Somatic healing is informed by a bio-psycho-social model, which generally holds the following views regarding anxiety (notice that these are, for the most part, in direct conflict with the traditional medical (chemical) model:
- Chronic anxiety is a form of suffering often caused by avoidance of painful emotions. Our modern culture pathologizes emotions, and many families (though they love their children) did not properly attune to and validate the child’s emotions during development. Therefore, most of us have closed off a part of ourselves because it wasn’t safe to experience it, or it was too painful. That separation causes suffering. When we add in difficult experiences that happened later in life, sometimes severe symptomology can result.
- Anxiety is a non-pathological, temporary condition, not a fixed state of being. The condition fluctuates, even slightly, from day to day and moment to moment. The labels of “depressed” or “anxious” are misleading, because they imply a fixed biological state that does not change. Bringing awareness to the minute shifts within the present experience will bring a sense of impermanence, necessary for healing.
- Allowing the emotions to surface will heal the anxiety. The original stressor that caused the repressed emotions may have roots in our childhood experiences, family history, trauma, or current events. There may be many thoughts, interpretations, and core beliefs layered upon the original feeling, but these are not the feeling itself. Getting beneath the surface and experiencing the emotion in the body can help allow the body’s own natural healing process to unfold.
Healing Mode #1: Mindfulness
Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote an entire book called The Mindful Way through Depression. In it, he details many years worth of clinical studies that have found that basic mindfulness training is effective against depression and anxiety. Rather than going into a detailed explanation of mindfulness, I’d rather give you a direct experience. Take a moment to try this exercise now. Note that it’s best done when you are feeling neutral or good — if you are currently experiencing a difficult emotion or anxiety attack, scroll down to the second exercise.
Pause what you’re doing. Take a moment to notice your body.
Ground. Feel the places your body is being supported beneath you — your feet on the ground, your seat on the chair, or your torso on the bed. Really take your time here. Just notice.
Next, notice your breath. You don’t have to change or deepen it, but become aware of the sensation of breath in your lungs. If you can, also notice the sensation of your heart beating in your chest. Notice how this awareness affects the rest of your body. If you start to feel more tense at any point, go back to grounding.
Notice your thoughts. Rather than follow a specific thought, simply notice the tone of the thoughts and label them. Are they bored, judgmental, or worried thoughts? They are just thoughts. They are not who you are. Do not judge your thoughts, but allow them to simply be.
Now, come back to your body. Feel the ground once again. Notice your breath.
Allow your eyes to wander. See if you can allow the eyes themselves to choose where to go. Don’t think about it, just absorb the sights around you. Notice if there are particular colors or objects you are drawn to. Allow yourself to notice anything organic in your surroundings – trees, plants, grass. Can you feel an aliveness, an energetic connection with it?
Allow the sounds around you to come into awareness. Are the sounds near or far? Are they loud or quiet? Let the sounds pass by you, and notice the space between them.
Once again, come back to the body and see if you can feel your body as a whole, resting. Spend a few moments here. There is nothing to do, nowhere to be except right where you are, exactly as you are in this moment. See if you can offer yourself and your body some love and compassion.
What did you notice? Know that this basic mindfulness exercise can be used anytime throughout the day. It can take no more than 3 minutes, or it can be drawn out into longer sessions if you wish. It can even be practiced piecemeal, taking one section at a time. As you practice it, it will become more ingrained and you’ll find yourself becoming more aware and present in your daily life. Your capacity to hold whatever arises with compassion and presence will increase exponentially.
This practice sets the ground for the next practice, which is only to be done if you feel you can practice it safely and without overwhelming yourself.
Here is a second mindfulness exercise that can be helpful if you’re currently experiencing an intense emotion. The somatic wisdom-way to approach emotions is just to be with them. Don’t try to change them. Don’t view them as a problem. There is nothing to solve. Instead, try to see them as a treasure, a gift, and see that they may have something to teach you. Freedom is on the other side of difficult emotions, and avoiding them will only make us feel stuck.
