We are a neck-up, verbal society. Therapy is often Talk Therapy. Talk Therapy can be brilliant to uncover past wounds and associations that have created chronic stress patterns. In my experience with trauma healing there comes a point where if chronic stress is not addressed in the tissue of the body, talk is cheap (at a very high hourly rate)
What does it look like to address trauma or deep chronic stress in the tissues? It starts with silent feeling.
The next time you are reactive and find yourself verbally processing something you have talked ad naseum about before, do your best to quiet things down and take a few slow breaths. Then: relax your tongue. Try it now. Relax the tongue away from it’s natural position resting behind the top teeth, and instead let it float in the lower jaw. Soften the bridge of the nose to help the tongue release. Relax the top, middle, sides, and root of the tongue. Close your eyes until you’re ready to read on, staying with releasing the tongue as long as you like….*
Did you have an experience of an empty mind, or an awareness of your breath and body? Now that you are reading again, you are thinking. Notice what your tongue is doing now. The moment you think a thought, the tongue becomes more ridgid, preparing for subvocalization. Verbalizing and thinking of words is a mostly left-brained event that involves beta brain waves which are faster than the alpha and theta waves associated with healing. The left hemisphere of the brain deals mostly with logic and linear processing, so now you have turned down the volume on the sensory system in favor of forming words. By reading and thinking you are no longer sensing and feeling well.
Because a relaxed tongue is connected to a relaxed mind, releasing the tongue is an efficient and effective way to slow down brain waves and become present with the sensory systems in the body. This is a doorway to somatic work, meaning, being in touch with interoception or sensing your body’s feelings and processes.*
In practice this means we move from talking through our issues to quieting the mind and being present with how those issues arise as sensation in the body. The nervous system response is encoded in places throughout the body and the body is always present. The gut, for example, is considered a second brain tied intimately to the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. If you have gut feelings, an anxious belly, or are eating emotionally to fill a void having the skill to slow down and listen to the gut can help you connect to the present moment to acknowledge sensation without self analysis. This changes the belly AND the brain. Now your mind is working with more present-time awareness. This allows you to go beyond mere self-analysis, thinking, and doing and into more calm presence and power. By acknowledging the body’s response you naturally regulate it. Now when you move to the mind you have more information, presence, and self-regulation to work from.
Think of it like driving along the highway with your friends and seeing smoke come from under the hood of your car. You could pull over and talk about how frustrated you are and analyse why this happened. Who drove it last? Why didn’t they maintain the car well? Why do I always end up in these situations? You could read the manual and hold your head in your hands and continue to talk through your ‘feelings’ which are actually your mind’s reactivity to the discomfort. The real feelings (physiology) are in the hood of the car (your body in this analogy). Instead of talking you could look under the hood yourself to see what the vehicle is trying to tell you. In this case you see the radiator hose loose and if you don’t know how to fix it, now when you get help you are already in active recovery. You’re not just analysing frustration, you’re building understanding and solving problems by connecting to the vehicle (the body). The feeling is a loose radiator hose that is causing dysfunction. It feels hot, tired, loose, and in need of reconnection. Reconnect to the source first, then you can think and talk about how you want to maintain things moving forward with less reactivity.
At first words can help us give voice to suppressed experiences and can offer insights through the power of acknowledgment and cognition. We love to talk things out. We want to ‘be heard’. However sometimes the act of verbalizing our past wounds can reactivate them. When people get lost in the words they run into loops of stories told many times over. The reactivation of uncomfortable feelings in the body makes the words tumble out faster sometimes causing dissociation from the body. Our instinct is to ask people to talk more about what’s coming up. To be a ‘good listener’. In a therapeutic process it can be deeply powerful to stop that runaway train once the experience has been named to allow silence to feel the bodily sensations associated with the content arising. We might feel better after rambling to a good listener, but the nervous system did not unlearn the patterns. The radiator hose is still loose. Being silent with sensation acknowledges the root of reactivity, and gives us the slower brain waves needed to regulate those sensations internally. This shifts the patterns.
Unresolved chronic stress can cause digestive issues, imbalances in the adrenals and the immune system, disordered breathing patterns, anxiety, depression, addiction, and overwhelm to name a few known manifestations. If you take time to silently feel the feelings early and often, you can release the reaction and regulate through them gently. The words you have about the experience change as a result. The language shifts from defining the problem to claiming the solution. Language that comes from self regulation is just that way.
There are many doorways to develop somatic awareness. Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a therapeutic process developed by Peter A. Levine** which guides you to subtle awareness and gentle regulation of somatic signals related to nervous system reactivity. You can also use conscious breathwork to disrupt thinking (where the tongue will rest behind the top teeth for optimal nasal airflow along the floor of the nose above the open roof of the mouth). Gentle non verbal movement like hatha or Iyengar yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Feldenkrais Method or Alexander Technique are beneficial tools for somatic awareness. See the article at the end for more hypothesis and theory.
Sensitivity can be an early warning system that helps you read, regulate, and reinforce healthy patterns of perception and behavior. This is freedom. Freedom to be present with what is actually happening instead of what has happened, and freedom to respond instead of react to the moment’s new offering. With practice what you think and say about your past and present will reflect the physical connection and stability you’re practicing.
Get out of your head and into your body to widen your own stress tolerance by checking out our Membership with Daily Practices to tangibly improve stress tolerance through physical training, yoga, and breathwork. Our Educational offerings including the Skill of Stress contain basic techniques to regulate your own response to reactivity regardless of your stressors and life experiences.
*On brain waves and psychosomatic states; Awakening the Mind by Anna Wise
**Learn more at Health and Human Performance Foundation (HHPF) on IG @hhp-foundation where “Somatic Experiencing; using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy” by Peter Payne, Peter A. Levine, and Mardi A Crane-Godreau was recently posted:
Follow us on IG where we regularly post reels, tips, and information on stress and self-regulation.
Brian MacKenzie: @_brianmackenzie
Emily Hightower: @intrinsic_way