allowing ourselves to let go and experience tears out of the feeling that we need to remain in control of ourselves.
While stress should not be equated with trauma, somatic methods can also be beneficial in the care of self when dealing with stress. As Dr. Levine explains, there is evidence that intense or chronic stress that exceeds a certain level can keep the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems from returning to their baseline state. Fortunately, Somatic Experiencing helps to effectively cope with stress and stressful situations. These somatic approaches to stress are also possible for anyone to practice. In order to effectively do this, it is important to understand that we must initially get in touch with our bodies, and recognize our stress-reaction to whatever we are experiencing. Dr. Levine calls this practice embodied mindfulness, an approach that can help us to change our internal experience, and which allow us to self-soothe and reorient ourselves to a baseline state.
Somatic Experiencing teaches this body-based approach to healing ongoing stress. Examples of somatic models include the work of Linda Thai, who incorporates Somatic Embodiment into her healing yoga practice and teaching methods. In her work, Linda recognizes the effects of chronic and acute stress, and in her workshops she teaches methods on emotional regulation, coping, and connection to the body.
Social engagement may function as a way to inhibit the sympathetic nervous system. Other suggestions for coping with stress in a Somatic Embodiment way include establishing bodily sensations associated with comfort before visiting a stressful experience. This provides an individual a sensation that they can return to and which grounds them.
Mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to approach stress from a Somatic Experiencing perspective, however this can be counterproductive since it discourages movement. According to Levine, if an individual finds it challenging to continue practice, it may be helpful to ask “what does it feel like my body wants to do?” Meanwhile, yoga has many of the benefits of meditation but incorporates movement, a central part of processing stress. Yoga allows the practitioner to notice their body in a meditative manner, and many stress reduction techniques, such as controlled breathing and guided imagery are derived from yoga. Empirical research shows that yoga promotes regulation and resilience.[ii] Additionally, yoga can be enjoyed at all levels either alone or in a group, and provides a rewarding practice that promotes holistic health.