I’m going to go back before I go ahead. Let’s look at the most important parts of the last few posts and how it all relates to Somatic Experiencing and mindfulness.
I love having a feeling for the flow between the body, nervous system and brain. I love understanding how change on one level can effect so many other systems. It’s this flow that is often obstructed by, for example, fear and anxiety. This is true for all of us; musicians, artists, singers and lay people.
The fear antenna is in the amygdala; depending on our history of trauma it may always on alert or, for a system that has no trauma, only activated when it senses possible danger. Somatic Experiencing (SE) teaches us that trauma is what has been locked in the nervous system, unable to escape. Even though we may be not consciously aware of this dynamic, it impacts every part of our life until resolved. It is in this body that the amygdala is vigilant.
Tuning into the sensations of the body is the start of breaking the fear cycle; please read past posts on this.
The hypothalamus, along with the pituitary, is in charge of the neuroendocrine system that releases neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters increase (excite) or decrease ( inhibit) electrical activity in neurons. Increases or decreases in neurotransmitters have a major impact on mood and behavior.
The hypothalamus produces the the hormones that effect the pituitary gland. Once the amygdala senses danger the sympathetic branch of the autonomic system is alerted and the hypothalamus, through the pituitary, releases hormones that travel to the adrenal glands. This is where cortisol is released (please see posts on the autonomic nervous system and cortisol.) Cortisol increases the level of glucose in the blood to respond to the threat.
Under normal circumstances the threat passes and the cortisol levels return to normal. However many people who have ongoing anxiety live with ongoing increased cortisol levels. This is one of the places Somatic Experiencing is so helpful; it helps people to regulate their autonomic nervous system, decreasing the spiked activity in the sympathetic branch. I have helped many performers-and many others as well-to self regulate; it makes a huge difference in their daily and artistic lives.
The hippocampus is another important structure of the limbic system. Its main function is in the process of remembering; it puts together little pieces of information and forms them into explicit memories. It also retrieves past encoded information. Implicit memory, which takes place in the amygdala, is the form of memory we have until the 12-18 months. It is an evaluation of whether a situation or person is safe-there is no awareness of time.
When explicit memory comes online, the parts of implicit memory are integrated and recognized as coming from the past. Factual memory comes first; the ability to recall events in sequence and locate them in space. Following this autobiographical memory begins.
The amygdala is activated by internal or external events that appear to be threatening. This action releases neurochemicals that prepare the body for defensive action. Under the best of conditions, the amygdala works with parts of the cortex to connect the fear with cognition-‘it looks like a snake but it’s really a stick’- thus modulating the initial fear response.
Once the amygdala assesses the danger-either with or without help-the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (see past posts) is activated, speeding up the heart beat to get blood to the muscles to ready them for action, and rising blood sugar for increased energy. It is now that the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol. Under normal circumstances, cortisol levels drop down to normal when the threat passes.
I love what I’ve been learning about the brain-the truly miraculous, glorious brain. I’m going to begin to write about it; let me know what you think.
There are three main structures and two hemispheres. In the future I will write about the two hemispheres. For now just know they are so different from each other that some scientists think of us having two brains!
Today we will begin to look at the brain stem, limbic area and cortex. The brainstem is the one area of the brain that is ready to go before birth in full term babies. It controls respiration, sleep, vessel constriction, to name a few. It also is the part of the brain that is closest to the spinal cord and helps relay information from the body to the brain.
In the center of the brain is the limbic area which includes the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalmus. This is the social part of the brain(relationships, motivation, emotional) as well as the part where memory is processed. When we are born these areas are mostly comprised of separate neurons that are not yet connected to other neurons.
The amygdala lets us know, right from the beginning, whether a person or an environment is safe. It is also the seat of implicit memory, which is the only form available to us for the first 12-18 months.
Many people have been reading my posts and commenting; I appreciate the time taken to reply and warmly thank those who regularly follow my blog.
Some more about mindfulness and the brain. I teach my clients it’s never too late to stimulate the growth of neural fibers that enable mindfulness to grow. Mindfulness training effects the prefrontal region of the brain, the area that is crucially important to the performer for it coordinates regulation of heart rate, respiration and gives us the ability to sooth ourselves when afraid.
