What Is Somatic Stress Release?

A couple of months ago I took a Somatic Stress Release Certification and have been sharing concepts in my social media posts that I have deepened my understanding with. It’s led to me going down a rabbit hole with learning more about Somatic Experiencing.  What led me to take the training was an interest in trauma after working with a relationship coach and experiencing the value of this awareness for my own healing. My coach recommended any work by Peter Levine so I started reading one of his books called, In An Unspoken Voice. He talks about Somatic Experiencing, which is an alternative form of therapy he created to relieve symptoms of trauma.  Months earlier I had noticed the teacher I took my 200hr YTT through (Empowered Yoga) was offering a Somatic Stress Release Certification through Dr. Scott Lyons.

I found myself feeling pulled towards that certification and once I learned about Somatic Experiencing in Peter Levine’s book, it all clicked and I signed up immediately. Let’s start with what Somatic even means according to Dr. Scott Lyons.

“Soma is a Greek word for “the living body known within”, or known to the Self. This “knowing” signifies wholeness, or an integration between the knowing and the known, and thus we can understand somatic work to be an experiential approach towards mind/body integration, or rather, a re-learning of the embodied awareness that the mind and the body were never separate. In short, Somatics is in reference to the felt sense of our living body. It’s the perception and awareness from the inside.” ~Dr. Scott Lyons

The premise for Somatics is that if emotion and experiences occur in the body, healing also does. I really loved that this work around Somatics was already so aligned with what I’ve been doing in my own personal work, as well as the work I do with clients. I learned so many things that add more value and awareness to my work, especially when it comes to being trauma informed. I feel I also need to define stress, as I came out of this certification with a different idea around what stress actually is. Often we consider stress to be a bad thing and we try to avoid it, when in fact it’s required and even healthy. It’s our ability to complete the stress cycle response, which I’ll get to, that can end up leading to issues.  

“The ways in which we’ve developed our definition for stress creates a lens that creates our reality and experience of it.” ~Dr. Scott Lyons

In the simplest terms my teacher defined stress as a non-specific response in your body towards a stimulus. Something I learned about was the Stress Response Cycle, which includes activation, mobilization, de-activation and restoration. The activation is the charge or visceral response we feel in our body. The activation can happen in the moment when we’re experiencing something, and our thoughts and memories can also create an activation. Mobilization is the process of letting the charge move through your body.  Another way to look at this is through the lens of emotions. Emotions create an activation in the body, even joy. Emotions are energy in motion and just need to move through the body. The mobilization is the piece around this energy moving through the body. This can happen in a variety of different ways and it takes some exploring the impulses to start to trust how that energy wants to move. As a culture we are so repressed and have learned to hold the activation in. 

De-activation is what happens after the energy has moved through, and we’re shifting out of our sympathetic nervous system and back into the parasympathetic branch. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system has received a bad rap over the years, when in fact we require it. I know when I did my training in Functional Diagnostic Nutrition and was learning about Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Dysfunction (Adrenal Fatigue) I believed we wanted to activate the sympathetic nervous system less, while we wanted to access our parasympathetic nervous system more. Something I learned from Kimberly Johnson’s program, Activate Your Inner Jaguar, is that every inhale is a function of the sympathetic nervous system, while every exhale is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. The two need to work together and are always on. The sympathetic nervous system is what moves us, while the parasympathetic nervous system settles us.

“When we experience something that feels like a threat to our brain we will either experience our sympathetic nervous system becoming activated as we prepare to fight or flee. If we feel we can’t get out we go to our parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to freezing, dissociating or collapse.” ~Kimberly Johnson

Kimberly shared that these different parts of the nervous system correspond to our emotional states. If we experience irritation, frustration, anger or rage we can tell that we’re engaging in our sympathetic nervous system. Confusion, disorientation, helplessness and resignation (powerlessness) can show you that you’re responding in your parasympathetic nervous system. The emotions you experience most often can show you where you’re predominantly living when it comes to your nervous system.

The last phase of the Stress Response Cycle is Restoration, which is the process of building back up your resources. Every time we experience an activation it uses resources. We have inner and outer resources that can include family, friends, environment, spirituality, work, community, hobbies, activities, pets, breath, etc. Having awareness of our resources and strengths helps us in moving forward. Inner connection to a resource (grounded feeling) can be used to go into an activation with support. It’s important to note that one cycle of the stress response cycle is the wave of an emotion. When we’re feeling, we can experience multiple waves of an emotion and it’s about learning to ride these waves to completion, or to continue with the ocean analogy, to the beach.

