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!
In previous posts, I’ve written about trauma and the nervous system. As a reminder, a healthy autonomic system flows between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. Activation takes us up into sympathetic, letting go-deactivating-brings up back down to parasympathetic. Notice the word ‘up’ preceding sympathetic.
Sometimes activation takes us away from our body(as in up and away.) Let’s start by looking at this. Sit in a chair and first get a general sense of how you are in your body right now, where you feel grounded. Now recall an experience in which you felt activated; it might be anxiety, fear or sadness, to name just a few.
Now notice your body again. Is it the same or has there been a change. Often people feel pulled away from their grounding when activated, pulled up into the activation. The beauty of SE is that it teaches very practical ways to teach the nervous system that it is okay to be grounded and to also be activated, to flow between the two branches.
I am often asked if I practice SE with the general population and if I find it as helpful as I do with musicians and actors. My answer is a resounding YES to both parts of the question. In my private practice I see people who have body-related issues. They may be performers or may come from an entirely different perspective, what they have in common is a nervous system that is stuck in a position that does not allow flow between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.
As previously stated, the Autonomic Nervous System(ANS) regulates all the basic body functions. It is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. They control opposite physical and emotional states; in a way they are like opposite sides of the same coin.
The parasympathetic system(PNS):
- stimulates flow of saliva
- slows the heartbeat
- stimulates peristalsis(wave-like muscle contractions that move food to digestive tract) & secretion
- stimulates release of bile
- contracts the bladder
- inhibits flow of saliva
- accelerates heartbeat
- inhibits peristalsis & secretion
- conversion of glycogen to glucose
- secretion of adrenaline
- inhibits bladder contraction
The PNS helps us to relax-regenerate and let go after stress. The SNS readies us for action; it regulates arousal. In a healthy, regulated system, there is a flow between the two branches, called a pendulation in SE. The body is relaxed, yet alert.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is coordinated by the middle prefrontal region of the brain. It is responsible for bodily functions such as heart rate, respiration and digestion. It has two branches: sympathetic, which is often compared to a car accelerator and the parasympathetic, similar to the car’s brake. When there is a flow between the two-a balance-our mind feels calm and we are able to let go of much facial and body tension. We are open.
When we detect a threat-environmental, physical or emotional-we usually go into a state of alert and activate the sympathetic branch. It is here the body readies itself for action; adrenaline pumps and cortisol (stress hormone) is released. Often the heart pounds wildly and the stomach churns. Muscle tension mounts. We are on guard.
I have worked with many musicians and actors who perform in this state and feel, as a result of my SE training, much more able to help regulate their systems.
In the last few years I have become very interested in learning about the autonomic nervous system and its role in the healthy (or not) functioning of the body and psyche. As a result, I am now completing my first year of a three year professional training program in Somatic Experiencing (SE). This brilliant model was developed by Peter Levine, specifically designed to heal trauma by restoring regulation to the autonomic nervous system.
Trauma is defined as something that has effected this system, not by the content. So what may be a trauma to your friend may be a difficult experience to you, one you can shake off, that does not impact your nervous system.
I have begun to use SE with musicians and actors who have severe stage fright and find every performance traumatic. I am witnessing changes already, evidenced by reduced fear. I am also finding it very helpful in working with performers who have excellent technique but feel removed from the music, unable to express their musical voice.