This is the third in a series of three articles that use a physiological and neurobiological approach to explain why relaxation is so amazing, and how it allows someone to let go of old fears and be more present. In the first article, which you can find here, I looked at how to understand rest in terms of various body systems, and I described what happens to those systems during the stress and fear responses. The second article, which is here, talked about how people stay stuck in those stress/fear responses, and what kind of physical and psychological effects that can have in the longer term, and laid the groundwork for understanding how working with physical relaxation can allow old fears to be released.
This article gets a bit more practical. We expand the theme of understanding how mind-body techniques effect those stress/fear response, and I take you on an introductory tour of some mind-body approaches.
Now that we’ve seen the profound effect of muscle relaxation, and how it can retrain or reset the nervous system, it should be clear why mind-body techniques are so powerful.
Many relaxation techniques involve learning to intentionally relax muscles. A range of studies have showed that all mind-body techniques that teach intentional relaxation have the effect of reducing sympathetic nervous system and cortical activity, as well as reducing skeletal muscle activity. Some techniques also aim to stimulate the vagus nerve, one of the main nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system. Increased vague nerve activity has been shown to have a range of effects associated with higher parasympathetic activity. I will look at some approaches to stimulating the vagus nerve and intentional relaxation, before introducing a reservation about them in terms of dealing with trauma.
In general, stimulating the vagus nerve and muscle relaxation raise parasympathetic nervous system activity, therefore reducing all of the symptoms of excessive sympathetic activity that I described above. This includes increasing the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is like a kind of super-food for the brain, stimulating tissue regeneration. It helps to fight inflammation and irritable bowel syndrome, turns down allergic responses and in general raises the immune response. It helps reduce depression and anxiety, and helps us sleep better. It lowers the chance of getting tension headaches and painful, tense muscles. It reduces the level of cortisol, helps resist high blood pressure, and helps us overcome insulin resistance. It also raises the levels human growth hormone, sharpens our memories and turns on neurogenesis, helping our brains sprout new brain cells.
The vagus nerve can be stimulated by breathing techniques that involve deep and slow breathing into your diaphragm/belly. To help with this, you can place your hand on your belly, above your below button and just below your ribcage. Try to breathe to your hand, as if you want to open/expand the area below your hand. Breath slowly, which means around five to seven times per minute. You can try counting slowly to five as you inhale and exhale, for up to five minutes.
There are several other areas where the vagus nerve is more accessible and easier to influence, including behind the eyeballs, the tongue, at the pharynx (at the back of your mouth behind the tongue), on the surface of the ear, and on the hard and soft palates of your mouth. This is why breathing while making sound, in particular the sound OM, is relaxing, because it creates a vibration in the ears and around the body. Splashing the face with cold water has also been found to produce parasympathetic activation, shown by reduced heart rates. It is particularly effective to splash your face with cold water after exercise, since exercise involves sympathetic activity.
In terms of intentional muscle relaxation, the technique of autogenic training (autogenic means self-induced) involves learning to self-induce relaxation by suggesting to yourself phrases of warmth and heaviness in the body. Another technique is progressive muscle relaxation. In this technique, you consciously tense and then relax different muscle groups, in a sequence. To do this for yourself, you would intentionally tense each area for around ten seconds, and then spend a longer time, like thirty seconds, releasing the tension again. You could do a sequence, for example, of tensing first your forehead, then your eyes, then your mouth and jaw, then your neck, and then your shoulders and arms. Each time, you focus on letting go in between, and if it seemed like you only half-managed, then you could tense and relax that area once more.
There is also biofeedback therapy, which involves you being hooked up to brain monitors, skin temperature monitors or muscle tension monitors. You then try to influence the activity being measured, like raised blood pressure or muscle tension, which then seems to have an effect on the whole system. Effectively, you learn to exert voluntary control over the autonomic nervous system. Biofeedback also uses techniques like breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to achieve these effects.