Finally, don’t attach to the emotion – that is, the emotion is not you. The emotion will not last forever, no matter how intense or entrenched it may seem. See if you can hold the sensation along with the thought “It’s just a feeling. It will pass. Let me be with it now.”
Try to get a sense of where the emotion lives in your body. Feel the sensations that are arising in this very moment. Is there tingling, numbness, tightness, pain? Butterflies in the stomach, constricted breathing, tense muscles? Notice what happens when you focus your awareness on the sensation itself. Does the sensation and accompanying emotion increase, decrease, or stay the same?
If the sensation increases when you focus on it, bring your awareness out of the area of most intensity. Find the edge of the sensation in your body. Try to feel the sensation as a three-dimensional shape within you. With your awareness, gradually back out of it even more. Is there anywhere in your body that feels neutral? Can you feel your seat in the chair, your feet on the floor? Focus there until the emotion calms down. If you need to, you can label the emotion “anxiety” “fear” “sadness” “grief” “anger” etc. as this also helps release some of its grip upon you.
(Optional) Now, imagine a universal being holding you. This can be a religious figure of your choosing, a person from your past, a loving human you have met, or an archetype. This being sees you as you are, and loves you unconditionally. Place your own hands upon your body, holding yourself and offering a gentle touch. Imagine yourself wrapped in a blanket of compassion.
If the difficult sensation decreases or stays the same when you focus on it, stay with it. If you stay open, attuned and present, your body’s own healing process will unfold.
Most of all, when practicing mindfulness, be gentle with yourself!
Healing Mode #2: Movement
Movement is one of the ways our bodies naturally discharge energy. How do you like to move? Choose something you enjoy. Walking is a natural choice, because it’s low-impact, most people are physically able to do it, and it’s something humans have been doing for aeons. Yoga is also a good option, because it synchronizes breath and body movement, and allows for space to process stuck emotions. Free-form dance/movement is my favorite, because it allows the body to express itself naturally. I often find when engaging in free-form movement, my heart opens of its own accord and emotions flood to the surface to be released.
Here is a free-form movement exercise adapted from Rick Jarow’s Ultimate Anti-Career Guide:
Start by putting on some soft music. It should have a rhythm that you like, one that you can move your body to. Make sure you won’t have any distractions for the next 5 minutes. You can begin in a small way, just five minutes. After trying it, you can extend the practice to longer and longer sessions, working up to 45 or even 90 minutes if you like and are able.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Close your eyes. Let your body hear the music, the rhythm. Bring your hands with palms touching in front of your body. Feel the energy between your palms. Heighten your awareness and focus. You may start to feel a slight tingling, warmth, or sense of electricity between the palms. That’s the energy of your body. Now, start to bring your palms veeeerrry slowly apart, but still keeping them connected through the energy that you feel. If you start to lose the sensation, just bring them back together until you feel it again.
As you move your hands apart, start to sway gently side to side. Shift your weight onto one foot, then the other, with the beat of the music. Feel the connection between your hands and start to send that energy back and forth between them. Don’t think too much about it, just feel it. Then expand your expression into the rest of your body. Invite movement. Flow. Move freely through the space, inviting your body to express itself. If you notice thoughts and doubts coming in, just bring your attention back to the feeling of energy in your palms and feel your breath, your heartbeat.
When it feels like you have moved enough for now, stop. Find a quiet place to sit for a few minutes and just feel, and process what you are feeling before moving on with your day’s activities.
I encourage engaging in this exercise regularly, whether that’s once a week or once a month. It can help clear out old emotional energy and open your mind to new possibilities!
It doesn’t have to be free-form dance, though. Any kind of movement that you engage in mindfully is going to have this effect. If you like to walk regularly, try shifting your awareness as you do so. The point is to give yourself some respite from the thinking mind by focusing on the body and your surroundings. If you coordinate your breath with the movement, even better! In this way, you’re combining the benefits of mindfulness with the benefits of movement.
Mindfulness and movement are two ways you can deal with anxiety without drugs. These are not the only ways, though. I’ll go over three more all-natural ways to deal with anxiety in my next blog post. Stay tuned!