When stressed the body releases cortisol, putting one’s entire metabolism on high alert to meet the challenge. This impacts blood flow; as blood moves away from the high cognitive center, more mistakes are made and processing information becomes more difficult.
It might be a good idea now-if you have the time-to go back to the last few posts and try the mindfulness exercises. The time spent is well worth it and will benefit you in countless ways.
I hope you were able to spend time bringing your awareness to your inner and outer body. It’s important to remember that mindfulness includes the inner body, not just the strength and flexibility of your muscles. So what does this mean?
As I type, I am aware of the muscles in my arms contracting; I notice some familiar discomfort in my neck and I feel my feet on the ground. If I give myself more time, I become aware of my breathing; it feels a little shallow. If I like, I can wonder about that. This awareness leads me to the slight drawing in of my shoulders-it seems to go along with the restricted breathing.
Now I have an image of myself sitting here-an inner image; no one looking at me would notice these inner workings. If I choose, I can stay with this image; I can amplify it. What other sensations do I feel in my body as I stay with this image? Do they feel activating or relaxing? Is there affect connected to it? If there is, how does this effect my body?
I hope you find the time and inclination to sit with yourself in this way. Let me know how it is for you.
I’ve returned from my SE training and although I’m quite tired-four very long, very intense days-I am thrilled! I learned a lot, had meaningful experiences and thoroughly enjoyed the group of 32 practitioners. I will be weaving in what I learned as I assimilate it.
Let’s pick up from last week; if you are new to this blog, it might be a good idea to read from the beginning or at least from the last few posts.
So you’ve been practicing sitting in a chair and being present to your activation and to your relaxation. You’ve tried to simply follow the sensations in your body by bringing awareness to them. This is good-let’s take the next step.
Let’s now try to apply this to your instrument, to your singing or to your acting. To simplify, I will write in terms of a string instrument; apply it to your own situation.
Before you pick up your violin, just stand and notice. Start with your head and slowly go down to your feet. Notice where there’s activation-maybe you feel stirrings in your chest, maybe a heaviness in your neck. Notice where there’s comfort or grounding(a little more difficult when standing.) It’s good to focus on your feet here-feel them on the ground.
Now pick up your instrument-if you previously felt a heaviness in your neck, as you play something easy-a scale is preferable-does it increase? Do your feet stay planted? Again just notice and remember-being truly present while you perform requires embodiment; a sense of your self, your body, your mind.
I was fortunate enough to recently view a video of Peter Levine-the brilliant creator of SE (Somatic Experiencing)-working with a young woman who had been raped. It was incredible. As you may recall, SE is a system created to help those recovering from trauma (please see earlier post.) Although it is very effective with all sorts of nervous system dysfunction, it is remarkable how restoring this balance deeply helps-heals-those who have been traumatized.
I am about to begin my intermediate year of SE training and am excited and a little anxious. I find myself needing to do grounding exercises(like the one written about in my last post.) I am also stepping up my breathing exercises(see my resource list) and getting my body ready for nine hour days of learning!
Let you know all about it next week.
I’m going to pick up where I left off.
Maybe you’ve allowed yourself to experience a part of your body settled into your chair, maybe you’ve focused on the sensation of your feet on the ground. Maybe you’ve been able to stay with this, tracking the sensation. Perhaps you felt the back of your thighs resting as they are supported by the chair. You might have, with time and mindfulness, felt the sensation moving down you legs or to the front of your thighs. I bet you felt relaxed as you did this- good! This is your ‘ground’, your resource. Remember it. When you are activated and it feels like too much, you can come back to this safe place.
Ideally, the autonomic nervous system flows in waves of activation(sympathetic branch) and relaxation (parasympathetic.)
Now, read this and then move your chair away and try it. Find your ground again; it may be the same or different-let your body lead you there. Now, see if you can find some activation in your body or head. Maybe you notice your jaw is tight, maybe your fingers are clenched, maybe you feel something going on in your chest. Try to stay with it-if you’re comfortable, track it for a few minutes. Remember, DO NOT DO ANYTHING THAT FEELS WEIRD OR PAINFUL OR TOO MUCH. Now return to your ground.
This is a wave, a flow from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic, back down to the sympathetic. Good for you!