Where things go wrong with the stress response, like I previously mentioned, is when we don’t fully complete it. We can put a cap on the activation and push it back down, never giving us the opportunity to mobilize. This is common with the clients I work with and something I continue to go deeper into with my own journey around feeling. With my clients, food is often used to suppress the activation and self-soothe. We can also just stay in activation and intensify it without actually mobilizing the energy. Another thing that can happen is that we stay in activation and mobilization, but never deactivate and restore. This ends up decreasing our window of tolerance (or as my teacher, Dr. Scott Lyons, prefers to call it, window of capacity).

Window of Tolerance

We all have our own unique window of tolerance, which is the capacity we have to handle stress. If something goes outside of our window of tolerance, we end up shutting down, zoning out, or dissociating. It feels too big for our system to handle, which is why it can be harmful to push yourself to feel all the things at once. I’ve found a more gentle, compassionate approach works best, as it’s more sustainable and you’ll experience less resistance. We can break things down and move through them in smaller chunks, which allow you to fully process them. It’s a good sign if you’re not able to stay with an emotion that it’s out of your capacity and breaking it down would be helpful. We can do this by titrating and just feeling a grain of the activation. Just staying with what is within your capacity.

We can also unpack it and separate it out into smaller pieces that you can go into individually. Shelving is another aspect that can be used when the timing isn’t good or you’ve got too many stresses at once. You would pick one to feel and shelve the rest to come back to. Pendulation is a practice similar to Emotional Balancing that allows us to move between the activated state to a resource and back, which re-trains the nervous system to balance and re-balance when activated. These different ways of gently moving into an activation and allowing some mobilization keep you within your own window of tolerance, while still supporting you in mobilizing the energy. 

Something I’ve seen happen is almost this force to feel everything and I’ve also been there myself. There’s this almost perfectionistic approach to healing that feels like hustle, push and rigid. When we do this, we create so much resistance and I’ve seen this pattern of it creating shame because the person feels bad about experiencing resistance, which only leads to more resistance because they’re not fully accepting their unique experience. I call this the shame spiral. When in truth, they’re just outside of their capacity, which needs to be built slowly. When we don’t complete the full Stress Response Cycle or if we’ve experienced trauma it decreases our window of tolerance. The good news is we can actually expand our window of tolerance by learning to complete these stress response cycles, building our resilience and resources. 

An analogy my teacher used was to liken the body to water. A flowing river has a healthy environment with increased oxygen and nutrition. When a dam is put in the water stagnates. The dam in the body is the stuck emotion that hasn’t been mobilized. This leads to a decrease on oxygen and nutrition among other things. There’s also an increase in carbon dioxide, metabolic waste, which leads to dis-ease in the body. Adrenal Dysfunction (or fatigue) is a hot topic that is often approached from the physical aspect with food, supplements and sleep. If we’re not completing this stress response cycle, it won’t matter and we’ll continue to find ourselves in burn out.

Learning to stay with the activation is a practice and once we get in touch with our capacity to stay, we can start to explore the impulse of how the energy wants to move through. Now this doesn’t mean you ram into a car behind you when you’re experiencing road rage. You want to uncouple the impulse to ram your car with the actual impulse of how the energy wants to move through your body. We want to get under the narrative here and go into the energy of it.  This can look so many different ways including throwing a ball at a wall, pushing against a desk, squishing a stress ball, chanting, pulling on a towel, chewing air, ripping paper, beating a bed with a pool noodle, kick boxing a heavy bag, compression, etc. Our impulse to express is often so muted or repressed as we’ve learned it’s not socially acceptable. We can start getting in touch with the impulse by getting curious and trying different movements, while noticing if we feel a release of tension. Sometimes we don’t have the resources to mobilize and we then need to go into deactivation first and build our resources up.  When we are in burn out, there often aren’t the resources to activate and mobilize. The other thing is deactivation can feel very unfamiliar for those who are used to being in constant activation.  They may think it’s resistance and want to push harder, when really they are moving into deactivation.

Somatics is about bringing more parts of us into awareness. In my training I learned that at any given time we are conscious of 4% of what’s happening. That’s it, and the other 96% is also having an experience we don’t have awareness around. With Somatics the intention is to shift the 4% higher to engage more in what is happening and expand our awareness. This gives us more perspective, understanding and discernment. It’s about becoming more attuned to our internal environment, which leads to better self-care and understanding of our needs.  We’ve learned to dissociate to keep ourselves safe from feeling discomfort and pain in our bodies. When this happens we lose access to valuable information. It’s a journey back home to our body to regain access to all of this information. 

For more information on Somatic Stress Release check out this podcast with Dr. Scott Lyons.

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