Mindfulness meditation is also useful in terms of reducing the activity of the stress response (HPA axis), which has been shown in some studies through measuring the level of cortisol hormone in saliva. The issue with meditation though, is that it can induce a kind of bliss state that bypasses old traumas that are still coded in the body, without giving a way to deal with them, and so further entrenching them being locked into the body.
Mind-Body Trauma Therapies
Learning to relax is great for reducing sympathetic activity, but as we saw earlier, relaxation can also come with a physiological (bodily) state of fear. Some of the relaxation techniques are not prepared for dealing with that. Mind-body techniques that also deal with this fear level include somatic experiencing, the Grinberg method, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), tension and trauma release exercises (TRE) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
Somatic experiencing was developed by Peter Levine, and involves learning to access the body’s inner resources to restore the autonomic nervous system’s ability to self-regulate, and to repair the damage done by trauma. Here, the client first learns to “track” or notice what is happening in their body. Many traumatized people are cut off from their bodily sensations, and somatic experiencing aims to gradually increase the level of activation. This should happen in small steps, so that someone can learn to return from activation to a parasympathetic response.
My work with the Grinberg method also aims to increase body awareness and activation, through breathing techniques, attention and touch. It also uses intentional muscle contraction and relaxation, guided through touch, to learn to let go of tension and gain control over the process of tensing/relaxing. As with somatic experiencing, this should happen in a stepwise manner. The increased level of attention, activation and control are then used for the client to expand their awareness to a larger pattern of tension in their bodies, which relates to the various fear responses (flight/fight/freeze, SNS or PSNS dominance). They are then guided to intentionally intensify and release this pattern of tension, which can involve experiencing fear, rage or other emotions. Here too it is extremely important that this is done in manageable steps rather than big, potentially re-traumatizing bursts.
In the tension and trauma release exercises (TRE), developed by David Berceli, a series of exercises are aimed at helping the body release deep muscular patterns of stress, tension and trauma. This is done through activating natural shaking and vibration that releases that tension – the same kind of shaking that I mentioned above as “discharge”, in the section on parasympathetic resetting of the fear response. TRE focuses especially on the psoas muscle, which is a key player in storing fear-tension, as I explore in this article on the psoas.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was developed by Jon Kabat-Zim and is a form of training that uses a series of exercises to help someone focus awareness on present experiences, and draws on various practices including meditation, yoga and tai chi. You learn to notice the difference between the “top-down” processes, which includes noise of our minds (often critical or involving planning and memory) and the “bottom-up” processes, which are the more primary sensory experiences. Healing trauma with MBSR involves learning to link the top-down thoughts with the bottom-up sensory awareness.
Another method, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), is based on the way that traumatic memories are “linked” in mental networks that contain visual images of the event as well as related thoughts, emotions and sensations. Developed by Francine Shapiro, EMDR also draws on the idea explained above, that events remain traumatic when they were not fully processed. During EMDR, the client acknowledges visual experiences, negative beliefs, emotions, beliefs and body sensations associated with the trauma, and at the same time they focus on an external stimulus (typically eye movements, auditory tones, or touch, e.g. light taps on the arm), which alternate between the right and left sides of the body. By stimulated both hemispheres of the brain, the idea is to reprocess the original linkage of thoughts and sensations associated with the trauma, while diffusing the intensity of the physical sensations.
I hope this has given you some useful resources in terms of understanding just how utterly entangled our physical, emotional and psychological experience of the world are. I’ve gone into some of the scientific nitty-gritty partly because it’s fascinating, and partly because some people find this more convincing. I hope the take-home message is that relaxation is not just about lying on a beach and drifting away. It is a vital part of being alive and present, and you can achieve it through becoming more conscious of your own physical body and experience. Perhaps through some of my descriptions in this final article you already have one or two ideas of things you could do to influence your own state of being. Or perhaps you’re motivated to go out and look for that somewhere nearby.